Be Careful What You Ask For – Shelah-Lekha 5777

The human brain is amazingly proficient at finding what it is looking for.  Our minds will make not only patterns, but stories that build whole worlds out of nothing more than points of light in the night sky.  Beyond the immense capability to seek out, we are unfathomably susceptible to persuasion.  Hence, psychology questionnaires are written with the same questions written multiple times with different wording.  The questioner wants to make sure the answer they receive is authentic, and not corrupted by the specific use of language.  

Some 2000 years ago, Shimon Ben Shetach also understood this human susceptibility.  Pirkei Avot records him saying, “be thorough in researching witnesses, and be careful with your words lest from them they will come to lie” (Avot 1:9).  Unfortunately, I fear that our teacher Moses was not careful enough in preparing the twelve tribal leaders charged with paying witness to the Land.  “God speaks to Moses, saying, ‘Send men to scout the land of Canaan” (Bemidbar 13:1).  That is all God says.  Yet Moses goes on and on with his instruction.  He says, “Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is.  Are the people weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad?  Are the towns they live in open of 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” (Bemidbar 13:17-20).  

Moses instructs the scouts to report back with specifics and judgements.  It comes as no surprise then that when they return they have found exactly that.  Addressing the entire community they say, “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.  However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful and the cities are fortified and very large” (Bemidbar 13:27-28).  It feels that Moses did not heed the wisdom of Shimon Ben Shetach – his directive primed their response.

In experiential education there are two distinct  paradigms.  The first leverages something experiential – a game, skits, music, etc – in order to convey to students a specific learning objective.  The second is much deeper; it facilitates an experience with the objective of allowing participants to learn whatever lesson they may learn for themselves.  

Often times it is scary as an educator to utilize the second option.  We have little to no control over what the students will learn for themselves and fear it may be antithetical to what we would like.  This fear easily leads us to give too much instruction.  The irony is, our fear motivated instruction often ends up being the very thing that primes our students to experience that which we hoped they would avoid.   

I wonder what the scouts would have reported if Moses had only repeated God’s words – go scout the land.  Given the leeway to see what their unprimed eyes beheld, perhaps they would have reported the extreme hospitality of the native peoples or how safe they felt within the city walls.  Maybe they would have even told of the land’s unique watershed or its complex rain-shadow desert.

In a world that seems to breed terror and uncertainty, I bless all with the surety of self to let ourselves and others see and experience life unfiltered.  After all, Rebbe Nachman says, “The most important thing is to not make ourselves afraid.”

Shabbat Shalom


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