Sh’lach: Don’t Tell Me What to Do!
Sefer BaMidbar is filled with one tragic mistake after another. This week’s disaster is the episode of the spies who convinced B’nei Yisrael to reject Eretz Yisrael. Despite Hashem’s promises that He would safely lead the people into the Land, the m’raglim scared the nation with an evil report, replete with lies that Hashem was not capable of conquering the native giants. Considering that Hashem had taken the Jews out of Egypt for the express purpose of immigrating to Israel, the people’s refusal to march onward marked not only a rejection of Eretz Yisrael, but of G-d Himself. Consequently, Hashem declared that the current generation would not be allowed to enter the Land they had scorned.
However, there is a postscript to this story, one often omitted when discussing the parshah. After learning that they would not be permitted to enter Eretz Yisrael, a faction of soldiers banded together to stubbornly insist that the nation journey forward, as originally planned. Moshe warned these renegades against this mission, as Hashem had already withdrawn His protection and assistance. Yet, again, the battalion ignored the wishes of Hashem and charged ahead to Israel, where they suffered a devastating defeat (BaMidbar 14:40-45).
What is with these people?! When Hashem assured them that everything would be okay and ordered them to conquer Eretz Yisrael, the nation doubted Hashem and refused to comply with the directive. But as soon as Hashem declared that He would no longer support this generation, and ordered them to remain in the desert, the nation then put their faith in Hashem, and insisted that they plow ahead. How can we understand their inconsistent behavior?
The Alter of Kelm explained that this incident provides us with a relatable insight into human nature: People hate being told what to do. Even when it is apparent that it is for our own benefit, we have trouble accepting the instructions or advice of others. From this perspective, then, the behavior of the nation was actually quite consistent. When Hashem told B’nei Yisrael to go into Israel, they refused to comply. And when Hashem told B’nei Yisrael to stay in the desert, they refused to comply. As soon as Hashem said the Land was no longer an option, it suddenly became most appealing.
Psychologists refer to this concept as “reactance,” a tendency to push back when it feels one’s freedoms are being restricted or denied. As we remain under the direction of Hashem, we are constantly at risk of rejecting His commandments due to reactance. While one may have thought that volunteering to perform mitzvos is more valuable than fulfilling one’s obligations, Chazal say the opposite. The natural resistance that stems from the fact that mitzvos are required, rather than optional, makes them infinitely more rewarding (Avodah Zarah 3a, and Tosafos ad loc.).
Simply being cognizant of the existence of this bias is already the first step toward challenging our resistance. Analyzing the true motivation of our noncompliance can help us recognize when we are truly uninterested in doing something, and when we are just uncomfortable being told what to do. Additionally, being aware of this inclination can help improve communication with others, especially those under our directive (e.g., children, students, employees). Instead of igniting reactance by ordering someone how to behave, we can promote compliance and cooperation by presenting several acceptable options and allowing the recipient to choose which they prefer.
With proper understanding of this phenomenon, we can avoid making the same mistake as the Dor HaMidbar, who were consistently driven to do the opposite of whatever Hashem commanded. It’s our choice.