Don’t blame the messenger; rather, embrace him (or her)

One lesson of Shelach, this week’s parashah, is: “Don’t shoot the messenger.” This expression dates back to ancient history, and can be found in Plutarch’s “Life of Lucullus.”
When Rome was on its way to attack the kingdom of Tigranes the Great, the messenger who informed Tigranes of the oncoming army was beheaded for his pains. Consequently, no one else wanted to bring Tigranes any other intelligence. Without it, Tigranes sat while war blazed around him, giving ear only to those who told him what he wanted to hear.
Whether at war or not, it’s hard to hear the truth. Our first impulse when it comes to bad news is to shoot, or blame, the messenger. However, the Torah teaches that truth must prevail, even when it’s hard to hear.
In Shelach, Moses sends out 12 spies to the land of Canaan, to determine if it can be conquered. Ten of the spies return and tell the Israelites that the land cannot be conquered. But Caleb and Joshua, the two remaining spies, believe the Israelites can conquer Canaan. The Israelites then threaten to stone Caleb and Joshua — the biblical version of shooting the messenger. But what was it about their message that was so hard for the Israelites to accept?
HaAmak haDvar, a 19th-century commentator, suggests that the Israelites might have believed that Caleb and Joshua were trying to drag the Israelites into a dangerous war. The battle was going to be tough, with real losses taking place. The Israelites were unwilling to take this risk. They were trying to protect themselves.
Unlike the Israelites, Caleb and Joshua weren’t afraid of the battle, because they believed God was on their people’s side. They also believed in the people. By telling them to conquer the land, they were telling the Israelites that they were capable and strong. The truth they delivered was a message of encouragement and empowerment: “We can do this!” Many times, being reminded of our own competence is the most frightening message of all, because it means we have to strive to fulfill our potential.
Eighteenth-century commentator Be’er Mayim says that it’s possible the Israelites wanted to stone Joshua and Caleb, because they preferred to return to Egypt, and to serve God there. While Egypt had been awful for the Israelites, it was, at least, a known situation. More than once in the Torah the people ask to go back to Egypt, which can be explained as a form of regression. The Israelites didn’t want to face new challenges. They wanted to repeat old patterns. The Israelites, like most of us, like things to be familiar and easy even if they aren’t good.
Caleb and then Joshua told the people a truth they didn’t want to hear, that it would be difficult to conquer the Land but that they could do it. The hardest truth to hear is sometimes that we’re up for the challenge.
The gift this parashah offers us is, when the Calebs and Joshuas in our lives tell us that God has a plan for us, and that we are capable of accomplishing something hard, we should overcome our fears and reject the idea of returning to our personal Egypts. Instead of shooting the messenger, we must acknowledge our own potential, and try to overcome the obstacles that will bring us to our own Promised Lands.
Rabbi Elana Zelony is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson. She is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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