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Two Minutes of Torah

>Two Minutes of Torah: Shelach Lecha (Numbers 13:25-14:10) – Fear of the Unknown

>I find making decisions quite difficult; so much so that I have a reputation as a bit of a procrastinator (possibly even indecisive) amongst my friends. The place where this is most clearly exhibited is when I have to book a plane ticket. I will do almost anything possible to avoid finally clicking the button which confirms my booking. I make excuses about the price, the time, anything and everything just to delay the inevitable. And frequently it ends up costing me money, as prices rise while I dither and delay.

This irrational behaviour does not come from a fear of flying, or any specific concern relating to booking a holiday. My paralysing fear is of the unknown. How can I book a flight for several months from now, and know that nothing is going to come up which is going to make this booking a mistake. Maybe I should be flying earlier, perhaps the next day would be better, and how can I know any of this so far in advance of the event?

Fear can be a paralysing emotion. Concern about the unknown and the unpredictable consequences can stop people making any progress or moving forward. It is for this reason that Franklin D Roosevelt famously said: ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’. He may well have been right, but it can be difficult to put his advice into action.

This week the spies bring back their report about the Land of Israel; and the people are offered two conflicting accounts. Calev assures them: ‘Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it’ (Numbers 13:30). In contrast the other spies (except for Joshua) warn: ‘We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we … The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers’ (Numbers 13:31-32). The people follow the majority report and yearn to return to Egypt, rather than venturing forward to the Land of Israel.

The Israelites are often condemned for their lack of faith. After experiencing the Exodus from Egypt, and having witnessed the giving of Torah at Sinai; surely they should have recognised that nothing was too difficult for God. They should have trusted God and Calev’s report.

But why is it so surprising that they are frightened? Why should we be shocked at the fact that the Israelites are anxious about conquering the Land of Israel? They were scared by the report they received, they were frightened by the prospect of war and they feared what lay ahead. They knew the land of Egypt, they had grown used to life in the wilderness and they were simply afraid of the unknown. When the people say: ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt’ (Numbers 14:2), this is not a literal request. Instead they are asking for the certainty and security of a life without changes, without a journey into an unknown land.

I would love to think that I would have been a dissenting Israelite, cheering for Calev and Joshua (the other spy to offer a positive report), looking forward to the fulfilment of God’s promise. But I am honest if enough to admit that as someone who is paralysed with fear about booking an airline ticket, I would probably have been happier with the certainty of the wilderness than the mysterious Land of Israel. This would not have been due to a lack of faith; instead it would have been because of fear.

At the Pesach Seder one of the central messages is that WE were slaves in Egypt, and WE were freed by God. We share in the Exodus experience of our ancestors, and perhaps we should also say that WE were among the generation who were too scared to advance upon the Land of Israel. In stating this out loud we acknowledge the fact that we too were once paralysed by fear, and may be again. But we have the benefit of hindsight, and the ability to know that it was truly a land flowing with milk and honey, a land which we were able to conquer and settle.

From this experience we can acknowledge that Roosevelt was correct and that there really is nothing to fear but fear itself. We can learn the lesson of our wilderness experience and try to subdue our fears of the unknown in the future so that we can all reach our own promised land.

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