Long ago, a Jewish scholar inventoried all of which the heart is capable. She or he examined our Torah meticulously, seeking every mention of the human heart. The elements of individual experience chronicled include desire, love, grief, fear, pride, rebellion, hate and awakening. The actual list is much longer and seems to exclude little. It is an effort of conscientious tenderness preserved for us in the Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) Rabbah, an aggadic midrash whose author and motivation remain a mystery.
Such an accounting confirms the universality of human emotion, but does not provide a map as we make our way through all the swampland, desert, and jungle of feeling that life delivers. Perhaps this week’s parshah, Sh’lach Lecha, can act as compass.
After trekking innumerable miles, the Israelites take respite, camping in the wilderness of Paran. There, Moses receives a divine command to dispatch scouts into Canaan and selects men from every tribe for the task. The instructions were explicit. “Go up there into the Negeb,” Moses tells them, “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).
As leader of his people, Moses is on point. He understands what the Israelites need (an end to their wandering), and what they want (a peaceful homeland, rich in resources). Quietly evaluating a potential site for permanent settlement is a reliable strategy and he is thoughtful in his selection of operatives for the mission. In short, he knows what he wants and he knows how to get it.
The scouts return laden with tales of a countryside abundant in natural resources. As proof, they display a cluster of grapes so deliciously gargantuan two men are required to carry it. Canaan is, indeed, a land of “milk and honey.” However, the scouts also share their fears. They have observed heavily fortified cities, powerful tribes outnumbering their own, and as a result do not believe it possible for the Israelites to make Canaan their home. They greatly fear their own annihilation.
Of course, the divine is disappointed in their lack of faith and admonishes the Israelites. “How long will these people spurn Me,” God demands of Moses, “and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst?” (Numbers 14:11).
For the most part, we all know at least some of what we want. We all can gain clarity about what it is we need. We ache for connection and mutually fulfilling relationships. We aspire to success in our careers, we understand the value of physical fitness, and we set goals we have every intention of achieving. Yet often, we fall short. We just can’t seem to reach what we say we most want.
Our conscious mind is like Moses. Motivated by purpose, we are focused on tactics and strategy. But those scouts, ever vigilant to potential danger, are what truly drive us. Those scouts are the attributes of the human heart our enterprising sister or brother compiled centuries ago. They represent the forces within that either support us or sabotage our efforts.
Yes, getting that promotion would be amazing. It means greater impact, a bigger salary, and maybe more vacation. “But,” asks those feelings of inadequacy, “do you really think you have what it takes? You haven’t been at this game all that long, what makes you think you can be CEO? You’ll probably just fail.” Much safer to say where you are.
You love someone deeply. You’ve always wanted a partner and a family of your own, but your last relationship didn’t turn out as expected. You may have experienced significant loss. Grief tells you, “don’t invest too much. Don’t count on this working out. Always be prepared for the end.” Much safer to stay where you are.
Everyone you know admires your art. “Incredible,” they exclaim, “you should share it with the world!” All you see in your latest piece is what’s flawed. When they say, “gorgeous,” you think, “defective.” A wider audience would just mean more critics. Who needs the angst? Much safer to stay where you are.
Though our scouts believe themselves to be acting in our own best interests, they are misguided and almost always absolutely wrong. We encounter so much in this life that cultivates negative messages about who we are, the nature of the world, and the intentions of others. Untangling those sentiments takes work. It means confronting the pain we would rather suppress, expressing the anger that we’ve silenced, and acknowledging how we’ve been harmed – by others and by ourselves. It means making amends for our own mistakes and extending forgiveness to those whose actions have proven painful. It is not easy. But doing so is the only means of silencing the scouts and moving forward.
Ultimately, the Israelites conquered their fears and, after getting right with the divine in the classic style of offering, they made their way into Canaan. We must learn to trust in ourselves, in others and in the divine however we choose to define it. In order to live fully and freely, we must embrace every part of our ourselves- the light and the dark. We must immerse ourselves in all of which the heart is capable.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.