The Power Of Perception

The survival and success of the Jewish people stems from our ability to mold reality to match our dreams and ideals.

Commentary on Parashat Sh'lach, Numbers 13:1 - 15:41

Moses instructs 12 spies, one for each of Israel’s tribes, to investigate the characteristics of the land the people are about to enter. They travel throughout the land of Israel during the course of 40 days, and they return to the camp bearing an enormous load of the fruit of the land.

Yet when they return, their testimony is contradictory. On the one hand, they assert that the land is one which “flows with milk and honey,” a land bounteous and fertile. On the other hand, they also insist that the people in the land are giants–nefillim–who cause the hearts of those who see them to collapse. Based on the perceived strength of the inhabitants, the spies urge Israel not to occupy the land, despite the assurances of God and of Moses that they would do so successfully. Alone among the spies, Caleb and Joshua assert, with complete faith, that Israel should enter and take the land immediately.

What is striking about the spies’ report is the central role of subjectivity in any report of reality. What mattered to them was not a simple compilation of facts, but rather an internal sense of what those facts mean: “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”

The spies, faced with the sight of fortified cities and armed soldiers, looked at each other. And what they imagined revealed a lack of imagination, a failure of vision. Rather than envisioning themselves as carried by God’s promise, sustained by the covenant of Israel, they became overwhelmed by the facts as they appeared on the surface.

Caleb, on the other hand, saw the same facts and refused to bow before them. Infused with passion, conviction, and Torah, he intended to shape reality to conform to his vision. And his vision was one of a faithful Israel, led by a loving God, occupying the land of its promise. The facts looked glum–they demonstrated just how unlikely Israel’s occupation of the land would be. Yet Caleb, with his idealism and his energy, proved to be correct.

The history of the Jewish people is the continuing saga of the power of ideas to alter statistics. One hundred years ago, no one expected traditional forms of Judaism to survive–yet there are now kosher bakeries and butchers flourishing in communities throughout North America, and Conservative and Orthodox trends within Judaism remain strong. In the time of Maimonides (12th Century Egypt), people wrote of the demise of Judaism, only to have their predictions ignored.

When the Temple of Solomon was destroyed and the Jews were exiled, few would have expected the survival of our people. Yet we are still thriving, some 2,500 years later. We have witnessed the rise and fall of Egyptians, Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, the Holy Roman Empire, the British Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, just to name a few. They rose and fell, and we remain.

As the 20th Psalm exults: “They stumble and fall, but we rise and stand firm.” That there are still Jews who care about Judaism is a statistical impossibility. Yet we are still here, still passionate and still Jewish. The secret weapon of our survival is our continuing excitement and fascination with our ideas. Passionate about our relationship with God, thrilled with the challenge of doing mitzvot (commandments), energized by the values and ethics that form the core of our rich inheritance, we make ourselves eternal by linking our identity to the One who is eternal.

The Psalmist explains that “some trust in chariots, others in horses, but we honor the name of the Lord our God.” In the process, we show the obsession with “facts” and statistics to be lacking. Through passion and conviction, we mold mere reality to match our vaunted dream.

Reprinted with permission from American Jewish University.

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