Caleb: Visions of What Can Be, Not Just What Is

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By Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman
Parshat Shelach Lecha

In the current cultural and political environment, we have a great deal of difficulty agreeing on what is factual, what is real. In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, there is also a sharp divide about the truth.

As the Israelites approach the Promised Land, Moses sends a delegation of 12 scouts, one from each tribe, with this instruction: “See the land — what is it like? And what about those who dwell there — are they strong or weak, few or many? And the soil — is it verdant or arid; are there trees? And don’t forget to bring back a sample of the fruit of the land (Numbers 13:18-20).

The scouts survey the land, carry some remarkably heavy grapes back (it took two people to carry them), and offer their report. All agree that the land is “flowing with milk and honey,” but 10 of them have a very dismal assessment of their prospects in the face of formidable forces there. They report, “This land devours its inhabitants!”

In contrast, the other two scouts, Caleb and Joshua, draw very different conclusions. They agree with the 10 that the land is fruitful, calling it “very, very good” (14:7). They confirm that there are dangers, but say, “Have no fear.” Caleb tries to calm the people, saying, “We will certainly go up (to the land) … for we can surely do this!” (13:30).

The people dismiss Caleb and Joshua, and instead accept the account of the 10. They scream, cry and beg to return to Egypt. God rules that the entire generation that has left Egypt will die in the wilderness, due to the sin of the 10 scouts, who were unable to see possibility amid the challenges the land presented. Only Caleb and Joshua will have the merit of entering the Promised Land, for they chose hope over despair.

We know that Joshua will become the leader of the people after Moses. Clearly, his qualities are well-known. It is not obvious what makes Caleb meritorious. The Torah tells us, “And my servant Caleb (will enter) because he has ruach acheret — a different spirit” (14:24). What is it that is different about his spirit? Caleb is independent, not swayed by peers, but loyal to the Divine. His spirit gives him the courage to jump in, stand out and speak up.

Caleb’s spirit offers him visions of what can be, not just what is. He is not daunted by the challenges the land will present because he has faith, and he can visualize the future. Caleb also has deep empathy for his people. When he sees their despair, he tears his garment in mourning for them. His spirit is one of action, as he says, “We can do this!”

Caleb’s unique spirit can direct us as we face the heartbreaking realities of racism and inequality that have been laid bare in this time of tragic suffering and avoidable deaths.

First, we learn from Caleb the urgency of seeing more than we already know. We must see the ways in which we Jews who are white carry privilege just because of the color of our skin. We need to see that those who are black, brown and native live in terror each time they take a run in the neighborhood; when their child plays with a toy; when they eat a meal in their own apartment; and even when they are asleep in their own bed. Any one of those innocuous activities might prove fatal due to police brutality and toxic racism.

Secondly, Caleb’s spirit calls on us to deepen our empathy. When they see their people’s despair, he and Joshua rend their garments. Perhaps we should be in mourning, as well, for the deaths of innocents, for the unheard cries of people of color for justice in our city, our state and our country.

Caleb’s spirit calls on us open our hearts and our ears to read history, listen to first-person accounts and ask questions. And we are called, as inheritors of Caleb’s spirit, to really see our fellow Jews who are black and brown, and to recognize that they encounter bias and exclusion even within their own Jewish communities.

Finally, Caleb’s spirit of action calls us to take action against hatred, injustice and cruelty. We can become activists, allies and leaders — even from the confines of our homes. And Caleb’s spirit impels us to have faith that if we act with integrity and good will, we will make a difference.

Caleb had a different spirit. May we, too, cultivate a different spirit. May we, like Caleb, come to see more deeply and more fully the world as it is, and the world as it can and must become.

Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman is interim rabbi of Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir ~ Heart of the City, and her most recent book is “Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older: Finding Your Grit and Grace Beyond Midlife.” The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.

1 COMMENT

  1. Dear Rabbi Friedman, It is a Shabbat early afternoon and I find myself reading your entry, “Caleb: Visions of What Can Be, Not Just What Is.” I think your entry raises a lot of important questions. It is a wonderful writing. Thank you. Also, I am a nurse and much of my experience is in working in the nursing home setting. I hope to find your book, “Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older..”. I’m thrilled to say thank you to you and to The Jewish Exponent. Sincerely, Cindy Vardy

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