Shelach – Yes We Can

The Rebbe of Piaseczno, Rabbi Klonymus Kalman Shapiro, lived in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War. He established a secret synagogue and invested tremendous efforts in helping maintain Jewish life amidst the horrors of the war. The Jews in the ghetto were, understandably, quite worried and despondent about their circumstances and the future of the Jewish people in general. Each Shabbat the Rebbe delivered u[lifting Torah thoughts, inspiring his followers and boosting their spirits. These sermons were later copied on scraps of paper and buried for safekeeping in a canister inside the ghetto.

In June, 1941, on the Shabbat during which Parshat Shelach was read in Synagogues around the world, the Rebbe spoke about the spies’ report to the people. The spies returned from their scouting trip and acknowledged that the land indeed flows with milk and honey. They displayed the fruit of the land which they had carried back for all to see. “However,” they continued, “the cities are well fortified and the people are mighty. Great and powerful nations dwell in that land and we do not have the strength to challenge them.” (paraphrased from Numbers 13:27-29)

The people listened to the report cried in despair. They wailed for their destiny of dying in the wilderness. Caleb and Joshua were the two spies who did not lose hope, and who retained their confidence that God would keep His word and drive away the inhabitants of the land from before Israel. Caleb silenced the people and said: “…We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it.” (Numbers 13:30).

How, asked the Rebbe, did Caleb intend for these words to address the worries of the people? There were serious issues raised by the spies, challenges of mighty warriors whom Israel could not naturally defeat. There were fortified cities which Israel could not hope to penetrate, according to the report. They had an impregnable missile defense system and their offensive capabilities were equally formidable. Caleb’s words ignored these material concerns and simply said, (to paraphrase a politician) “Yes We Can!” How was this supposed to persuade the people? What was Caleb’s plan?

One could suggest that in the heat of the moment the people had a mob mentality and Caleb knew they could not be reasoned with. The issue was not about the issues, so to speak. They would follow a leader they believed in without giving thought to the plans and defense policies of the regime. The spies instilled a sense of fear and despair in the people and now they needed an infusion of courage and hope. Perhaps Caleb was appealing to that specific element, organizing a chant to sweep the people back into a mode of faith and hope. The Rebbe of Piaseczno, however, sees and different and more thoughtful intent here.

Caleb was teaching the people an important lesson, explained the Rebbe. Sometimes the path to success is not clear and straightforward. Many times – almost always – there are obstacles which stand in our way, making objectives difficult to achieve. But the attitude we need to have is that which Caleb called for. “We shall go up for we will overcome!”

Caleb did not argue against the points raised by the other scouts because their words were correct. The challenges were portrayed accurately and the difficulties were real. Nevertheless, Caleb insisted that the people must remain resolute. They must have determination to follow through. How? That is a challenge for which a solution needs to be worked out. They would need to find a strategy. But throwing in the towel, despairing altogether, is not an option. We shall go up for we will overcome.

That entrepreneurial spirit is what makes some startups successful while others fail. Challenges are always part of the package, but they need not define the package. If we allow the walls and the giants behind them to define the battle we will not succeed to in overcoming them. But if we look past the obstacles and remain focused on our goal we will prevail.

The context here is the conquest of the Promised Land, but Caleb’s message resonates practically everywhere in life. If we truly want to achieve something we must not be discouraged by challenges which make our goal appear to be out of reach. I know a doctor who is in the top of his field and the head of a department at his hospital. The man has no time for anything outside of his work and teaching. Yet, when his state of health required that he exercise daily he incorporated a regimen that took up a precious hour of his day – every day. If you had asked him earlier whether he could possibly spare an hour each day he would have looked at his timetable and replied that even ten minutes he could not spare. But when he made it his goal he was able to come up with the time. He did so because he understood his life depends on it. When your life or livelihood depends on something you find a way to make it work. He went forth, knowing that he could overcome.

The Midrash relates that the prophet Elijah once asked a man what he was going to answer the heavenly court when he is asked why he didn’t engage in Torah study. He laughed. “Everybody who knows me understands that this thick head of mine is not capable of studying from books.” Elijah continued to press him. “What do you do for a living, tell me?” The man replied he is a fisherman. Elijah went on to probe what is involved in such a livelihood. The man explained the intricacies of weaving nets and timing the haul. “Ahah!” Elijah exclaimed, “so you have brains for the complex science of marine life but none for Torah study!?” The man took Elijah’s words to heart and went off to study Torah.

Rabbi Zev Leff asks a simple question about this story. Did the man have brains or did he not? If he did, why did he not recognize that from the beginning? If he did not, why did he go off to study following the conversation? The answer, explains Rabbi Leff, is that he did not have brains. Then how did he manage to absorb the finesse of weaving nets and timing the fishing? Because his livelihood depended on it, and when your life depends on something you make superhuman efforts and achieve results which surpass your normal potential. The fisherman realized in the course of his conversation with Elijah that the study of Torah was also something his life depended on. He therefore successfully went on to study despite his mental shortcomings. How would he succeed? Those are details, but he was determined to make it work. We shall go up for we will overcome.

#Shelach

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