As the year comes to a close, I find myself in a nostalgic frame of mind. It isn’t easy saying goodbye to our eighth graders, many of whom have been here since before they could walk. This is, after all, where they grew up, the place where they have learned so much and made many of their best friends, and the place they have called a home for so many years. Now the time has come for the students to pack their backpacks for the last time and face the relative independency of high school. Like parents on the first day of kindergarten (or just about any year, for that matter), we as the teachers and administrators hope the students have learned and internalized the lessons we have tried to impart. Reflecting on the tools we’ve given them, we feel confident they will succeed in the world, and we anxiously wait to hear about their journeys and triumphs as they continue to grow.
In the Torah, we’ve now reached the point where the Israelites are ever closer to reaching the Promised Land and their own new beginning. Parshat Shlach Lechah, our Torah portion this week, teaches us about the nature of change and the emotions that come with it. The text begins with Moshe sending out twelve men, one from each tribe, to look at the land of Cana’an. As the spies venture out, one can imagine Moshe standing and watching them fade into the distance, hoping they’ll come back with a positive report. Like a parent or teacher, he knows they might be nervous or scared, and he hopes that they represent their community with good faith and integrity.
However, Moshe is in for a surprise when the spies return. Not only do the majority of them turn bitter and cynical on their journey, but their negative attitude continues to infect the entire nation. If it sounds familiar, it’s also the kind of rebellious teenage group-think that tends to crop up just when the end of the school year is in sight. Ten of the twelve spies insist that the people in the Promised Land are masterful warriors and will certainly overpower the Israelites. The pessimism is palpable in the retelling of their expedition. While Caleb and Yehoshua do come back with a more positive outlook on the situation, the damage has already been done by the other ten.
In this moment both God and Moshe exhibit great frustration, and in their anger they punish the Israelites. God decides that no person over the age of twenty at the time the Israelites left Egypt would be allowed into the new land. The text almost reads as if God is coping with a failure with this first generation. It’s a similar feeling when we read parshat Noach, in which God is so angered by the state of human existence that it’s time for a clean slate.
As we say goodbye to the eighth graders and to our students for the summer, we send them out with pride knowing how much they’ve achieved and grown in the past year and over the years at Levine. We hope that the summer brings with it positivity and great memories. Most of all, we look forward to their return with reports of the world they’ve encountered and the lessons they’ve learned.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: This parsha is called Shlach Lecha, literally “send to you.” Since the spies return with varying reports, it’s clear that perspective plays a big role in our experiences. As modern commentator Dr. Jay Michaelson suggests, perhaps what the spies were really meant to learn about was themselves and how to confront their fears before they could conquer them.