In Shelach, we read the famous “Incident of the Spies,” where twelve men were sent to spy out the land of Israel and report on the conditions so that Moses could formulate a strategic plan. Unnerved by what they saw, ten men returned with such a pessimistic and alarming account – lions and tigers and giants oh my - that the people wept all night in terror.
Joshua and Caleb – the other two “spies” - came back with a different version, however, and the people not to give into their fears and negativity, urging the people to maintain their faith that but God would protect them. On one side of the divide were these ten guys – prominent and respected, to be sure, but none of them were part of the “Dream Team.” Unlike Moses and his siblings, they had no role in the redemption from Egypt and the ensuing miracles that sustained the Jewish people. Neither were they of the priestly class. And compared to Joshua, who was Moses’ right-hand man, and Caleb, who was the prince of the tribe of Yehuda, these other men were of much lower stature. So how were they able to flip an entire nation (some commentators say the men only, however) to their way of thinking, and sell the people their distorted narrative?
What’s the Context?
To answer that question, we need to backtrack a bit and look at the parsha, Beha'olscha, where the people complained about the lack of meat, reminisced about the good ‘ol days of being in Egypt, and lamented their current circumstances. The first time this trifecta of “We have no food, Egypt was great, and we’re gonna die...” occurred when the Jewish people were newly in the desert right after leaving Egypt. Then, God had compassion for their complaints as being not unjustified. After all, even though the Jewish people were the ones who were liberated, their whole experience with God was in His attribute of might, power, and devastation. What frame of reference could they have for God as the provider, a loving God who wants an intimate relationship with man?
After revelation at Sinai, the Jewish people camped for more than a year at the base of the mountain, fed by the daily manna that fell from heaven, and were sustained and cared for in all of their needs, as they learned the laws of the Torah. If Sinai was compared to a marriage ceremony, then this was the honeymoon phase – living in a bubble with God. So now there was some history with this God, who was now shooing them out of the nest to fulfill their destiny – to live Torah in the “real world.” And so after all that time, when they uttered virtually the same complaints, this time – God was pissed. And this time, people died.
And so the story of the ten spies didn’t occur in a vacuum. A crack had happened in the relationship between the Jewish people and God. Cracks can serve a great purpose; in the immortal words of Leonard Cohen, “that’s how the light gets in.” But if cracks aren’t repaired, they can widen, and over time, cracks become chasms, shattering vessels and destroying relationships.
A Happy Couple’s Secret Weapon
In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman explains that every couple “messes up” during a conflict. The crucial distinction between those couples who are “masters” and those who are “disasters” is not that they don’t fight or create fissures in their relationship, but that they have the ability “to repair.”
For example, Olivia and Nathaniel are moving from the city to the suburbs, and the tension between them starts to mount. They have agreed on all of the major decisions for this transition, but now were locking horns on what kind of car to buy. As a new suburbanite, Olivia wanted a minivan; whereas Nathanial thought nothing could be drearier, and instead, wanted to buy a jeep. As the conflict intensified, and the decibels grew louder, one would have to wonder whether this couple was going to make it. But all of a sudden – just like their 4-year old would do when he was having a fit – she put her hands on her hips. And before she could stick out her tongue at Nathaniel, Nathaniel did it first, and they both ended up laughing, which defused the tension between them.
According to Gottman, “The success or failure of a couple’s repair attempts is one of the primary factors in whether their marriage flourishes or flounders.” As you can see, it doesn’t have to be a grand gesture or falling on one’s sword. “A repair attempt refers to any statement or action – silly or otherwise – that prevents negativity from spiraling out of control.”
Hey - I Thought We Were Friends
One of the foundational principles of a successful marriage is the extent that the couple has a deep friendship because they become experts at both at sending and responding to repair attempts. Love can seem to appear in an instant. Consider the phrases: “love-struck, smitten, or falling in love.” You don’t hear people say, “We fell in like,” because friendship is cultivated over time.
According to the “Communicate Bond Belong Theory,” it takes about “50 hours of interaction to move from acquaintance to casual friend, about 90 hours to move from casual friend to friend, and more than 200 hours to qualify as a best friend.” When meeting someone new, you may feel as if you have known that person all of your life. Trust me – you haven’t; it’s been an hour.
The type of friendship that unpins the strongest marriages is not just about being “nice,” but where a couple shares a deep sense of meaning, purpose, and vision. In Shelach, that generation of the Jewish people lost their connection, and so they lost their way – literally wandering as they died off, giving birth to a new generation willing to invest in a relationship with God.
It is the nature of all relationships – including our relationship with God – to suffer cracks. We can use that pain and feeling of disconnect to turn towards each other, to repair and even grow stronger, or continue to fall apart until there is nothing left to fix.
Resources: Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Three Rivers Press New York 1999) pps. 22-23.
Denworth, “How Do You Make or Maintain Friends? Put in the Time.”www.psychologytoday.com