Sometimes I open the weekly Torah portion and find that the story or message speaks precisely to the present moment. This week, we read the story of the “spies” or “scouts” (the meraglim, in Hebrew). As the Israelites near the end of their journey through the wilderness, Moses sends 12 men on a reconnaissance mission to survey the land of Israel and bring back a report.
According to their report, they see a land flowing with milk and honey, but also fortified cities and powerful inhabitants. The land was bountiful, full of opportunity and potential, but also challenging and threatening.
Ten of the men bring back a message of despair: It is a country that devours its inhabitants. Those who live there are giants, and we are tiny — like grasshoppers in their eyes. We cannot do this. But two of them, Joshua and Caleb, bring a message of hope, captured by two simple Hebrew words: “Aloh na’aleh” — Let’s go! Surely, we can do this.
The people are demoralized, crying throughout the night and questioning everything, even the exodus itself: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt!” The consequence of their reaction is 40 more years of wandering in the wilderness. Their generation will not enter the promised land.
There is so much to unpack about this story and its relevance to the human condition. We are emerging from more than a year of wandering through death and despair, social and economic crisis, isolation and disconnection. With things reopening so rapidly, there is a palpable sense of reconnection, renewal, openness, and possibility — summer is almost here in every sense.
At the same time, after a grueling last month, this is an incredibly difficult time for our Jewish community. While even fierce debates about Israeli policy are signs of a confident, engaged community, there is growing vilification and delegitimization of Israel’s very existence based on disinformation and half-truths. The rise of antisemitic attacks across the country coupled with silence — or, at best, equivocating condemnations — from so many of our leaders and friends, is outright scary for so many Jews who have never felt unsafe here, nor questioned whether America is our home. Social media amplifies all of this — it’s like having the ten spies shouting in your ear constantly.
However, what is resonating with me most about this week’s Torah portion is that two of the leaders choose a different message.
They do not debate the reality of how challenging — even threatening — the future will be. Instead, they focus on the resiliency, strength, and spiritual fortitude of their people. “Na’aleh,” they say: This is going to be an uphill battle, but we can go up, we will go up. This isn’t naïve optimism about the present, but rather a choice to see the potential of a better future and an assertion of their responsibility to keep moving forward.
It can be so hard to see things this way and so human not to — that’s the tragic message of this story. But as we’ve learned from the teachings of the Holocaust survivor and philosopher-psychologist Viktor Frankl, nothing can take away our choice of how we see our world, our future, and ourselves.
Over the past week, I have attended two plays at two different Jewish day schools, institutions that are stronger now than they were one year ago, full of thriving children and grateful parents. Yesterday, I participated in an award ceremony for students who are living out the Jewish values of kindness and service to their communities. On a Zoom call about Israel with a group of CJP young leaders, I witnessed these young people’s humility, genuine curiosity, and honest struggling with complexity — all grounded in love of Israel and the Jewish People and a sense of responsibility to engage and lead their peers.
Experiences like these don’t make me pollyannish about the challenges we are facing. Yet sometimes, when the world seems so broken and overwhelming, I just need to spend time with our next generation. They so often remind me of the great work already happening across this community. They inspire me about our future and help me to keep choosing possibility, responsibility, and hope. Na’aleh: We’ve got huge challenges ahead of us, so let’s go.
Rabbi Marc Baker
About the Author
CJP President and CEO Rabbi Marc Baker is an educator, writer, and leadership mentor who is devoting his life to Jewish learning and building Jewish communities.