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I’ve always held the belief that if three or more diverse cultures have the same teaching, that teaching may be worthwhile and worth exploring. Nearly every tradition in the world teaches that all personal choices are, at their deepest level, based on choosing between faith and fear; between inspiration and desperation. Nowhere is this more clear in our Torah than in this week’s portion, which tells the story of the “spies.”
The Hebrews are at the threshold of entering into the land of Canaan. God tells Moses to “send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people …” (Numbers 13:2). Twelve scouts are sent out to spy on the land, one from each ancestral tribe.
Upon returning, although they recognize the beauty of this land of “milk and honey,” 10 of the men are terrified: “The people who are in that country are powerful. … They are men of great size. … Giants. … If only we had died in the land of Egypt!” (Numbers 13:28-14:4).
They had no faith that they could enter the land, and their contagious fear was spread throughout the Hebrews. Only Caleb and Joshua had faith that God, who had already done so many miracles, would deliver this land to them. The people were locked in a prison of their own doubts.
As a result of their behavior, the Hebrews were forced to wander in the wilderness until the entire generation of anxious people died, leaving a new generation raised in the wilderness — along with Caleb and Joshua, who had demonstrated faith — to enter Israel decades later. It just took 10 men, who were terrified despite having personally experienced the miracles and wonders of God from the Ten Plagues through the giving of Torah, to prevent the entire nation from entering the Promised Land.
Isn’t that how life all too often is? A small group — in this case, just 10 men — let its fears motivate a much larger group and create pain, destruction and sorrow. Sadly, it sometimes doesn’t even take 10 people, and as individuals we can so easily forget the miracles in our life and focus on our worries instead.
A few years ago, I was with Rabbi Chaim Kramer of the Breslov Research Institute when he shared the following illustration of this story: At the end of the month, a married couple would constantly have fights and worries about how they would pay their mortgage and keep a roof over their heads. Although it always worked out for them, they had been having the same fight for 30 years. They refused to embrace the miracles they had always received, and focused instead on their fears.
Let’s be honest: It’s what we often do as human beings. We experience miracles on a daily basis but lose track of them as we instead focus on our anxieties. Instead of being grateful and having faith, we become desperately scared. Even though we know that worrying is a waste of time, and we have countless examples of God’s grace, all too often we lose track of what is really important.
This is a potential challenge for everyone, and one that has been addressed by sages of every tradition. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that “all the world is just a narrow bridge, and the main thing is to not be afraid.” And I have always appreciated the quote from Yogi Bhajan (who brought Kundalini Yoga to America), “Worrying is praying for what you don’t want.” Choosing fear over faith is an easy pattern to fall into, and one that we must be extra-conscious to avoid, as it serves no benefit to the individual or to the world.
Yet this teaching also gives us hope. While it only took 10 people in this week’s parasha to change the world with their fears, we are taught earlier in the Torah that 10 people can also change the world for good. Had there been even 10 righteous people, we are taught that Sodom would have been saved (Genesis 18:32). Ten people, the number of a minyan, have the potential to save or destroy, to lead us to the Promised Land or drive us into the desert. Just 10 people.
Every decision we make affects those around us. Who do you choose to be? One of the 10 who sends us into the wilderness, or one who leads us to redemption? A person living in fear or someone living in joyous gratitude? Fear or faith: Which do you choose?
My prayer is that we all turn from our worries and fears, and embrace the faith that will make our lives more joyous, full and whole.
Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of Temple Ner Simcha (nersimcha.org) and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together” (Liturgical Press, 2013). He can be reached at RabbiBarclay@aol.com.