In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach-L’cha, we relive the events of the 12 spies sent to reconnoiter the Promised Land and report back to Moses what they have discovered.
We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit (grapes, pomegranates and figs). However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large (Numbers 13:27 ff.).
Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, ‘Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it’ (v. 30).
But the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.’ Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, ‘The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; … and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them’ (v. 31).
The people are terrorized by the report of the majority of the spies. The main cause of panic was that Moses would die, to be succeeded by Joshua. The people couldn’t imagine they would be able to conquer the giants and the fortified cities without the leadership of Moses.
So how did Caleb attempt to reassure the people? He told them that it would be an error to think that only Moses was able to perform miracles. He said, ‘Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, ki yachol nuchal lah, for we shall surely overcome it.’ We possess the qualities that make us worthy of miracles. Even without Moses, we should be able to go up at once and conquer the Promised Land.
Rashi writes an interesting commentary on the verse, we can indeed go up. Even if the land were in heaven and if Moses were to say: “Make ladders and go up there”. We should listen to him because we would be successful in whatever he wishes us to do.
The spies wondered if there were anyone equal to this task because they feel so threatened by the obstacles they spoke about. Moses has a direct connection with God and has freed us from bondage and saved us at every turn. We can not possibly survive without him.
Based on Rashi’s commentary on the verse, we can indeed go up, and his story concerning Moses telling the people to build ladders up, the Rabbi of Ostrowicze interprets this story to mean that we need not climb up to heaven all at once. It is enough to go step by step as rungs on a ladder, until we arrive at the highest levels of holiness.
So often we are overwhelmed by a task set before us. It seems so overwhelming when we take it in as a whole. Yet, were we to break it down piece by piece, it does seem more manageable; and is, in fact, more manageable.
Allow me to share a story by Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking.
One day I was walking down the street, when I saw my friend George approaching. It was evident from his downtrodden look that he wasn’t overflowing with the ecstasy and exuberance of human existence, which is a high-class way of saying George was dragging bottom.
Naturally I asked him, “How are you George?” While that was meant to be a routine inquiry, George took me very seriously and for 15 minutes he enlightened me on how bad he felt. And the more he talked, the worse I felt.
Finally I said to him, “Well, George, I’m sorry to see you in such a depressed state. How did you get this way?” That really set him off.
“It’s my problems,” he said. “Problems — nothing but problems. I’m fed up with problems. If you could get rid of all my problems, I would contribute $5,000 to your favorite charity.”
Well now, I am never one to turn a deaf ear to such an offer, and so I meditated, ruminated and cogitated on the proposition and came up with an answer that I thought was pretty good.
I said, “Yesterday I went to a place where thousands of people reside. As far as I could determine, not one of them has any problems. Would you like to go there?”
“When can we leave? That sounds like my kind of place,” answered George.
“If that’s the case George,” I said, “I’ll be happy to take you tomorrow to Woodlawn Cemetery because the only people I know who don’t have any problems are dead.”
Listen my friends, I understand. We live in a world of great uncertainty. We are in fear where our next step will take us. It does not help that the world around us “seems” to be disintegrating: Another slowdown in our economy, Brexit, a terrorist attack in Istanbul, a worry over semi-automatic weapons in the hands of crazy people, the rise in anti-Semitism everywhere…. The Promised Land – however we measure it – seems out of reach. Its borders are defended by these giants of despair.
Try and remember the most powerful words in this spy story, ki yachol nuchal lah, “we shall overcome it.” These are the words which became the signature song of the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60’s. For many blacks, they viewed themselves as grasshoppers to themselves and to many whites in society. And yet, MLK, Jr. and this song, We Shall Overcome, reminded them that they were human beings capable of changing their destiny. It may not have completely happened yet, but we see our future tied with theirs in a world that will someday understand the true meaning of equality for all.
Ki yachol nuchal lah, these words could have been the words that inspired Theodore Herzl who taught us, im tirtzu, ein zo agadah, “If you will it, it is no dream.” Those words inspired farmers, pioneers and organizers to make Israel a reality. We Jews saw ourselves for millennia after millennia as grasshoppers; as did those others who saw us as foreigners in their lands.
When we doubt ourselves, as did the majority of spies who reported to Moses and Aaron, there is only one result: fear that leads to defeat. Let us not be defeated fear or by circumstances. Let us not be defeated by news that depresses us. Caleb’s words express a faith that we are not grasshoppers; rather we are powerful beings created in God’s image.
Certainly on this Independence Day weekend, we are reminded of our ancestors 240 years ago, who faced a mightier enemy then they. And yet, their resolve assured them that they would “overcome” the British, no matter how overwhelming the prospect seemed to be. So battle by battle, victory, followed by defeat, followed by victory, they fought to found this great nation of ours. May we be so inspired as we move forward.
Ki yachol nuchal lah is our calling to improve and grow and find the energy to overcome any potential loss we face. Amen.