Focusing on Hope to Get Through the Wilderness

This Dvar Torah was edited from one written by Rabbi Vered L. Harris, the spiritual leader of Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City. It was originally published at

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

One summer as visiting faculty at Greene Family Camp, I made the mistake of flicking through news headlines on my phone. They were filled with terror, pain, and discord.


On one hand, I felt safe and comfortable at camp, surrounded by happy, boisterous campers soaking up the sun, Judaism, and each other. On the other hand, the headlines planted a seed of fear in my gut because of the unpredictability of the larger world.


Fear is a powerful emotion.


For people with anxiety, even a little bit of fear can be crippling if our minds get wrapped up in playing over and over again all of the things that could possibly go wrong, regardless of how improbable they are...


In this week’s Torah portion Shlach L’Cha, scouts are sent into the Promised Land to bring back a report to the former slaves in the wilderness.


At the end of forty days the scouts returned.


They told those gathered: “The land does flow with milk and honey. However, the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large.”


Caleb says: “Let’s go! We can take it!”


The other officers say, “We can’t attack them; the people are big and strong, and the land is difficult. The people there are giants; we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.


Then the whole community broke into loud cries and railed against Moses and Aaron saying, “It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!”


This episode dooms (most of) the generation that left Egypt to die in the wilderness. They had God with them, but they were stymied by fear.


Fear is a powerful emotion.


In many places around the world human beings are living with fear of terrorism, fear of politicians, fear of losing freedoms, fear of people who are different, fear of things changing, and fear of things staying the same.


The Promised Land, in a symbolic reading of Torah, need not be only the physical Land of Israel. We each can choose to journey towards a metaphoric Promised Land of relationship with God, community, and wholeness.


On our journeys, like Caleb in this week’s parashah, we may see what is promised and say, “Let’s go!”


Or we may be like most of the scouts who focused on the obstacles and found themselves trapped in fear.


Caleb exemplifies the hope that can guide us through fear.


The generation that left Egypt was broken. They saw the miracles of the plagues, the Sea of Reeds splitting, the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and still they were plagued with more fear than hope, more dark than light.


Focusing on hope brings us through whatever wilderness we wander in.


The scouts that surveyed the Land and came back with more fear than hope spread that fear to an entire generation.


Striving to live a religious life, we are challenged with the task of spreading more hope than fear. We do this through the words we share, the prayers we recite, the kindness we extend to others, and the justice we pursue.


We can each think of ourselves as sh’lichim — like those sent out to survey the Promised Land.


In pursuing hope, we can point to Caleb and Joshua as our models of those who come back and report: yes, there is darkness, but we do not need to be among those who die in the wilderness.


Focusing on the light of hope can bring us to be among those who enjoy the fruits of the Promised Land.

Shabbat Shalom