Our parashah contains the tragic story of the twelve spies whom Moses sent out from the desert, in order to check out and survey the Promised Land. Ten of the twelve spies came back to the people with a defeatist attitude. They stated that because the cities of the land are so well fortified, and the inhabitants of the land so gigantic, there is no way that we could ever win Israel. As a result of that defeatist attitude, that entire generation died in the desert, and did not make it into the Promised Land.
What is the contemporary, indeed timeless application of this story to our own personal lives today?
It’s about the courage to grow. We all have things that we’re really bad at, and we all have certain issues that just keep recurring throughout our lifetime. It is tempting to be just like the ten spies, and just raise up our hands in utter despair and resignation. Like the ten spies, we can also say that the road to true and lasting physical, emotional, spiritual, or inter-personal change, is just too gigantic, and that the road ahead is too full with high obstacles and mighty fortifications.
But we can also choose a different, more proactive and resilient attitude, like Caleb and Joshua, who despite all the challenges and obstacles, assertively proclaimed: “Ascend we shall ascend!”
In a famous midrash, the sages deliberate the purpose of Judaism writ large, of Torah and all of the mitzvoth. The answer they come up with is exquisite, namely, that the purpose of Jewish life is “To refine the soul.”
To refine the soul is ancient Judaism for personal growth. It hurts to grow. It can also be very scary and overwhelming. Whether it’s losing that weight, daring to practice more Judaism, tackling head on emotional and mental issues or broken relationships, it’s always tempting to get into the ten spies state of mind and just surrender to our current tendencies and inclinations before the battle even began. But to do that would be akin to a state of spiritual death, G-d forbid. We exist in order to grow, so that we can live in greater vitality and joy, and become a better and more luminous source of blessing to the Almighty and to humanity.
“Ascend we shall ascend” Joshua and Caleb proclaimed thousands of years ago. This Shabbat they are beseeching us to join them. Let us do so, for we were born to do just that.