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The only legitimate question
by Yosef Y. Jacobson

The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.
-- General Montgomery

The Hole in the Roof

A rabbi stands before his congregation and reports to them that a massive hole has been found in the roof of the synagogue.

"Now I have good news and bad news for you," the Rabbi continues. "The good news is that we have the money to repair it; the bad news is that the money is in your pockets."

Twelve Jews On a Mission

This week's portion tells the story of 12 men who were dispatched by Moses from the desert to go and survey the Land of Israel and its inhabitants. The purpose of their journey was to prepare the Jewish people for the subsequent conquest and settlement of the Land (1).

Upon discharging the spies on their mission, Moses presented them with a list of questions they needed to answer. "See the Land," Moses said to them. "How is it? And the nations that dwell in it -- are they strong or weak? Are they few or numerous? And how is the land in which they dwell -- is it good or bad? And how are the cities in which they dwell -- are they open or are they fortified?"

When the 12 spies returned from their 40-day tour of Israel they presented to the people a report of their findings.

"We arrived at the Land to which you sent us," the spies said, "and indeed it flows with milk and honey and this is its fruit. But the people that dwells in the land is powerful, the cities are greatly fortified and we also saw the offspring of the giant.

"We cannot ascend to that people for it is too strong for us," the spies proclaimed.

The report that the spies brought back demoralized the Jewish nation and drained it from the motivation to enter the Land. As a result, the spies were severely punished and the entire generation ultimately died in the desert, never making it into the Land. Only 39 years later, in the year 1276 B.C.E., did the children and grandchildren of this generation cross the borders of Israel and settle the Promised Land.

Kill the Messenger?

One of the many questions raised by biblical commentators (2) concerns the reason for the spies receiving punishment. Moses gave them a detailed list of questions about the Land; he instructed them to make their own observations as to what will await the people upon their arrival.

This is exactly what the spies did. They came back with an answer to all of Moses' questions and reported what they perceived to be the reality of the situation. If Moses expected them to cover up their observations -- that the Land was inhabited by mighty men and its cities were greatly fortified -- he should have never sent them in the first place!

Why were the men faulted for relating what they had seen?

Introducing Paralysis

The answer is that if the spies had merely related to the people the reality of the situation as they saw it, everything would have been perfectly fine. But they did more than that. They used the difficulties they observed as an incentive to introduce the option of surrender and capitulation in the face of crisis.

Had the spies returned and said, "Hey guys, we have seen a mighty people and well-protected cities in the Land, so now we need to devise an effective strategy of how to go about our challenging mission," they would have fulfilled their task splendidly. The moment they responded to the obstacles by saying "We cannot do it anymore," they
swayed an entire people to abandon their G-d-given destiny.

The spies are condemned in Jewish tradition for substituting the "how will we do it" with the "can we do it?"

Conquering Your Darkness

Each of us has a domain in our life that needs to be conquered, a terrain that needs to be transformed into a "holy land." Some of us need to battle fear, temptation, addiction, or shame. Since the challenges that lay in recovery's path are at times frightening, we are naturally tempted to believe that we are incapable of overcoming our darkness and we thus surrender to our demons.

Though this feeling is understandable, it is a sad mistake that must be fought tenaciously, for it robs us of the opportunity to liberate our souls and arrive at our personal "Promised Land."

The option of resignation compels us to remain stuck for the rest of our lives in a barren desert made up of shame, insecurity and weakness.

The question ought never to be, "Can I do it?" The resources to repair the hole in our personal roof are always present. Every problem can be dealt with. The only legitimate question is, "How do I do it (3)?"


1) Numbers chapters 13-14.
2) Nachmanides in his commentary on the opening verses of the portion. 
3) This essay is based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbos Shelach 1989, published in Sefer Hasichos 5749 vol. 2 Pasrshas Shlach. Cf. Likkutei Sichos vol. 13 pp. 39-41. For other answers to the above question see Likkutei Sichos vol. 18 Shelach 1, and references noted there.



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