“The Slave Mentality”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, we read of G-d’s shattering decree that the generation of Israelites who came out of Egypt would not be allowed to enter into the Promised Land–the land of Israel.

G-d is tired of hearing the complaints of this evil assembly. In Numbers 14:28-29, G-d tells Moses: אֱמֹר אֲלֵהֶם, חַי אָנִי נְאֻם השׁם, אִם לֹא כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתֶּם בְּאָזְנָי,  כֵּן אֶעֱשֶׂה לָכֶם. בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה יִפְּלוּ פִגְרֵיכֶם וְכָל פְּקֻדֵיכֶם לְכָל מִסְפַּרְכֶם מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמָעְלָה, אֲשֶׁר הֲלִינֹתֶם עָלָי , Say to them [the Israelites]: As I [G-d] live, says the L-rd, as you [the people] have spoken in My ears, so shall I do! In this Wilderness shall your carcasses drop; all of you who were counted in any of your numberings, from twenty years of age and above, whom you provoked against Me.

G-d then decrees that the People of Israel shall not come into the land which He promised to give them. Only Caleb, the son of Jephunneh and Joshua, the son of Nun, and the children (whose parents were afraid would be taken captive in the land of Canaan), will He bring to the land that their parents despised.
To the people themselves, G-d says,”But you, your carcasses shall drop in this Wilderness.” Your children will roam in the wilderness for forty years and bear your guilt, until the last of your carcasses will perish in the wilderness.

G-d declares that the people will roam in the wilderness for forty years like the number of days that the scouts spied out the land. For forty days, a day for a year, a day for a year, they shall bear their iniquities. In this wilderness will the people who left Egypt cease to be, and there they shall die.

Dr. Israel Eldad, in his truly incisive book, Hegyonot Mikra, offers superb insights into the episode of the scouts and the punishment visited upon the People of Israel. The scouts, says Eldad, were not the first to be sent into Israel by G-d. In fact, there was a man by the name of Abram, to whom G-d says (Genesis 12:1), לֶךְ לְךָ …אֶל הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ , Go to the land…that I shall show you.

Abram, whom Eldad calls “the first idealist,” was not told the name of the land or the nature of the land. G-d chose Abram and said to him, לֶךְ לְךָ , go, and he went, without questioning his mission or G-d’s intentions. שְׁלַח לְךָ , (Numbers 13:2) (send for your sake), which G-d said to Moses regarding the scouts, was different. In both instances, it meant to go from one land to another. However, Abram’s decision to follow G-d’s directives was based on spiritual commitment and faith. The scouts’ decision to go was intended to effect an escape from the people’s “slave mentality.”

Moses, who was aware of the nature of the scouts, was hoping to control the negative passions of the former slaves, and to convert their slave mentality into a positive force. That is why Moses did not lead the people directly into the land of Israel through the land of the Philistines, hoping that the longer journey would result in the people’s spiritual transformation.

Moses was hoping that within a year or two, especially with the giving of the Torah, the slave mentality would recede and vanish. By structuring the people into tribal groups, establishing an army and leading them as a united people, they would coalesce into a united community.

Despite the continuing issues that arise throughout their wanderings in the Wilderness, Moses seems to blame the problems on the עֵרֶב רַב , the mixed multitude. The fact that the Israelites are going back to the land of the Patriarchs does not seem to be of interest to them at all. They would rather go back to Egypt, to eat the “wonderful” foods that the Egyptians served them. They forgot the price they paid for that food, the savage beatings, the drownings of their children and the backbreaking work.

Moses misjudged the Jewish people. He thought that the enslavement was a shell that could be peeled off after experiencing a year of freedom. G-d therefore tells Moses to send the scouts to see for himself the peoples’ corruptness, and their deeply embedded slave mentality.

The dispute between Joshua, Caleb and the other ten scouts was not about the nature of the land of Israel, but rather about the nature of the people. The scouts’ mission was not to reveal the weakness of the land, but rather to uncover the weakness of the people. This weakness was clearly exposed after hearing the reports from the ten scouts, when the people lifted up their voices and started to cry that night (Numbers 14:1-2), “Had we only died in Egypt! Had we only died in the Wilderness!”

This “thirst” is not the type that can be quenched miraculously by drawing water from a rock. This hunger cannot be sated by Manna from Heaven. The defining issue, says Eldad, is fear, and even miracles cannot overcome the internal fear and faintheartedness of the people. Moses’ inspiring speeches cannot help, neither can his staff. Only if there is faith in the people’s soul, can fear be overcome. Without faith, the fear will remain and intensify, the body will tremble and the people will insist on returning to Egypt.

Caleb and Joshua try their best to convince the people, by declaring (Numbers 14:7), טוֹבָה הָאָרֶץ מְאֹד מְאֹד , that the land is very very good. Even when they say (Numbers 14:8), “If G-d wants us, He can bring us to this land,” the people remain stiff-necked in their resistance. After all, how can these rebellious people who have no desire for G-d, know that G-d wants them?

That is why, ultimately, there is no remedy. That is why the generation that was raised in Egypt, and who are dominated by the slave mentality, need to be replaced by people who were born in freedom, who are capable of developing a relationship with the Al-mighty, based on loving faith in G-d who cares for them.

Because if G-d desires them, and they desire G-d, no matter how great the challenge, they can overcome.

May you be blessed.