Fulfilling a different dream
Shelach — Numbers 13:1-15:41
What happens when life doesn’t work out the way you planned? Some people search for someone else to blame, trying to prove that the failure wasn’t their fault. Some become trapped in the past, absorbed by endless rounds of “shoulda, coulda, woulda.” Some give in to despair, believing they had their one chance and blew it. But there are others who are able to mourn their loss, learn from it, and move on, perhaps to fulfill another dream in the future — and these are the ones who inspire us.
At the beginning of Shemot, God called to Moses from the burning bush and charged him, “I will send you to Pharaoh and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.” Moses carried out his mission. He confronted Pharaoh (and the Israelites’ doubts), repeating God’s message and calling down the plagues until he was able to lead his people out of Egypt and bring them to Sinai to receive the Torah. He persuaded God to forgive them for the sin of the golden calf and oversaw the building and the dedication of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary.
There were difficulties — the people repeatedly complained and whined and Moses became frustrated. But now he was about to complete the task he had been given by leading the people into Canaan. Perhaps Moses even imagined that as the people settled in their new home, he would take on the role of elder statesman, advising the young leaders and judges and shepping nachas as he saw his people rejoice over the produce of their fields and the growth of their children.
But Moses’ dream is shattered. As he tells the story in Devarim, when it came time to enter the land, the people came to him and said, “Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to.” Moses approves their plan and sends the spies, never imagining that anything could go wrong.
But, of course, something did. The spies return with the report that the Promised Land is indeed a wonderful place, but its inhabitants are too powerful for a bunch of ex-slaves to take on. Despite the best efforts of Joshua and Calev, the people panic and talk about returning to Egypt. God is furious, and although Moses again convinces God not to destroy the Israelites, God declares that they will remain in the wilderness for 40 years so that all the adults who left Egypt will die off. Their children will be the ones to see the fulfillment of God’s promise.
Moses’ dream lies in tatters. He will not fulfill his mission of bringing the Israelites into Canaan. Instead of a well-earned retirement, he faces years and years of hardship in the wilderness. Somehow, he has failed and, according to one midrashic tradition, it is at this point that Moses learns that he, too, will die in the wilderness. National disaster goes hand in hand with personal loss.
We could easily forgive Moses for becoming depressed. Already in his early 80s, he now faces almost 40 more years of frustration, complaining, and defiance, for which his only reward will be a lonely grave in the desert. Still, Moses chooses not to retreat into a black cloud. He doesn’t look for someone else to blame. He doesn’t give up.
Right after Moses tells the people about God’s decree and after the people’s abortive attempt to invade Canaan, the next verses read, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, when you enter the land that I am giving you to settle on and would present a gift to the Lord….” Moses goes right back to teaching Torah. In fact, he begins with laws that will apply only in the Land of Israel. Moses continues teaching because God has promised that the next generation will enter the land. He knows that the time will come when Jews will live in the Land of Israel and will need to know what God has commanded them to do there. Moses will teach the generation of the wilderness so they will be able to teach their children.
Moses failed to bring the people he led out of Egypt into the Land of Israel — but refused to give in to despair. He continued to focus on the future. It would not be the exact future he had hoped for, but that was no reason to give up. Because there is only one loss that cannot be overcome — and that is the loss of hope.