Parshat Shlach: A Few Good Men
Many people are under the mistaken impression that the reason the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years was because of the sin of the Golden Calf. (Or that the men refused to ask for directions). This week’s Torah portion teaches us that this was not the case.
Before they were to enter Canaan/Israel to conquer and dwell in it, the Jewish nation sent twelve spies to check out the land. It’s the typical thing nations do before entering enemy territory. As the Torah narrates, their mission was a straightforward one: They were to spot the weak areas, find out how fortified the cities were and see if the inhabitants were strong or weak. They were to also observe how fertile the land was and to bring back some of its fruit – presumably to get the Israelites excited about their forthcoming homeland.
Of these twelve spies, ten returned with an intimidating report of the harsh nature of the countryside and its inhabitants. Rather than giving an objective report of what they witnessed, they offered their own personal interpretation of their observations. They emphasized that the Israelites had zero chance of overpowering the strong inhabitants presently living there. Like today’s news they didn’t only report facts but added to it by sharing their opinions and agendas. As a result of their “fake news” they successfully convinced the Jewish people that they would be dead ducks if they tried to conquer the land.
The ensuing mass hysteria persuaded God that this generation wasn’t worthy nor ready to go into Canaan/Israel. It was decreed that they would wander the Sinai desert until they died off and that the new, younger next generation that was not saddled with the apparent same slave mentality that prevented them from going forward, would build the land of Israel.
It is quite amazing to think that a mere ten individuals could have such a dramatic impact on the fate and direction of Jewish history. This is even more startling when one considers that this event became the definitive one that all future national tragedies became associated with. According to Jewish tradition, that night that they fearfully “wept for nothing” was the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, commonly referred to as Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av henceforth became the most infamous day in the Jewish calendar associated with many national tragedies: Both the first and second Temples were destroyed on that date, the Jews were expelled from Spain on Av 9, and the last stronghold against Roman rulership, Betar, fell on Av 9.
It begs the question of how a mere ten people could have created the most infamous historical date in the Jewish calendar?
The Torah refers to this group as an עדה aidah, a “congregation”. Not only were these ten guys the author of this failed event, but Jewish law derives from this episode that the minimum number of a quorum for a minyan – the definition of public prayer and hence a “congregation” – is 10 men. Yeah, this was the first minyan in Jewish history. (This was the one time where a breakaway minyan would have been a good thing!)
The impact of this group emphasizes the power that a small assembly of individuals can have in changing their community, their nation and even the world. When a group as small as ten people are unified and dedicated to a particular cause, they can transform the society around them in a very dramatic fashion. So dramatic in fact that they can even alter the course of history. Ten like-minded people, working together can change everything and that’s why Rav Noah Weinberg zt”l, the founder of Aish, in his quest to build a movement used to often declare, “Give me 10 Men and we can change the world!”
Too often people are under the impression that there is some very powerful, large group of people who create the good, or sometimes not so good, of their society. They feel dwarfed at this erroneous knowledge that some large assembly has all the power and makes the laws. But in reality it is often a small group of people pulling the strings.
When you read of historically horrible people like Stalin, Hitler and today’s Putin, you discover that it is a very small cadre of inner circle people calling the shots and making lives miserable for millions. It is usually one ruthless, cruel, brutal and perversely charming man and his tiny group of yes-men cohorts inflicting death and destruction on so many millions. Alas, few and far between are the Churchills and Zelenskys willing to challenge, fight and stand up against such evil brutes.
On the other hand, movements for good also start on a grass-roots level before they take off and are embraced by many. Karen will be soon taking her 8th Momentum/JWRP trip very soon, part of a larger, worldwide movement which began a mere 13 years ago with eight women. Today over 20,000 women have taken a Jewish journey to Israel, many for the first time. Aish itself began with one rabbi who enlisted a small group before it became an international organization with the best real estate in the Jewish world, across from the Western Wall and boasting a website, www.aish.com that has millions of visits per month.
So if there is any lesson we can learn from the story of the spies, it’s that just as these ten people unified and changed Jewish life for the bad for all time, so too can any ten people unify and change Jewish life for the good as well. Don’t be intimidated and think that you cannot change things. It is not as impossible as one imagines to band together with a small group of dedicated, like-minded people and have a profound impact on a community, which then spreads to other communities and even the world.
All it takes is a little bit of will and courage. And who knows, with the right ten people we may very well undo the disastrous results of these ten spies who were sore afraid to enter the Promised Land. Instead we will create an atmosphere and awareness in the Jewish world where we appreciate and cherish the gift of the Land of Israel and free ourselves from any second thoughts and unfounded fears to visit and call it home.
Seems like I’ve always been looking for some other place
To get it together
Where with a few of my friends I could give up the race
And maybe find something better
But all my fine dreams
Well thought out schemes
To gain the Motherland
Have all eventually come down to waiting for Everyman