June 22, 2006
Parshat Shelach Lacha (Numbers 13:1-15:41)
A man was on a business trip, driving from one city to the next. Struck by the tranquility and open space of a small town en route to his destination, he pulled up to a farmer at a nearby cornfield and asked, "What are the people like in this area?"
"What are people like where you come from?" the farmer asked.
"Oh, you wouldn't like it -- it's loud and the people are pushy, nosy and impatient," the businessman said.
"I reckon you'd find plenty of those kinds of folks here as well," the farmer said.
Disheartened, the businessman drove off.
A few days later, another man from drove up to the farmer.
"Tell me about the people in your city," the farmer said.
"Apart from the noise and pollution, the people are kind, always willing to help -- even during a blackout -- and it's good to know you're never too far away from a friendly neighbor," the man said.
"You'd fit in just fine in our little town," said the farmer with a wide grin, "the folks out here are exactly the same."
The key to happiness and contentment in life is attitude, and nowhere does this become more apparent in Torah lore than in the story of the meraglim in our portion. Twelve scouts were sent by Moses to size up the land of Canaan (the land that would later be renamed Israel), to see what its weaknesses and strengths were in preparation for the Jews' entry into the land. Ten of the scouts came back with a negative report. They had two complaints: first, they argued, Canaan is a land that "consumes its inhabitants" (Numbers 13:32). Just look at the people who live there -- they're tough, strong and rugged, precisely because only these kinds of people can survive there. Furthermore, they argued, the indigenous people are too strong for us -- we could never win in battle against them.
The other two spies, Caleb and Joshua, had a totally different attitude to the very same facts. Yes, they argued, it's a rugged land, and it will take a lot of work. But just look at what the fruits of our labor will be. After all, God Himself called it "a land flowing with milk and honey." Some things in life, like this wondrous piece of land, are worth the effort.
As to the intimidating strength of the enemy, Caleb and Joshua simply blew that argument off. Here, too, they didn't deny the facts -- Canaanites were big, mean and strong. But to a believer, that's all irrelevant. They said to the people: "Don't rebel against God! You have no reason to fear the indigenous people.... God is with us. Don't be afraid!" (Numbers 14:9). Instead of focusing on the strength or weakness of the enemy, these two men focused on the Jews' strength as a result of God's divine protection. Any harm that could potentially be posed by the enemy was therefore a non sequitur.
Too often, we become discouraged from pursuing our dreams because of the opposition we face. We assess our chances of success based on the strength of our competitors or enemies. If we would only focus more on our own passions and ambitions, on our own strength of conviction, we would get much farther in life. A very successful person once told me, "I've never worried about the competition; the only person I'm competing with is myself, to see if I can rise to my potential."
Sometimes I think one of the reasons we haven't yet succeeded in achieving peace with safe borders in Israel is because our national passion for the Holy Land has waned. Yes, we all like to think of ourselves as Calebs and Joshuas. But perhaps the other scouts have crept into our communal consciousness, and we are feeling the same weariness and leeriness of those 10 men of more than 3,000 years ago. It behooves us to remember the words of Caleb and Joshua: "God is with us! Don't be afraid!" Israel is worth fighting for, even if it takes more blood, more sweat and more tears.
The naysayers of our generation can certainly get us down -- were we to listen to all of them, we'd have to believe that all men are evil, and that it's just a matter of time before we end up blowing ourselves up. Others argue that we'll never be able to influence the rest of the world with democratic ideals and moral values -- the war of ideas is just too difficult to win.
We should reject both arguments. If we believe in the justness of our cause and the inherent goodness that is latent within all humankind, then the only thing to focus on is strengthening ourselves for the good fight. Peace and democracy -- just like the land of Israel -- are worth fighting for.
N. Daniel Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park and director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union.