Courage, Readiness, and Holy Work

June 28th: Shelach Lecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

When we read the story of the twelve spies sent to scout out the Land, most of us feel that we would have been like Joshua and Caleb, strong and of good courage. We would have been optimistic about following our Divine mission and taking the land. We would not have been like the other ten spies, worried about the strength and walled cities of the inhabitants of the land—and lacking faith that God would do another miracle.

Or, if we had been in the crowd hearing their reports—and seeing the enormous clusters of grapes they brought back, most of us feel that we would have supported Joshua and Caleb and been ready to enthusiastically pursue God’s plans.

This situation reminds me of a question a park ranger asked us when we took the Revolutionary War tour in Boston. If you had been in Boston in the 1770’s, she asked, would you have been a Patriot, or would you have been a Tory? Of course, everyone declared that they would have been Patriots. Then, she began to describe the personalities and predilections of the Bostonians who were involved in the conflict—with the Patriots being intolerant rabble-rousers, upsetting business and ripping the social fabric to launch their revolution. It was a sobering moment, and I had to admit to myself that my peace-making and talking-to-everyone-on-all-sides-of-a-controversy personality would have made me a Tory. Indeed, I might have been one of the fellows whose house was burned down by Sam Adams.

The point is that, when push comes to shove, we may not be the heroes we think we would be. Or, we may see issues in a different light.

So, let us go back to Numbers 13 and 14 and the Wilderness some 3200 years ago. Where would you have stood when the spies brought back their reports on The Land?

Ten of the twelve spies are frightened at the prospect of taking The Land, and the people take them at their words: “The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night…‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we might die in the wilderness! Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword?!’” (Numbers 14.2-3)

God, as one can imagine, is not happy.  “The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, ‘How much longer shall that wicked community keep muttering against Me? Very well, I have heeded the incessant muttering of the Israelites against Me. Say to them, “As I live,” says the Lord, “I will do to you just as you have urged Me. In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop. Of all of you who were recorded in your various lists from the age of twenty years up, you who have muttered against Me, not one shall enter the Land in which I swore to settle you—save Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.”’” (Numbers 14.26-30)

However, some commentators present a less harsh view, arguing that God is more disappointed than angry and that the real problem is the genuine lack of preparedness of that generation. When the spies report, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them (the Canaanites)” (Numbers 13.22), it is because they—and the rest of the Israelites—are completely ill-equipped to mount an invasion. In other words, despite God’s angry outburst, God realizes that this generation is simply too weak, too untrained, too lacking in the tactical and military wherewithal to take on the holy mission. God might be able, but the people are not, and God realizes that a new generation must be trained for the sacred task.

I like to think of myself as willing to take on God’s work, but my suitability depends on the tasks involved. In the case of studying Torah and teaching Judaism, I am able. But, there are plenty of other important tasks for which I am not a good candidate. This is why I am thankful for those other people who have dedicated themselves to training and preparation for the things I cannot do. From doing surgery, to flying airplanes, from digging coal to fighting wars, from supply chain logistics to making movies, there are all kinds of people upon whom I am able to depend, and I thank God for them and their skills.

 Such an insight led Albert Einstein—certainly a very capable person—to reflect on other people’s talents and contributions: “Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why.  And yet, sometimes we seem to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, we know this: people are here for the sake of other people. Above all, we are here for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow humans, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.”

A similar sensibility is expressed in this prayer—composed in the 1930s in Pittsburgh for the “old” Union Prayer Book: “How much we owe to the labors of our brothers and sisters! Day by day they dig far away from the sun that we may be warm, enlist in outposts of peril that we may be secure, and brave the terrors of the unknown for truths that shed light on our way. Numberless gifts have been laid in our cradles as our birthright. Let us then, O Lord, be just and great-hearted in our dealings with others, sharing with them the fruit of our common labor, acknowledging before You that we are but stewards of whatever we possess. Help us to be among those who are willing to sacrifice that others may not hunger, who dare to be bearers of light in the dark loneliness of stricken lives, who struggle and even bleed for the triumph of righteousness. So may we be co-workers with You in the building of Your kingdom, which has been our vision and goal through the ages.” (Included in our Siddur B’rit Shalom on page 95.)