Parshat Shlach Lecha - June 2003

 

This is actually my Bar Mitzvah parsha - Shlach Lecha so I could have volunteered to help out with either the Torah reading or the Haftorah, but I chose the dvaar since I thought after 30-plus odd years it was about time I tried to understand the parsha and see what it means to me.

 

This is a very rich and dynamic parsha, filled with espionage and intrigue, and many lessons. We'll be talking about things like perspective and attitude, leadership and succession, personal development, and old-time hockey players.

 

The main events of the parsha actually comprise one of the better known stories of the Torah. Moses sends out a group of spies on a reconnaissance mission to check out the land of Canaan. 12 spies are chosen, one from each tribe, and they go for 40 days. 10 of the spies come back with a negative report, and only Joshua and Kalev give a positive one. The people are influenced by the bad report, and beg to be taken back to Egypt. God gets angry and threatens to destroy the people. Moses convinces G-d not to destroy them, but in the end it is determined that their slavery roots run too deep, and the Israelites are sentenced to 40 years wandering in the desert - one year for each day of the spies' journey, which allows for the turnover of a generation.

 

First off, this is a story about perspective and attitude. In reality, we all expect that what all 12 spies actually saw and observed would have been the same, at least from a physical sense. But what they perceived is clearly different.

 

The 10 spies say this is too big for us. There already are people there they are powerful in fact, the land is inhabited by giants if we take them on, we'll get creamed. And they continue to build on each other's fears Eretz Ochelet et yoshevah - this is a land that eats its inhabitants Egypt wasn't the greatest, but at least we were alive. We just can't do it.

 

Joshua and Kalev, had a different message. They said sure there are problems, but we can overcome them. And while there are some issues to deal with, the land itself is beautiful it's an amazing place Eretz Zavat Chalav Udvash it's a land of milk and honey. And with G-d on our side, we can do this.

 

It can often be human nature to focus on the impossibilities of the challenges ahead but true leaders have a vision that goes beyond what is and see what could be. I imagine when this congregation was formed, what, 25 years ago, there were many who saw all the problems building a new congregation could entail what about a building, what about a Rabbi, what if people don't join, but I imagine there were others who said, yes, we can do this, and it will be great.

 

If we look at our own lives - either work or family - we can see what a difference attitude and perspective makes. Do we see problems or opportunities? Do we despair at obstacles, or see them as challenges, opportunities to reach within ourselves and move to the next level, to build skills, character, and experience. This is true for start-up high tech companies to government workers to family. This parsha teaches us that the same circumstances can be viewed differently. How we react to the curves that life throws us defines ourselves, our goals, and our opportunities for growth.

 

Let's move on to Joshua. Joshua is a future leader. He's been at Moses' side, and has watched and learned from the sidelines. But this is his first real opportunity to lead. For StarTrek fans, this is Spock or Riker leading their first away team. And it's going to be a tough mission. But before Joshua goes off, Moses gives him a boost of confidence. He marks this transition by changing his name from Hoshua to Yehoshua. By adding a letter from the name of G-d, this changes the meaning from he who has helped, to he who will help.

 

If I can open a parenthesis, there is a midrash dealing with another set of related name changes. Abraham and Sarah have their names changed from Avram and Sarei, to Avraham and Sarah to reflect their own transitions as they embrace G-d. When Avram is changed to Avraham, the letter Hey - symbolizing G-d's name - is added, but no letters are dropped. But in changing Sarei to Sarah, not only is a Hey added but the letter Yud is removed. So the Rabbis ask, what happened to the Yud from Sarei? And the answer is, it was saved for Joshua to change Hoshua to Yehoshua.

 

So with this name change, I imagine Moses saying to Joshua: there will come a time when I am no longer around, but that's okay because you will be here, and you are going to do just fine. You've been by my side. Everything is going to be okay, the people are in good hands, and you will become a great leader. Kind of what I expect would have been said between Jean Chretian and Paul Martin.

 

What we see here though, is some of the greatness and humility of Moses. He is not only leading for the moment, but he has groomed a successor. We've all seen individuals whether at work or in community organizations who seem to lead well while they are in charge, but who do not create a lasting infrastructure for the future. In fact, it sometimes appears they secretly wish for failure when they move on, as if this might somehow validate their own personal value or stature. But Moses is only concerned for the future of his people, and so has prepared his successor well.

 

So Joshua stands up to the false report, and validates the trust that Moses has placed in him. Looking back from our present day vantage point, knowing that Joshua will be a great leader who will one day lead the people into Canaan, I can say we should not be surprised. We expect great things from leaders, we expect them to stand up for what's right.

 

But now let's take a look at Kalev. If Joshua is the star, then Kalev is a supporting actor. He is not a future leader, he is not the statesman he is someone playing his role in history. I see him as a regular guy who has been given a job to do, and who takes his responsibility seriously. When the rest of the group is headed in a common direction, it would have been easy for him to just follow along with them. Going along with the mob mentality (or groupthink if you will) is easy, and no one has individual accountability. Sure Joshua can stand up, but he has been trained and groomed by Moses. Yet Kalev does stand up for what he believes in. He is not afraid to speak what he sees as truth, despite the fact that it goes against popular opinion. If Joshua represents the inspired leadership of great leaders, Kalev is here to tell us that it is not only the people in charge that count, but the views of individuals. Kalev is here to tell us that we must speak out against injustice, or threats to the environment or whatever wrongs we see in the world. It is not enough to say the government will solve this or someone else will, or if everyone thinks this is okay then it is. Kalebv is a man of courage, and his role in the Parsha teaches us to stand up as individuals - to go against the grain if necessary - for the purposes of Tikun Olam - bettering the world.

 

Okay, I promised you a Hockey story. Imagine going into a sports bar downtown, and someone says, sure, that Wayne Gretzky scored a lot of goals, but he didn't play back in the 50's with greats like Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard when defencemen played defense. What are you talking about? Gretzky broke every offensive record in the book. Yeah but the game is so watered down now - those were the days. Well it's certainly difficult to compare heroes of different generations, but in fact this is something that the Rabbis liked to do.

 

One comparison is between Moses and Noah. Each would be seen as the greatest of his time, but how would they have stacked up against each other? Is Noah's greatness on a par with that of Moses, or was he simply the best of a weak population? Well, the pro-Moses camp use this Parsha to make their point.

 

When the Hebrews hear about their bad report, they panic - why were we brought to die in the dessert, Nitna Rosh veNashuva Mitzraima - let's find a new leader and return to Egypt. Got tells Moses he will wipe out the Jewish people and offers to create a new people from Moses' descendents. This is kind of like what G-d said to Noah. And what did Noah do? He said Build an arc? I'm on it! But Moses does not seek personal stature and has no desire to be father of a whole people he wants what's best for everyone and pleads with G-d to forgive the people. This is seen as an example that while Noah was great, he simply wasn't on Moses' level.

 

Let's talk about this conversation between Moses and G-d. G-d gets angry and threatens to wipe out the Jewish people Moses argues on their behalf. He says, look, G-d, everyone knows you took the Israelites out of Egypt, the eyes of the world are upon you. This won't look good what will people of the world say think about your reputation. And G-d relents.

 

This conversation is somewhat troubling on several levels. Does God really get angry in a human sense and lose control? Can Moses really calm him down, and get him to change his mind with logic? Well clearly the answer should be no, but then what are we to make of this charade? If this is some kind of test, doesn't G-d already know how Moses will respond?

 

Well I do see this as a type of a test for Moses, but not so much as in "let's see if he passes or fails", but as an exercise which is a necessary part in his personal development. The greatest leaders in politics or corporations did not get there overnight. John Roth did not have the skills to be CEO of Nortel when he was a new graduate, he needed to have the experiences of a junior then senior engineer, then manager, etc until he was ready. Likewise for a politician who may one day lead the party but is not ready in his first term of office. Each must have experiences which allow them to grow and develop as a individuals and as leaders - and there are no shortcuts. G-d knows how Moses will react to this situation, but does Moses? Moses must go through it to see for himself - and this makes him stronger. So when we hear that G-d tested Avrham at the Acada, or Joshua's' leadership is tested in this story, or Moses must rise up and challenge god for the survival of his people, this is G-d's way of providing challenges to allows them to grow and develop, to go from strength to strength.

 

We covered a number of areas here today. Some of the key messages are: when faced with life's challenges, let's not be like the 10 spies and get paralyzed by the obstacles, let's strive to be like Joshua and Kalev to focus on the possibilities - and of course a little faith doesn't hurt either. Great leaders are not threatened by their successors; great leaders want to see their work built upon in the future. And finally, when comparing hockey greats like Gretzky, Howe and Richard, let's not forget Bobby Orr who changes the nature of defence for generations. Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

Ron Huberman

June 2003

Ottawa, Ontario