Parshat Shelach

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Calev alone went (to Hebron) to prostrate himself
at the graves of the Patriarchs — Rashi, Num 13:22
The man who is swimming against the stream knows the strength of it
— Woodrow T. Wilson

The Torah reading this week contains one of the most pivotal events in the Exodus narrative. The original itinerary of the Children of Israel was clear: Depart Egypt, stop off in Sinai to receive the Torah, build the Mishkan (Sanctuary) and head for the Promised Land. The whole journey including the construction of the Mishkan should have taken just over a year.

What happened instead is that the people were unhappy, they demanded proof that the land they were to inherit was truly a Land of Milk and Honey. Twelve spies were dispatched and they returned after forty days with a negative assessment — not just of the land — but of their ability to conquer it. The nation suffered a collective breakdown of their faith in G-d and his servant Moses, and their punishment was linked to their sin … they were not to enter the Holy Land for forty years, one year for every day spent on reconnaissance in Israel.

Out of the twelve spies sent by Moses, only two stood firm in their faith in G-d; they truly believed that if this was the land He had promised them, there could be no place better. Their names were Yehoshua (Joshua) and Calev (Caleb). To understand them better, let’s take a closer look at one of the verses about the mission, a verse which seems to have a grammatical error.

“… They went up in the South, and he came to Hebron …”

Why does the verse change from plural to singular: They went up … but only he came to Hebron. Who is he?

Rashi immediately comments: (This is referring to) Calev, who went alone to Chevron to pray (lit. prostrate) at kivrei avot – at the graves of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of our people. (What did he request in his prayers?) … not to be influenced by the others, (and their negative) attitude to the Land.

He saw there was something wrong, and he prayed to stay independent, to resist the attempts of others to change his opinion of what was correct.

When Yehoshua and Calev returned to the Jewish people it got even more difficult to stick to their guns: they were almost stoned alive by the hostile crowd, who wanted to believe the “mass media” – the ten other spies who had their own agenda against Israel.

It takes immense strength of character to blaze your own path and not to give in to peer pressure.  Sometimes it may seem you are all alone and swimming against the tide – but that does not necessarily mean you are wrong …  in fact most of the great visionaries throughout world history were told by everyone around them that they were wrong, crazy or both.

They said it was impossible to fly – the Wright Brothers proved them wrong.
They said humans could not travel into space – Yuri Gagarin proved them wrong.
They said it was impossible to see through the body – Wilhelm Roentgen proved them wrong.
They said it was impossible for the blind to read – Louis Braille proved them wrong.
Helen Keller was told she would never see, speak or hear – she too proved them wrong.
They said it was impossible for a man to run the four-minute mile – Roger Bannister proved them wrong
Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine, was told it was impossible – he proved them wrong.
Gustave Eiffel was told by everyone that the construction of a safe thousand-foot tower was impossible – he proved them all wrong.

It is never easy to swim against the tide … yet some exceptional people have the inner strength and conviction to succeed. Where did Yehoshua and Calev get the strength to stand their ground?

Yehoshua was the closest disciple of Moses, he studied at his feet day and night. We can assume he was therefore somewhat inoculated against negativity and sin, but what about Calev?

It seems that Calev got his strength by connecting to his past, hence his detour to pray at the graves. He knew that to stay the course he needed extra strength of character, an extra boost of faith … and he got that from his ancestors buried in Hebron. Praying at the Cave of Machpela (as thousands still do today) connected him to his roots, all the way back to the Patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov and the Matriarchs Sara, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. Once he reconnected with his ancestors he was able to withstand the others.
If our roots are strong, we can withstand the strongest winds. If our roots are weak, if we do not feel connected to our history and tradition, no matter how fine our leaves and fruit we can easily be swayed by winds of change or negativity.

The message spelled out in the Torah today, and which we should carry with us every day of our lives is that we must strive to emulate Calev. For although “being Calev” can sometimes be difficult and lonely – we must never forget that Calev was doing the right thing. And if we ever feel alone or unsure about our future, we can learn from this parsha that the source of strength often lies in the past. Shabbbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.

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