Parshat Shelach -The Panic Button

By Rabbi Moshe Taragin

Posted on 06/24/19

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Moshe launches a reconnaissance mission and expects honest reporting. We can't possibly conquer this hotly contested country without accurate intel and without truthful information. Yet the story of "the spies" represents the lowest point in Moshe's career and of the desert saga. What was so notorious about this incident? Why did it torpedo the march toward the promised land, reroute the Jews for an additional 38 desert-years, and reshape the arc of Jewish history?

Our Chazal identified the essential failure of the spies and the mob they foment. G-d asserts that this day– the 9th of Av – the day the Jews whined needlessly (bechiyah shel chinam)- would be converted into a perennial day of tragedy. Evidently, it was the pointlessness of their whimpering which was so troubling and implicating.

Moshe had dispatched agents to gather hard facts and their discoveries did indeed warrant reassessment, precaution and the adopting of new military tactics. It also required a boosting of faith in recognition that this war would be waged supernaturally and not purely through military might and political clout. Adjustments, prayers, and safeguards would all have been appropriate in light of the new facts which surfaced.

However, these findings do not justify the wide-scale panic and fright which spooks an entire nation. Life commonly presents adversity and seemingly insurmountable challenges and the acquisition of the land Israel is no different. However, these trials demand calm reactions but not panic and dread. Repeatedly, the responses -both of the actual spies as well as the riled-up populace – are driven by fear and anxiety rather than resolute confrontation of future challenges.

At least three examples of panic-driven comments are recorded:

1. Irrational Fears: "A Land which Devours its Inhabitants"

It is one thing to fear the military might of the local chieftains. Similarly, concerns about impregnable walls and hilly landscapes are all warranted. However, it is ridiculous to assume that a particular region or a particular climate is toxic or deadly. This type of irrational fear would be foolish for anyone but is even more bizarre for a nation which had survived a year of lethal plagues in Egypt and had thrived for over a year under extreme desert conditions. Life may indeed be more rugged in this land of giants and of outsized fruit, but it is ludicrous to imagine a land actually infecting its inhabitants. In our panic our reason is distorted, our judgement clouded and we are hypnotized us into irrational beliefs.

2. Inaccurate Estimation of Others: "They viewed us as grasshoppers"!

The spies felt dwarfed by the local giants and they envisioned themselves as tiny grasshoppers. This feeling of intimidation is understandable and legitimate, but their ensuing comments aren't: "...and the locals viewed us this way [as grasshoppers] as well"!! How could the spies determine how they were being viewed by the locals? In fact, forty years later, Rachav, the woman living in the city gates, reports that the entire indigenous population was terrified by the Jewish nation who had traversed the oceans; evidently the locals were more frightened by these "grasshoppers" than the spies could ever imagine. Overwhelmed by dread, we often agonize or obsess over how we are viewed by others and this very preoccupation can itself be crippling. In this situation, the spies aren't only consumed with how they are viewed by others. They project their own fears into the mindset of these "giants" and assume that their own profiles as midgets was shared by the locals. Unhealthy panic causes us to obsess over how we are viewed and, additionally, causes us to stream our own self-image into the hearts and imaginations of others. Panic skews our perceptions and blurs our clear thinking.

3. Projection of our own flaws

Humans have a difficult time acknowledging their own flaws and faults. One 'easy' coping mechanism is to "project" these flaws onto others, thereby allowing us to face them "more easily". Though we constantly project, when we panic, the process sometimes becomes preposterous. Parshat Devarim mentions the mob's accusation of G-d : "Because G-d despises us, He emancipated us from Egypt only to slaughter us in the desert". While there could be many 'motives' for the Divine plan, it is delusional to imagine all this effort, all the liberation, miracles, see-splitting, desert protection, Torah delivery and constant pardoning, simply as Divine manipulation. How did they imagine that all this effort was driven by presumed Divine hatred? Rashi reveals the root of this absurd comment: G-d didn't hate them but, in reality, these protestors hated G-d. The dissenters were projecting their own hatred for G-d, upon G-d! This laughable projection is direct and tragic consequence of uncontrollable panic. Panic lays bare fears and flaws and we cope by projecting these shortcomings upon those closest to us.

Our parsha highlights the devastating impact of panicked behavior. Had their response been more professional and more steady, their reports would have been invaluable and the consequent adjustments would have been appropriate. Of course, panic isn't just a moral flaw or a hazard to healthy decision making. It is a fundamental deficiency of faith in G-d. Faith should never render us passive or ignorant of practical concerns. However, abject dread and panic ignores G-d's role and eliminates destiny from the equation. Pragmatism, practical measures and precautions are all synchronous with faith- panic is not and this parsha highlights the corrosive effect of panic. This panicky and pointless whining condemned this day as one of actual tears for real tragedies which would far exceed this mini-crisis.

During the summer of 2014 we experienced the tragedy of the horrific kidnapping and subsequent murder of the 3 High School boys in Gush Etzion. A well-known Rabbi accused the parents of these boys as partially guilty for this crime. Their choice to educate their children in Gush Etzion- a dangerous area – was responsible for this tragedy. You can imagine the public and justifiable outcry against this very insensitive and theologically troubling statement. I recorded a response which was entitled "Why I agree with this Rabbi's statement". I fundamentally agreed that parents have a primary responsibility to provide for the safety and security of their children. I compared the statistics of non-natural deaths of adolescent males in Gush Etzion that summer versus the number of non-natural deaths in the home district in the USA of that Rabbi. Accounting for crime, drug-related and vehicular deaths the numbers were lopsided- it was far more dangerous to live in that USA community in the summer of 2014 than it was in Gush Etzion. That Rabbi had a parental responsibility to relocate his children to the safer environment in the Gush.
Terror is primarily a psychological weapon and it must be confronted psychologically. Of course, we must always implement precautionary safety measures to insure maximal security. However, if our panic frightens us into paralysis or retreat, we have awarded terror its victory. By doing so we have also exposed glaring deficiencies in our faith.