Putting Aside Fear for Courage | Reconstructing Judaism
D'var Torah (Shelakh)

Putting Aside Fear for Courage

The signs of a spiritual renaissance are all around us.  Candidates are increasingly running for public office while openly touting their religious pedigrees as “believers” and even “born again” men and women.  The shelves in bookstores throughout the country are filled with the latest books on finding your spiritual path, discovering the meaning of life, embracing the light of spirituality and often understanding the most esoteric ancient mystical teachings in three easy lessons.

“Believing in God” has almost become a cliché among the famous and powerful, the celebrities and stars our society seems to so admire. Non-Jewish movie stars embrace the teachings of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah, while hungry authors capitalize on the demand for truth and spiritual fulfillment by convincing the world that the path to enlightenment can be found not through the pursuit of a deep spiritual discipline, but through a weekend retreat, a step-by-step spiritual CD program or simply reading the pages of the latest best selling book.

For the past 3,000 years, from the Biblical period to the crusades of the middle ages and up to the spiritual angst of our modern era, Jewish civilization has been grounded on the premise that our main path to understanding who we are, our role in the universe and what God wants us to do in order to fulfill our unique mission on earth, is through the weekly study and reading of the 5 Books of Moses contained in our Torah scroll that is so lovingly housed in a sacred Ark within every Jewish sanctuary.

Each week we take the Torah scroll out of the ark, bring it into the plain view of the entire congregation, and then get down to the serious business of reading and studying and learning from its ancient wisdom the lessons that will carry us into the meaning of our own lives.  It is an awesome expectation and an awesome responsibility at the same time.

Hafokh ba v’hafokh ba…” “Turn it, turn it, for everything is in it” said Rabbi Ben Bag Bag in the Talmud and we continue to believe and teach that lesson to this very day.  For we do believe that the fundamental important “truths” of life itself can be discovered within the books and pages and columns and stories of our ancient Torah scroll.

We learn the most important lessons of life when we are open to discovering the miracles of our ancestors’ self-reliance, the strength of our ancestors’ courage to walk out into the unknown time and again with only the faith that God would show up and protect and guide and lead them into the “promised Land” whenever the time was right.

Our ancestors had experienced the deprivations and degradations of hundreds of years of slavery.  They understood what it meant to belong to another person like a beast of burden, or to have no say whatsoever over your own destiny – how that gnaws on a person’s very soul and threatens to destroy any vestige of self-esteem and personal value.

And they knew of the excitement and collective thrill of finding the chains broke, the shackles thrown off, and the prison doors thrown open.  Yet even as they celebrated their own freedom from the enslavements of Egypt, they so often brought their own psychological prisons and solitary confinements with them along the way.

When we read the stories in this week’s Torah portion we realize that what the Torah teaches us is not to become overwhelmed by our circumstances no matter how frightening, no matter how foreign, no matter how terrifying.  For it isn’t the circumstances of our lives that determine the quality of our lives, that can only be decided by each of us according to the individual choices that we make – one choice at a time, one decision at a time, one moment at a time.

This week’s portion reminds us that what makes us fully human is our ability to stand up even in the very face of God and choose life, choose goodness, choose joy, choose fulfillment, choose faith over fear and blessings over curses.  What we learn is that the quality of our lives is directly a result of the quality of our choices, and this week’s Torah portion reminds us that it has always been so.

When the 12 scouts whom Moses has sent into the promised land to bring back a report to the people regarding how fertile and prosperous and strong the land might be return with a terrifying tale of being “like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we must have been in their sight,” we are taught one of the most important lessons in the entire Torah.  That lesson that attitude is everything.  No matter how talented, how creative, how positive, how exciting, how stimulating, how intellectual, how competent you might be – it will ultimately be your attitude about yourself, your surroundings, your friends, your colleagues, your work, your passions, your dreams that will determine the kind of person you turn out to be.

What the 12 scouts taught us is that our job in life is not to sow fear and disbelief, but to inspire faith in our own future and trust in the power of God to help us succeed in life if we believe that we can.  Our job in life is to defend one another, to give your brother and sister your strength, your courage, your power, your faith, so that they might withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and rise again to a life filled with success, fulfillment and purpose.  As you help another to be successful you become successful in return.  The Torah essentially echoes the words attributed to Henry Ford who is quoted as having said, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right!”

Because the Children of Israel saw themselves as weak and easily overcome by the external, outside forces of life, that is exactly what happened.  They were soon defeated, tossed out of the Promised Land before they even entered by their own fears, anxieties and faithlessness.

Since Joshua and Caleb had faith in themselves, in the people they were leading and in God whom they experienced as the power to transform the hopeless into the hopeful and the faithless into the faithful, they were the only two out of the twelve who went to scout out the land who merited living to enter the Promised Land.  

May we be like Joshua and Caleb and have faith in our own abilities to make a difference in the world each and every day, particularly when we jon our passions and heart and commitments to one another.  When we have faith in each other and our ability to change the world regardless of the circumstances which face us, nothing can stand in our way, and everything is possible.

Shelakh
Rabbi Emeritus, Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades, California

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