God’s reputation or mission?

God’s reputation or mission?

Rabbi James Gibson
Rabbi James Gibson

Parshat Sh’lach L’cha, Numbers 13.1-15.41

This week’s parsha finds our people caught in a classic “good news-bad news” scenario. The good news is that our troop of 12 spies has walked up and down the Promised Land and found it excellent. The soil is rich, there is water, the spies found grapes as big as basketballs. Other fruits and vegetables, rich and tasty.  Just what God had promised. But then came the bad news:

“But the people that dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are fortified, and very great; and moreover we saw the children of Anak there … We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.”  

When our people realized that they would have to enter into hard battle to gain the Promised Land, they revolted.  They cried out:

“Would that we had died in the land of Egypt or would we had died in this wilderness! … ‘Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt’ … all the congregation bade stone them with stones, when the glory of the LORD appeared in the tent of meeting unto all the children of Israel.”

And God said, “And the LORD said unto Moses: How long will this people despise Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, for all the signs which I have wrought among them? I will smite them with the pestilence, and destroy them, and will make of thee a nation greater and mightier than they.”

And the Divine seems to have had enough of us. Enough with our building idols like the Golden Calf. Enough with our whining about food. Enough with our complaints about how slavery wasn’t all that bad. Enough with the rejection of the law, given at Mt. Sinai. No, God seems to have reached a limit. God wishes to strike our ancestors down and create a new, more faithful people that will follow divine commands and Moses.

But Moses, like in the incident of the Golden Calf, rejects this. Moses raises only one argument, and a peculiar one at that.  He appeals to God’s sense of reputation, claiming that the nations would believe God helpless if God did not prevent them from calamity and death.

Our commentators, Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508), and Isaac ben Arama (1420-1494) attack this rationale. Why should God care about the Divine reputation among mere mortals? Arama writes, “Should then justice be perverted for the sake of fools?”

Nachmanides (1194-1270), however, takes another tack. He writes that we, the people of Israel, were created to “acknowledge God and give thanks to God … Were God then to destroy Israel, the peoples of the world would forget God’s deeds and the whole intention of human creation would be completely defeated.”

It wasn’t God’s reputation that was at stake, rather God’s mission.  That is why Moses argued as he did.  That is why God relented.

We, as God’s finest creation, have a mission, too. We, like God, should not be so concerned about our reputations, but rather our mission here in life. That mission is to take the values we find in Torah and ascribe to God and make them part of our world.

As my great teacher, Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus, professor of American Jewish History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, put it, “We do not wish to missionize the nations; we want to humanize them.”

This is a mission worthy of every Jewish woman and man.  This is a mission worthy of God’s mercy on our people.  It is a mission worth dedicating our very lives.

Rabbi James A. Gibson is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.