What Could’ve Been – Parshat Shlach Lecha 5784

I am a reflective practitioner. I have a strong tendency to look back on experiences, services, programs, and moments and evaluate how they went, how I felt, what the outcomes were, or what I might do differently next time. I keep these notes in different forms: sometimes on a sticky note, sometimes I write up a report, and sometimes in ongoing conversations. Where this often backfires, however, is when I reflect too hard for too long and forget that I can’t change the past. When this happens I end up with a lot of should’ve/would’ve/could’ve moments that are largely unhelpful to dwell on unless I am going to run the program again, in which case I need to transform them into “I will.”

Looking back can often be helpful; after all, we read the Torah every year, learning something new about ourselves or about what could’ve been done differently for the Israelite nation. However, there is also a point when the past becomes unrealistically rose-colored, and dwelling on “hindsight is 20/20” hinders us from moving forward in a healthy way. This also becomes a hindrance in our Torah portion this week.

This week we read Parshat Shlach Lecha and the story of the spies. The parshah begins with Moshe sending 12 spies, one from each tribe, into the land of Cana’an to bring back an accounting of the land. The spies return with their report, and it’s pretty discouraging. Two spies report back with a positive message, but the negativity of the other ten reports instills so much fear into the nation that they decide they do not want to make the journey into the promised land after all. This infuriates God, who then decrees that anyone who went out from Egypt at age 20 or older will not be allowed to enter the land of Cana’an. This generation will purposefully die out so that a new generation, unfettered by the destructive mindset of their predecessors, can start anew.

The Israelites in chapter 14 break into a huge outcry in the camp after they hear about the supposed giants in the land of Israel. “We should’ve stayed in Egypt! We could’ve been eating what we wanted! We would’ve been better off enslaved than here with only the unknown ahead of us!” This “if only” thinking proves to be to their detriment as they are unable to see the reality that was slavery and unable to trust in God or the leadership guiding them through this transitional time.

What we learn from this moment is that reflective practice is healthy when we’re looking back in order to find a stronger, more sustainable path forward. Nevertheless, this is a stern warning from God that “should-ing” on ourselves can be counterproductive. Instead, we must send ourselves, shlach lecha, into the future with the strength of experience, knowing what our past has taught us.

– Rabbi Eve Posen

Source: What Could’ve Been – Parshat Shlach Lecha 5784