Life can be messy and scary. Faced with change and new challenges we can easily retreat back into what we already know even if stepping forward has the potential to offer us new and exciting opportunities. We can find ourselves playing the ‘What If’ game.
What if … it all goes horribly wrong?
What if … we fall at the first hurdle?
What if … others prevent us from participating?
What if … we are rejected?
Even when we really want to move forward, to embrace new challenges, these worries and thoughts are still able to taunt us, even more so when we may have had little experience of having successfully negotiated new beginnings before. It can be very easy to retreat back into the known and familiar, seeing the as-yet-unexplored as dangerous, foolish or simply unattainable.
In this week’s parashah Moses sends out 12 spies, one from each of the tribes, to scout out the potential new home of the Israelites; Canaan, the land that God has promised. Moses tells them to go and find out if the land is good or bad and if the people are strong or weak. When the spies return they declare that the land is flowing with milk and honey, that it is beautiful and bountiful, but then they go on to add that the land is populated with giants and that the people there live in fortresses; above all it is a land that ‘eats up its inhabitants’. So whilst the spies return with tantalising ripe and juicy fruit from the land, they nonetheless caution against any attempt to enter, warning that the inhabitants are too strong, adding ‘we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so were we in their sight.’ (Numbers 13:33)
Reading the parashah again this week, I was very struck by the line, ‘we were in our own sight as grasshoppers’. What does it mean when we view ourselves as less than someone or something else? As smaller and less significant? When we fall into this trap we risk delivering power and decision making into the hands of others, denying our own innate worthiness. And if we then go on to project this idea of ourselves into the consciousness of the other person, as the spies do when they add ‘and so were we in their sight’ we compound this mistake by declaring our perceptions of ourselves as the ‘truth’ seen by the other person. How many potential opportunities have we allowed to pass us by because we were unable to somehow trust that we were good enough? That we have what it takes? When we look at our surroundings, at others who are occupying that space, what do we see? Can we envision ourselves there as well? And do we want to?
Despite the fact that God had promised this land to the Israelites, their journey so far has not provided them with the confidence and self assurance necessary to make the leap into the unknown, even if the promised future is one of prosperity and opportunity. And unfortunately it frequently takes experience of success, of good things happening, for us to trust that maybe we can repeat the experience, that life can and does have good things to offer to us and not just to other people. Maybe this is why our tradition suggests that the reason God denies entry into the land to the generation of Mitzraim is because they are unable to throw off the shackles of slavery. Never having had the experience of freedom, of opportunities for new beginnings in which they succeed, they are unable to make the leap of faith that is required when stepping into the unknown. A generation of slaves with no experience of life’s little victories, both small and large, fleeting and lasting. Without these kinds of experiences it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to trust that new opportunities, new challenges will succeed. However we often also require support from those around us as we begin our journeys: we need them to become our cheerleaders as we move forward, and we also need to be prepared to do the same when they step into uncharted territory, suppressing our anxieties and concerns in order to provide unstinting support and encouragement in their ability to succeed.
So perhaps an alternative understanding of God’s decision to deny entry into the land of Canaan to the generation of Mitzraim is not just because of their inability or unwillingness to trust in the promise that God has made them, but also because of their lack of willingness to support one another along their journey into this uncharted place, overriding their own individual fears and anxieties, in order to stand side by side with one another on their collective travels.
Whether we are embarking on a new challenge, or continuing with the daily tasks that life throws our way we all need the confidence to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. Community and friendship are great companions on our journey into new lands as we look for new homes in sometimes unfamiliar landscapes, both encouraging us on from the sidelines and taking some of those scary steps with us. As Time Magazine reported in 1958, ‘An adult grasshopper can leap ten times its length in the high jump, 20 times its length in the broad jump. A man up to a grasshopper’s hop-to-length standards could clear a five-story building, or bound the length of a football field in three jumps’. Quite a thought?!
Student Rabbi Kath Vardi
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.