In this week’s Torah reading of Shlaḥ-l’kha (Numbers 13-15), Moses and the Israelites are poised to enter the promised land, and send twelve spies in advance to scout it out. When ten of them report back that the land, inhabited by fortress-dwelling giants, is unconquerable, the people lose their faith and sink into despair, and God decrees that they must wander in the desert for 40 years until the adults have died off. Thus it will be the next generation, raised not in Egyptian slavery but in the desert wilderness, that will inherit the land. Jonathan Sacks comments:
According to Maimonides, . . . the verdict [was not] a punishment as such. It was an inevitable consequence of human nature. It takes more than a few days or weeks to turn a population of slaves into a nation capable of handling the responsibilities of freedom. In the case of the Israelites, it took a generation born in liberty, hardened by the experience of the desert, untrammeled by habits of servitude. Freedom takes time, and there are no shortcuts. Often it takes a very long time indeed.
That dimension of time is fundamental to the Jewish view of politics and human progress. . . . Unlike in Christianity or Islam, there is, in Judaism, no sudden transformation of the human condition, no one moment or single generation in which everything significant is fully disclosed. . . . There are some things a parent may not do for a child if he or she wants the child to become an adult. There are some things even God must choose not to do for His people if He wants them to grow to moral and political maturity. . . .
One of the odd facts about Western civilization in recent centuries is that the people who have been most eloquent about tradition—Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott, T.S. Eliot—have been deeply conservative, defenders of the status quo. Yet there is no reason why a tradition should be conservative. We can hand on to our children not only our past but also our unrealized ideals. We can want them to go beyond us; to travel farther on the road to freedom than we were able to do. . . . That is the lesson of the spies. Despite the divine anger, the people were not condemned to permanent exile. They simply had to face the fact that their children would achieve what they themselves were not ready for.
Read more on Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: http://mailchi.mp/rabbisacks/shelach-lecha-5777-243277