If you had to choose between the sin of the Golden Calf and that of the Spies in this week’s Torah portion, I think it’s safe to say that the sin of the Golden Calf was far more grievous. After all, it was a mere 6 weeks after receiving the Torah that the Jewish People were dancing around an idol! And yet, the sin of the Golden Calf is forgiven almost immediately whereas the sin of the Spies is not. Instead, the Jewish People are left to wander the desert for 40 years and all adult men are condemned to die in the desert. Why so severe a punishment?
There are many ways to dissect the sin of the spies, but perhaps the most telling statement is their final one – “We were like grasshoppers.” The spies conveyed to the Jewish People how insignificant they felt in the eyes of the Canaanites. Feeling so small and weak they did not believe they had the wherewithal to defeat the Canaanites in battle. The Jewish People accepted this report, they cried, and the next day God decreed that the male adults would never enter the land. In sum, their sin was a lack of belief. Not only did they not believe in God, but, “we were like grasshoppers,” they also did not believe in themselves.
Seen in this light, the Jewish People being barred from the land of Israel was not a punishment, it was a consequence. The Jewish People did not believe that they could conquer the land and that became their reality. Their negative attitude became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Torah does not promote magical thinking; the notion that one can will something into being. Nor does the Torah suggest that attitude is everything. Actions are a critical part of Jewish life. But what the story of the spies does teach us is that our thinking, or more specifically, our attitude, plays a significant role in what we are able to accomplish.
One of the most inspiring thinkers of the 20th century was Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who wrote about his experiences in a book titled, Man’s Search for Meaning. If you have not read it, now is the time to do so. And if you have, now is also a good time to review it. Frankl writes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
We are slowly clawing our way back to some level of normal, but it is exhausting. We are navigating a murky stage of unknowns in our battle against Covid, the political discourse is unrelenting, weighty questions of race need to be grappled with, and that is just on the macro level. Each person and each family is dealing with their own set of challenges during this time. It is exhausting and it is very easy to feel like a grasshopper; small, insignificant, and powerless.
However, to allow ourselves to feel that way would mean not learning the lessons of our past. We are free, as Dr. Frankl so eloquently put it, to choose our “attitude in any given set of circumstances.” We may not be able to change our circumstances, but we can change our self-image and attitude. Positive thinking may not be everything, but the tragic story of the spies taught us, that it is a lot.
We can choose to beat ourselves up over our failures or to be hopeful for a better tomorrow. We can choose to feel powerless by what we read and see or to take charge and feel the power we possess. We can choose to be cynical or constructive. There are so many choices that are in our hands.
It is normal to feel overwhelmed, upset, and out of energy right now. The task at hand, both personal and national, feels like it is too much to bear. We feel, like our ancestors before us, trapped in a desert, uncertain of what lies ahead, and our natural instinct draws us to negativity, to recoil and to retreat. But perhaps if we could be inspired by the hero of our parsha, Calev, who pushed back on the pessimism of his fellow spies, if we could just start small with what is always in our hands, our attitudes, and allow the hopeful words of Calev, “we can overcome” to become our mantra, then perhaps those words can become our self-fulfilling prophecy.
Tucked into our action-packed Torah portion of Beha’alos’cha, we find Moshe pleading with his father-in-law, Yisro/ Jethro, to stay with the Jewish People. Aside from bucking the stereotypical father-in-law-son-in-law relationship, the even larger question is the significance of this short passage. To better understand why we need to know that Yisro left, we need to better understand who Yisro is.
We are first introduced to Yisro when his daughters are saved by a mysterious Egyptian man (who is actually Moshe). The girls thank him and go back home, but Yisro sees some greater potential, invites Moshe into the house and eventually has Moshe marry one of his daughters. Later, Yisro hears about all the miracles that took place in Egypt and decides to join the Jewish People. The final episode involving Yisro, and perhaps the most telling one, is when he sees Moshe addressing all the questions the Jewish People have and suggests to his son-in-law that he needed a better system. Without a full-fledged judicial system of higher and lower courts, Moshe and the Jewish People would lose patience with the slow pace of judgment.
The common thread in all these narratives is an individual with a proactive nature. Where others see a good deed, he sees a potential spouse. Where others hear great stories coming from Egypt, he draws conclusions for how that should affect his life. And whereas Moshe is reactionary in regards to the questions posed to him, Yisro is proactive and visionary in setting up a long-lasting judicial system.
This is why Moshe is so intent on keeping Yisro with the Jewish People. He is, as Moshe puts it, “the eyes” of the congregation. He can “see” things that others cannot. Quite tellingly, immediately after Yisro leaves the Jewish People, everything seems to fall apart. The rest of the Torah portion describes setback after setback as the Jewish People fail and Moshe is helpless in leading them.
We have all been in reactionary mode for the past three months – how could we not be? We were faced with an unprecedented crisis, groping along with conflicting information and ever-changing restrictions. It has been a challenging three months.
There is now a light at the end of the tunnel. Baltimore County is already in phase two of reopening and Baltimore City is not far behind. As a shul we are starting to plan ahead for reopening our beloved shul. There are many new requirements and we are trying to be as prepared as possible for a smooth transition back indoors.
Shul is not the only experience we need to be preparing for. There are many activities that we have been on hold, many relationships that have been altered due to this pandemic. Now is the time to prepare ourselves for what they could look like. Will we just go back to what was? Will we just be the same person we were before this all began? Will we just pick up where we left off?
Yisro teaches us the great importance of being proactive and planful. There are times in life where having a vision is not possible because we are so overwhelmed by the circumstances. Now, as the fog of the coronavirus is lifting, we have the opportunity to develop a vision for what we want our future to look like. Our future could look different than our past but only if we have a vision to follow.
What lessons can we take with us from these past three months? What activities do we want to continue to do in the future? What do we not want to go back to? In what way can we take advantage of this new and fresh beginning and reimagine who we are?
May God bless us with “eyes” to see the potential that exists within us and the courage to follow through.
Possibly one of the most famous protest songs is Imagine in which John Lennon, the former Beatle, describes a utopian world of absolute harmony. Personally, and I’ve shared this with you before, I really do not like the song. The tune is alright, it is the words that trouble me. Aside from the fact that he imagines a world with no religion, Lennon describes a world in which there are no differences at all; a world with no countries and nothing to die for.
Lennon’s “dream” shares a fundamental belief with many religions and ideologies, namely, that in their vision of an end of days, everyone will be the same. If you merit or survive until the end, everyone will either be of the same socioeconomic status (Marxism) or of the same beliefs (Christianity, Islam). While Judaism does believe in an end of days, this universal sameness is rejected. In Judaism’s vision of the Messianic Era, there will still be Jews and those who are not Jews. Even within the Jewish People, there will continue to exist a distinction between the varying tribes.
To better understand the philosophy behind our unique vision, allow me to share with you a simple anecdote. Not too long after Hindy and I got married, a gentleman blessed us that we never get into any disagreements. A very wise rabbi standing nearby overhead this and stepped in to say that this was a terrible blessing. He explained that it is in disagreeing, when each party shares a view unnatural to the other, that the real growth takes place. One’s worldview can only expand when it comes not contact with another, and one is forced to grapple with that differing view. Disagreement is the friction that ignites a fire, in this case the fire of a passionate love and the light of self-development.
This week’s parsha speaks to the idea of peace in numerous places. The Talmud, commenting on the ceremony of the Sotah states, “Great is peace! For God allows His Name to be erased to maintain peace between two parties.” And further in the Parsha we have the priestly blessings that climax with the blessing of peace. It is important though to recognize that peace does not mean sameness. Sameness is a diminishment of our unique reflection of God’s image. Rather, peace is the harmony found in different voices clashing with one another with deep respect.
Earlier this week, I had sent you a personal reflection on the national protests which I had also posted to my personal Facebook page. Over the course of the week, as to be expected, strong questions were posed and different viewpoints were shared by members of our shul on my Facebook post. A friend of mine, not a member of our community, who was observing these online discussions reached out to me and said, “I have never seen something like this!” I had no idea what he was talking about.
He explained: “As we speak, all around the world people are fighting vehemently over different ideals and values. Conversations escalate within a matter of seconds into personal attacks or worse. In the entire thread on your post, and there were many strong emotions expressed, nonetheless the members of Ner Tamid maintained respect for one another and engaged in serious and thoughtful dialogue.”
Isn’t that amazing? I’m fairly confident that we are one of the most diverse shuls around. We consist of a wide variety of ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, and certainly the spectrum of political views. And yet, we all talk to one another. Yes, the arguments in the pews may get heated, but at the end of the day (or service), we all go out into the social hall and join one another for some hot kugel! It is not something to take for granted!
It is a challenging time as individuals and a frightening time for our country. We need to grapple with questions of great magnitude. But for a quick moment, I hope you can join me in appreciating what we have here in our special community; a model of what peace should look like. I hope that we can serve as a model for others in healthy dialogue and in promoting the great value of peace.
Wishing you a peaceful Shabbos and looking forward to when we could debate in person once again!