This is a distillation of a teaching I shared at our annual congregational meeting last week:
As we gather to do the business of the congregation, we can turn to the Torah portion for some reflection. This week’s portion, Shelach, tells that story in which God tells Moses to send spies into the Promised Land to check it out and to see what things are like, a reconnaissance mission if you will. Twelve people are sent, one from each tribe.
When they return, they give their report. They note the population, the size of the community, the land’s bounty and wealth. Ten of the spies then turn pessimistic, noting that the Israelites are overmatched and will not be successful in their entry into the land. Two of the spies give a dissenting opinion, noting that God is on the side of the Israelites and while difficult, they must go on.
Majority rules, and the negative report of the ten is accepted over the positive report of the two. The Israelites get upset and begin to rebel, God punishes the Israelites by condemning them to wander for 40 years in the desert, a practical means to have the current generation die off so that the next generation will enter into the land. (We sometimes forget that the original plan was for the Israelites to travel directly to the Promised Land from Egypt, with a detour to Mount Sinai to get the Torah. The 40-year wandering was instituted later.)
When we tell this story, we tend to focus on the differing opinions of the 10 vs. the two and the conflict between them. But if we take a step back, we should remember that both groups—all 12 spies—had the same assessment of the land. The text reads:
At the end of forty days they returned from scouting the land. They went straight to Moses and Aaron…and they made their report to them and to the whole community…This is what they told him: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large;….(Numbers 13:26-28)
It is only after this report that they disagreed. They were all the same in the reporting of the facts, where they differed is how to understand those facts and what to do about it.
As we move forward as a community, as a congregation, it is important for us to get a lay of the land, to develop a vision of what lay ahead for us. We may differ as to what to do with that information, or what steps to take, or how to approach those realities. But the ability to do an assessment, to have a real sense of what lay ahead for us, is important. Just like the spies, we should have consensus on what is in front of us.