Perception is In the Eyes of the Beholder – Parashat Shelach Lecha

By Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber, RJE
In Dvar Torah

classroom; Matan

Parashat Sh’lach Lecha begins with the story of the scouts whom Moses appointed to check out the land of Canaan. Moses’ instructions are very specific:

“Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land. (Numbers 13:17-20)

The scouts are to bring back samples of the produce and an evaluation of the people and the land. The quality of the grapes and other produce is tangible, everyone can see it with their own eyes and make their own estimate of their value. But the comments on the people, their cities and the land are based on the perceptions of the scouts and therefore subject to the scouts’ understandings and prejudices.

What did the scouts report?

  • “However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful and the cities are fortified and very large.” (13:28)
  • “All the people that we saw in it are of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so must we have looked like to them.” (13:32-33)
  • “Have no fear then of the people of the country…their protection has departed them, but the Eternal is with us.” (14:9)

According to 10 of the scouts, the people of the land are too mighty and too big to even consider entering the land of Canaan, even if it was flowing with milk and honey. The Israelites accepted the words of fear and the perceptions of the many to the point where they were willing to return to Egypt. In contrast, Caleb and Joshua’s perceptions combined with their faith in the Eternal provided a different understanding of the reality of the land of Canaan and its inhabitants.

Today, when someone visits a congregation or a classroom, they are like the scouts. What do they see? Beautifully decorated spaces created with sense of the sacred found in each individual, easy accessibility, good lighting, wide hallways? Or do they find spaces which place stumbling blocks of inaccessibility. Are all children engaged in learning and all adults embraced as cherished members? Or are some adults and children sitting alone and isolated? What will today’s scouts report on the warmth and acceptance our communities? Who will be our Joshua and our Caleb to say, “Give us a chance because God is with us, too?”

Like the Israelites, we fear what we do not see with our own eyes. We fear the unknown and the invisible challenges. We fear not being embraced and potentially setting ourselves and our families up for failure. Like the Israelites, we want a land flowing with milk and honey and a life filled with the promise of success and caring. Our congregations and our schools need to project images which demonstrate our values and our goals. Every person who walks through our doors needs the reassurance that they will be welcomed, embraced and empowered to be part of the community and the class, both in word and in action. First impressions lead to lasting perceptions and each is in the eyes of the beholder.

Joan Glazer Farber; MatanRabbi Joan Glazer Farber, RJE is co-director of Hevreh: A Community of Adult Jewish Learners  , which offers intensive Jewish learning for adults in an accessible retreat setting. Ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1984, she has served as rabbi and educator in congregations on the east coast. Rabbi Farber was the URJ Adult Learning Specialist and the coordinator of Ten Minutes of Torah.