The Dangers of a Pessimistic Outlook

Rabbi Reuven Mann

In this week’s Parsha, Shelach, we encounter something unexpected: the rebellion of the Spies against the conquest of Eretz Yisrael. Ever since Moshe assumed leadership over the Jews, he made it clear that the mission of liberation included full takeover of the Promised Land.

The purpose of freeing the People was to establish a holy society based on adherence to Torah ideals and Mitzvot; in the heart of which, Hashem would establish His “place of residence.”

The time had now come for the invasion of the land, which Hashem had sworn to their forefathers. Agents were chosen from each of the tribes, to spy out the terrain and also report on its agricultural disposition. These were not ordinary citizens, but special people who were looked up to as leaders.

As we know, the spying mission produced catastrophic results. The spies, except for Yehoshua and Calev, issued a gloomy report which sucked the oxygen out of the room and left the people in a state of fear which morphed into panic. They adamantly refused to “go up and conquer” the land. In fact, many were prepared to relinquish the goal of becoming a holy nation and instead insisted, “let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.”

As we seek to make sense out of this surprising story, we need to understand what it was that made the spies so fearful. It is true that the land’s inhabitants were mighty specimens and included giants. It seems, without doubt, that in terms of ordinary human strength the Jews were no match for them and would be roundly defeated.

But this was not the first time that the Jews were facing enemies who were superior in strength. They had prevailed in all of these circumstances only because of unmistakable Divine intervention.

Hashem had brought fearsome plagues upon the Egyptians, destroyed their expeditionary force in the Yam Suf and provided Manna for His People in the wilderness. Did they suddenly lose faith that Hashem could wreak similar miracles to defeat the nations of Canaan? How could they fail to see, that G-d, whose awesome might they had personally experienced, could easily dispose of the current adversary before them? What precipitated the national meltdown?

It seems to me, that the experience of enslavement and the humiliation it imposes, has a profound psychological impact which can leave a permanent wound. Many survivors of situations of horrendous abuses, develop a profound sense of pessimism. They internalize the attitudes of their oppressors and begin to believe that they are not worthy of good outcomes.

They never learn the true lesson of miracles, that Hashem values our existence. Instead of rejoicing, their attitude is one of relief that, at least for now, they’ve dodged a bullet. But the next crisis is just around the corner.

Many of the Jews lacked an appropriate attitude toward themselves. They did not believe that they were entitled to a good life. They even had the temerity to say, “Because of Hashem's hatred for us did He take us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hands of the Amorite to destroy us” (Devarim 1:27).

It was in the grip of this mindset that they encountered the mighty giants who inhabited Canaan. This aroused their doomsday feelings and produced a conviction that they were facing disaster. A chronic pessimistic outlook, can be a devastating liability in life.

The person of genuine faith, does not allow himself to be consumed by gloomy thoughts. He believes, that if he serves G-d with honesty and faithfulness, He can trust in Hashem’s Beneficence. As the righteous spies, Yehoshua and Calev boldly proclaimed; “If Hashem desires us, He will bring us to this Land and give it to us; a Land that flows with milk and honey. But do not rebel against Hashem! You should not fear the people of the Land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, Hashem is with us, do not fear them” (BaMidbar 14:8-9).

This message is very relevant to contemporary Jews. If we correct our ways and faithfully follow His Torah, we can be confident that, “Hashem is with us.” May the spirit of this brand of optimism inspire us to confront our challenges and rise to ever greater heights.

Shabbat Shalom.

Dear Friends,

My newest book, Eternally Yours: G-d’s Greatest Gift To Mankind on VaYikra was recently published, and is now available at:

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—Rabbi Reuven Mann