June 29, 2000
Only Way Into the Promised Land
Parashat Shelach-Lecha (Numbers 13:1-15:41)
After Fred Astaire's first screen test, the memo from the Casting department at MGM said: "Can't act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little." Astaire framed the memo and kept it above his fireplace. Winston Churchill failed sixth grade. He didn't become prime minister of England until he was 62, after a life time of political defeats.
John Milton wrote "Paradise Lost" 16 years after losing his eyesight and Beethoven wrote five of his greatest symphonies while completely deaf.
Walt Disney went bankrupt before he built Disneyland. Leo Tolstoy flunked out of college. Everyone faces adversity in life - some people just refuse to be defeated by it.
Consider our ancestors in this week's Torah portion. Poised on the edge of Canaan, Moses dispatches a delegation of spies to scout this Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey, sworn to Abraham by God generations before. When these 12 spies return they all report that it is a good land with grapes so huge it takes two men to carry a single bunch. But it is also a land inhabited by Anakites: giant, fierce people not easily vanquished. As 10 of the spies told it "we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them."
The people begin to weep and whine. Fearing for their lives, they decide, "It would be better for us to go back to Egypt." Basically, when the time comes to prove what they're made of, your ancestors and mine, chicken out. Except, of course, for Joshua and Caleb; the only two of their generation who had any guts.Joshua and Caleb offer words of encouragement. "Have no fear of the people of the country," they say with conviction, "for they are our prey... the Lord is with us. " It's not that Joshua and Caleb had a different view of the Anakites; they had a different view of themselves. The other spies thought of themselves as "grasshoppers." Joshua and Caleb, thought of themselves and God as capable and strong.Call it chutzpah or ego, but however you define it, Joshua and Caleb are the only characters in this week's parasha who have a future because they believe in themselves. While not diminishing the task, they at the same refuse to diminish themselves. My kind of Jews.
Too many of us give up on too many of the rest of us. We give up on our children, we give up on our parents, and we give up on our friends. Husbands and wives give up on each other and worst of all - we give up on ourselves. And if we have secretly given up on ourselves then we have given ourselves over to the most un-Jewish of all Gods - the God of "I can't."
If Jews surrendered to "I can't" there would be no Holocaust survivors and there would be no Israel. If we surrender to "I can't," none of us will ever beat alcoholism or overeating, or get out of the hospital, or keep our marriages together, or believe in our children. If "I can't" rules the day then we have no future. Donna understood that.
Donna was a veteran small-town Michigan schoolteacher only two years away from retirement. One day, an administrator sat in to observe her class. He watched the students work on an assignment, filling sheets of paper with thoughts and ideas. The 10-year-old closest to him was filling her page with "I can'ts." I can't kick the soccer ball past the goal. I can't do long division. I can't get Debbie to like me. Her page was half full and she showed no sign of letting up.
As he walked down the rows of desks he noticed everyone was writing sentences describing things they couldn't do. I can't do 10 push-ups. I can't hit one over the fence. I can't eat only one cookie. Even the teacher was doing the assignment. I can't get John's mother to come in for a teacher conference. I can't seem to get through to my daughter. I can't get Alan to use words instead of fists.
"Finish the one you're on and don't start a new one," Donna instructed the students. Then, she asked them to fold their papers, bring them to the front and place them into an empty shoebox. When all of the papers were collected, Donna added hers. She put the lid on the box, tucked it under her arm and headed out the door - the students followed. Halfway down the hall, the procession stopped. Donna entered the custodian's room, rummaged around for a while and then came out with a shovel.
Shovel in one hand and shoebox in the other, she marched the students to the farthest corner of the play ground where they began to dig. When the hole approached four feet deep, the digging ended. The box of "I can'ts" was placed in position at the bottom of the hole and reverently covered with dirt. Thirty-one 10- and 11-year-olds stood around the freshly dug gravesite.
"Boys and girls, please join hands and bow your heads." The students formed a circle around the grave, held hands, lowered their heads and waited. Donna delivered the eulogy.
"Friends, we gather today to honor the memory of 'I can't.' While he was with us on earth, he touched the lives of everyone, some more than others. His name, unfortunately has been spoken in schools, in hospitals, and in city halls. 'I can't' lived in our families, between brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, parents and their children.
How lucky we are that 'I can't' is survived by his brother and his sister, 'I can' and 'I will.' They are not as well known as their famous relative and are not as strong or powerful yet. But perhaps someday, with your help, they will make an even greater mark on the world. May 'I can't' rest in peace and may everyone present pick up their lives and become truly great in his absence."
To you Donna, to Astaire, Churchill and Beethoven, to Joshua and Caleb, the bubbes and zaydes who survived, and every Jew who believes in God's promise, a thank you from those of us whose faith sometimes waivers. A thank you for reminding us that "I can" and "I will" is the only way into the Promised Land.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of "The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things" published