Shelach is a story of leaders as much as it is a story of the people. It is a story of poor leaders and of good leaders. The poor leaders—10 of the 12 spies—saw the challenges that confronted them in the land of Canaan and ran: “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.” (Bamidbar 13:31) The good leaders—Yehoshua and Calev—saw these challenges and pushed forward: “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.” (13:30) What accounts for this difference?
The answer is fear. Why did the leaders sin, and why did Bnei Yisrael sin? They saw the hand of God in Egypt, at Har Sinai, and in the Wilderness, and yet they were unable to believe that God would save them. Their reaction was the same as the people’s reaction at the Red Sea. Even for a people who have seen all the miracles, who have all the reasons to believe in God, faith will falter when confronted with fear. When a person is afraid all he can see is the object of his fear. Fear is irrational. Fear paralyzes. Because of fear, the people prefer to go back and be slaves. The people prefer to stay in the Wilderness, or better, to go back to Egypt, rather than to confront their fears.
The answer to fear is faith. Fear sees only obstacles. Faith sees opportunities: “We are able to overcome it!” This is what separates good leadership from bad. A leadership based on fear is no leadership at all. Good leadership must be based on faith: faith in God, faith in Torah, faith in others, and faith in one’s self. A leadership of faith takes one into the Promised Land.
In many ways, this is what distinguishes Modern Orthodoxy. In many ways Orthodoxy has become a religion of fear: fear of the outside world, fear of asking hard questions, fear of delegitimization, fear of being honest with ourselves about our own shortcomings. It is much safer, some say, to reject the outside world and to protect ourselves in a cloistered environment.
There is so much to be afraid of in the larger, outside world. There is fear of what will happen if we confront postmodernism, archeology, science, history, philosophy, academic Talmud, Biblical criticism, feminism, and homosexuality. There is fear of what will happen if we honestly confront spousal abuse, rabbinic sexual abuse, alcoholism, and drug abuse; a fear of genuinely addressing the marginalization of single mothers, converts, the developmentally disabled, those suffering from depression, and children with special needs. Many in the Orthodox community have chosen to look at these challenges and say: “We cannot go up, for they are stronger than we!” The response is to put up walls. The response is to stay in the desert.
It is not just a fear of the outside world. It is a fear of losing full control, of granting the people a degree of autonomy. It is scary for some to imagine individuals and communities—or even local rabbis—thinking for themselves. For some, the answer to this is to have communal issues decided by a Gadol and his da’as Torah, to say: “Is it not better for us to return to Egypt? Perhaps we were slaves in Egypt, but everything was secure and predictable. In Egypt, someone else did the thinking for us.”
This is a leadership of fear. This is a yiddishkeit destined to stay in the desert and never go into the Promised Land.
Calev was a different leader. He had a ruach acheret, a different spirit. He saw the formidable challenges, and most certainly experienced fear. But he did not give into it. He responded to the fear with a reaffirming of his faith.
And so must we do. We must trust in God. And we must rust in the Torah. Trust in its ability to confront the real challenges of life. Trust that it can be taken out of its shell, that it can be brought to bear not just on pots and pans, but also on theological struggles, on the economy, and on injustice. We need to have enough faith in the Torah that we can honestly face up to the challenges of aggunah, of homosexuality, of universalism and particularism. Trust that it can honestly confront archeology, science, history, and feminism, not by rejecting them, but by embracing them and showing us a larger truth, a deeper truth.
We need religious leaders who can trust not only in the Torah, but also the people. Leaders who do not withhold information or misrepresent halakha, out of a false belief that the people can’t handle the truth. Leaders who value the expertise and the voices of every member of the community, respecting them and including their voices in its psak and its decision process.
A leadership and a Torah that is based on faith, not fear, will be open to hear other voices, even opposing voices. The natural response is to try to shut these voices down, as even Yehoshua did when Eldad and Meidad were prophesying in the camp: “My master, Moshe, restrain them.” It requires a great leader to resist this response, to recognize that we as a people will only be richer, only be wiser, if we can listen to and respect visions that are different than our own. It is a rare leader who has enough faith in himself that he can welcome challenge.
What we most desperately need are religious leaders who have enough faith in the people. Religious leaders whose deepest desire is not to lead the people, but to empower them. Such leaders know that they only truly succeed not when everyone follows their vision, but when they have inspired each individual to find his or her own unique vision and to follow it with a passion. We need leaders who can say: “Who would give that all the nation of God would be prophets, that God should give God’s spirit upon them!” We need leaders who will take us into the Promised Land.