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.