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God At The Crossroads Of Our Lives

Shlach (Numbers 13-15 )

by Rabbi Boruch Leff

Jerry and his wife, Karen, were facing a crisis. They had moved to Wheeling, West Virginia from the suburbs of Chicago just 2 years before, due to a promotion Jerry had received in his firm. They realized now that it was a colossal and tragic mistake. Not because of Jerry's job - that was a tremendous success. The problem was Karen and the kids.

They knew that the biggest disadvantage to Wheeling was the lack of Jewish education and social circles; there were no day schools or synagogues in Wheeling. But they thought they would be able to withstand the four years that Jerry's assignment in Wheeling was supposed to last.

But now their children had told them that they no longer wish to be Jewish! This was after just two years away from other Jewish kids. What would happen after another two years of Wheeling? This was in addition to Karen and Jerry's 'hermit' social situation ever since they had left their group of Jewish friends in Chicago.

Jerry and Karen wondered: "How does God look at us now?" They had been given a challenge two years ago whether to take the Wheeling offer or not and they firmly believed now that they had failed the test. How would God relate to them now, after they had ruined "His Master Plan" for their lives and made such a terrible mistake?

The answer is in this week's Torah portion, Shlach:

"Send for YOURSELF, men, and let them spy out the Land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel." (Bamidbar 13:2).

Rashi comments: "For yourself, meaning according to your own counsel. I (God) am not commanding you to do so. If you want, you can send them."

God acquiesces to the Jewish People's request to send spies but not enthusiastically:

"I had told them that the Land of Israel was good (but they do not trust Me)." (Rashi 13:2).

God is not thrilled with the Jewish people's wish to send spies to confirm that the Land of Israel is conquerable and that it is indeed the land of "flowing milk and honey." But He allows it. God's lack of excitement towards the idea of sending the spies foreshadows the rest of the events of the Parsha which describes how the spies' mission and the people's reaction to their report caused the eventual death of the entire generation and the 40-year sojourn in the desert.

All this leaves us with many questions. First and foremost, if God hinted to His displeasure of sending spies and Moshe knew that God was not happy with the notion, why would Moshe go along with it? We even find (in Devarim 1:26) that Moshe was pleased with the idea. How could Moshe send spies if he knows God only allows it in terms of "shelach lecha" - "send for yourself, I am not commanding you"? It's one thing to ignore our mother or father when they tell us, "I don't think it's a good idea but do it if you want," but it's quite another to ignore God's advice!

Second, why would God "set up" and trap the Jewish people? If He knows that sending spies will only lead to disaster, why wouldn't He protect His nation from it?

Finally, it seems unfair for God to be so exacting in His words, "Send for YOURSELF" in order to distance Himself from the command. After all is said and done, God is the one who tells Moshe to send spies. It is a commandment. What then is the deeper message of "for YOURSELF" if the bottom line is that it is still a commandment?

The answer teaches us a tremendous fundamental of Jewish living and philosophy. God deals with us where we are at, not where He is. Sending the spies was not automatically going to lead to the downfall of the Jewish people. It was the proper course of action under the circumstances.

God was saying: "I wouldn't have suggested that you send spies to investigate the status of the land. I expected you to trust Me and conquer and settle the land, sight unseen. This is exactly the same kind of trust that you demonstrated once before at Sinai. (See Kol Yaakov, "God Knows Best" You shouldn't need the spies. But once you have chosen this route, then you MUST send them. It is now proper for you to send them since you have lowered your spiritual level and the level of trust you have in Me. In fact, if you don't send the spies now, but think you can rely on trust in Me, you will not succeed."

It is true that a very holy and righteous person who trusts in God can simply pray and wish for his physical sustenance and he/she will never have to work for it. Money will appear somehow on his doorstep whenever he/she needs it. But for those of us not on this supreme level (99.9999% of us!), it would not only be unwise to rely on God alone for our sustenance, it would be a transgression. We must put forth effort in order to achieve results, including "making a livelihood."

The Jewish people, as well, put themselves in a position where the only course of action they could have taken was to send spies. They displayed their lack of complete trust in God and had to go about things in the regular ways of making war and conquering land, which is to send spies. God was not advising them not to send spies in His phrase of, "for YOURSELF"; rather, He was just voicing His disappointment that the Jewish people could not raise themselves to the level of complete trust in God.

God deals with us where we are at, not where He is. Did God want the Jews to send the spies? Certainly, not. Did the Jews make a fatal mistake in descending to the level of having to send them? Definitely, yes. But God reacted to the Jews' mistake, not with abandonment and disdain, but with a new task and mission for them. They now had to face the danger and the challenge of the spies' report and how they would deal with it. (They unfortunately failed this test as well.)

Whenever we use our free will to make decisions that go against God's original plans and wishes, He doesn't leave us to grope through life's difficulties alone. He responds with a brand new list of challenges and tests for us to pass.

This does not mean that there is no accountability for our choices and actions. God judges us and records all our failures. This of course leads to consequences and punishments. But even if we have chosen a wrong path, He is still with us throughout our lives.

We set the playing field of our lives and hopefully it is in line with His desires for us. But even if it is not, God shows up at the "new stadium" that we have built for ourselves and writes a brand new "game-plan." He may now have very different expectations for us than He once did, but great expectations He has.

Now we return to Jerry and Karen and their Wheeling decision. It does seem like the choice of Wheeling was a very bad one. But God does indeed relate to them in the same way, even after they had ruined "His Master Plan" for their lives and made such a terrible mistake. He responds flexibly to the situation, lowering His expectations and range of decisions that are to be made. In Chicago, Jerry and Karen's challenges may have been to pray at synagogue every week and to enroll their kids in a Torah school. In Wheeling, their challenge may involve studying Torah with their kids daily and discussing Jewish issues with them. (It may now also encompass making plans to leave Wheeling.)

God gave over the course of our destinies to our own free will and decision-making. (There are times when He "steps in" to direct us with His Providence, but this is not the norm.)

Rest assured, though, that no matter what happens and no matter what we decide, He is right there with us at all times.

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