When I was growing up, my family would gather for Shabbat dinner at my grandparents’ apartment in Heather Gardens every Friday night. It was the most wonderful time of the week, though for me, it was often also the most challenging. Impulse control was not my strong suit.
Each week, sitting (or squirming) at the Shabbos table, surrounded by my family, I would share how my week had gone. Or how it hadn’t quite gone as expected. And no matter what I reported—moments of triumph or moments of less than exemplary behavior—my family listened, with understanding and love and very often laughter.
In the summer months, those Shabbos dinners took place on the balcony, with its view out over the golf course and the Rockies in the distance. Looking out at the vista, I could also see, out of the corner of my eye, a wood carving done by my grandfather that depicted two of the twelve spies sent by Moses on a recon mission into the land of Israel. In my grandfather’s piece, these two carried a bunch of grapes as tall as they were. On that balcony on those summer nights, I used to wonder if I would be like Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who maintained their faith, or would I be like the other ten, who did not.
This week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, tells a portion of the story that was the inspiration for my grandfather’s art. In it, Moses directs twelve men to covertly scout out the land to which they will soon travel. But, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, the Torah does not use either of the Hebrew words that mean “to spy”; instead we find the word latur, “to seek out good,” which is quite a different thing altogether.
A spy looks for vulnerabilities to strike, for weaknesses to exploit. But Moses commanded the men to look for the good in the land and to report on all its richness. So perhaps the failure of those ten spies, failure that ultimately led to nearly forty years of wandering, wasn’t because they lacked faith or courage; maybe they just didn’t understand their mission.
These are uncertain and unrestful times. Let us not misunderstand our mission. Let our role not be to look for vulnerability or weakness but rather to seek out good. And let us rise to that task with faith and courage, like Joshua and Caleb, but also with patience and compassion, like that shown to me each Friday night around the family Shabbos table. Let that be our mission and our calling: to listen and to love.