Learning from failure

By Rabbi Michael Lewis
Parashat Shlach

“Leadership is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shlach-Lecha, features one of the great disasters of leadership in the Torah. However, an exploration of the Haftorah for this parasha shows us a complete turnaround and one of the greatest leadership successes in the Bible. The Haftorah brings us a redux of the spy scene, this time with Joshua in charge of the Israelites as they prepare to enter the land of Israel and conquer Jericho. In the second spy story, however, Joshua internalizes all of the lessons of the mistakes of the scene in Shlach. By learning the lessons from the first spy narrative, Joshua shows one of the great leadership lessons: maintaining enthusiasm, and eventually success, despite previous failure.

There are five distinct ways in which Joshua learns his lessons in the second narrative.

First, Moses sent the spies off with great fanfare, naming each spy and the tribe with which he was associated. We can imagine each tribe proudly deliberating which warrior would serve in this role, a decision that came to be problematic when the mission failed. Joshua, by contrast, preempts our modern intelligence agencies and sends the spies off “secretly,” understanding the value of intelligence-gathering operating out of the public view.

Second, the two narratives differ drastically in the instructions given to the spies. Moses commanded very specific instructions to the spies to find out about who was in the land, the strength of the people and the quality of their resources and defenses. By creating a specific checklist, it forced the spies to focus on the strengths of their enemy, thus building anxiety. By contrast, Joshua understands the value of giving the spies the opportunity to determine the mission. He limits the scope, asking them to “see” the land, but to focus specifically on Jericho.

Third, Moses sent the spies off for 40 days. Events that last 40 days in the Bible almost always create anxiety that leads to destructive behavior. When Moses is on Mount Sinai for 40 days, the Israelites get so anxious they build a golden calf. After Noah and his family anxiously wait on the ark for the flood waters to recede, they immediately build a vineyard and get drunk to deal with their anxiety. (After
COVID-19 lockdowns, this anxiety might be resonant for some of us today!) The 40-day duration of this mission allowed the spies to build anxiety, which emerged in their report to the Israelites. In the Haftorah, the spies spend one day scouting Jericho and three days hiding. By limiting the duration, the spies could focus on what was important rather than letting their anxiety build.

Fourth, Joshua innovates the use of human intelligence. In the Torah portion, the spies did not actually talk to people to get a sense of the enemies’ mood. In the Haftorah, the spies encounter Rahav, a harlot living on the edge of town. Rahav provides critical intelligence, telling the spies that Jericho is vulnerable because the population doesn’t believe the city will be able to withstand the onslaught of the Israelite army.

Lastly, when the spies return, Joshua does something drastically different with the information. While Moses let the entire people hear the anxiety of the spies, in the Haftorah the spies report directly to Joshua. Joshua is then able to immediately act on the information as the Israelites prepare to cross the Jordan and conquer Jericho.

By contrasting these two narratives, we can learn more than just how intelligence agencies operate. We can develop an understanding of Joshua’s innate leadership ability. In particular, Joshua was able to take lessons from the failures of the first spy narrative and turn those into success. One of my favorite parts of the Jewish tradition is the acknowledgment that our leaders are human beings who make mistakes — even Moses! As we inevitably make mistakes in our lives, may we be like Joshua and maintain our enthusiasm for the mission, eventually turning the lessons of our failures into our great strengths.

Rabbi Michael Lewis serves Temple Emanu-El. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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