How well do you handle the unknown? Do you embrace change with optimistic thrill or do you approach change with frustration and avoidance?
The Jewish people have gone through a plethora of change throughout our history. From Abraham leaving Ur, to the Hebrews being slaves in Egypt, to the dispersion of the Jewish people among the world’s communities, change is no stranger to us.
In Parashat Shelach-Lecha, we examine the Israelite conscience during a liminal moment of the Exodus story. While in the desert, twelve tribal leaders are sent to explore the land of Canaan to bring back news of whether the Israelites should enter the land. The leaders return to the people in the wilderness after forty days bringing back ripe fruits and telling of a land that “flows with milk and honey.” However, ten of these spies add that there are “giants” in the land and that the land is full of enemy Amalekites. Two of the leaders, Joshua and Caleb, disagree with the other spies, urging the people to go up and conquer the land.
At the edge of change, how did the Israelites embrace the situation and make a life-altering decision? Did the Israelites approach change in the same ways we do to this day?
According to Dr. Abigail Brenner, an author and psychiatrist, the process of change entails five fairly predictable stages.
- Loss—without the familiar to rely upon, change gives a sense of loss. Although our Israelite ancestors endured an unhappy life in Egypt, their exodus from a familiar place brings up issues of loss.
- Uncertainty—again, uncertainty brings about confusion about what is real and true. Slavery might not have seemed as real to the Israelites after the situation was over. Their new position was only one of uncertainty.
- Discomfort—At this point in the process of change, a person decides whether she or he will move onto the next stage and discover new possibilities and insights. Or s/he will retreat in fear back to the old situation. In the Exodus story we learn that, The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died in the land of Egypt,” the whole community shouted at them, “or if only we might die in this wilderness! Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!” (Numbers 14:1-4)
- Insight—something is revealed that offers direction. Despite 10 of the spies’ negative views of Canaan, Caleb and Joshua exhort the whole Israelite community saying “The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against the Lord. Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey: their protection has departed from them but the Lord is with us (Numbers 14:7-9). After their complaints and crying over returning to Egypt the Israelites are given some hope.
- Integration—in this final stage of change, the person is able to incorporate what they have learned from this lesson. The Israelites change their mind and decide to enter the land. However, it is too late. God has ruled that because of their lack of faith they are unable to enter for 40 years. Only the new generation of Israelites may eventually enter the land.
We all know how this story ends. The Jewish people finally enter the Promised Land and remain there for some years before new turmoil and changes confront them.
Change is never easy. But by clinging to the familiar—Jewish laws and traditions—the backbone of Judaism has remained intact despite the number of adjustments made and challenges endured. Like our Israelite ancestors, we must learn to more readily embrace change before our opportunities are wasted.
As for me, the fear of change must be branded in my DNA. I see a lot of myself in this week’s parashah. But I should learn from my ancestor’s mistakes and have more faith and embrace the changing tides of life.