Sign In Forgot Password

The Power of Believing in Yourself #783

06/16/2023 06:07:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Shelach Lecha.  " We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves -- and so we must have looked to them." (Numbers 13:33)
The Power of believing in yourself

On my 10th birthday in 1963, my mother presented me with a pocket-sized book that I kept close to my heart well into my teens.

Titled Every Boy’s Handbook, it offered all kinds of information at a time when I was beginning to awaken to the world around me.

It contained a list of all 143 countries and their capitals, their coats of arms and their leaders, past and present.

It catalogued all the chemical elements, a variety of sports statistics, the world’s oceans, seas, lakes and rivers, and a list of role models for boys of my generation.

As she presented me with the book, my mother took great care to open to page 64, and—under a list of “Great Poems of All Time”—she ran her finger to a work by Rudyard Kipling.

And she began to read the poem called If, which she would often refer to until I left home in my early 20s. While other parents would read bedtime stories, or quote Biblical verses, my mother would often refer to Kipling and its beginning verse.

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too:

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,

Or being hated don't give way to hating,

And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise…..

That advice came in handy as I ventured into the world—surrounded by the many heady excesses of the 1960s.

I think of Mom and that poem every year, as the Torah turns to this week’s parashah, Shelach Lecha ("Send Men"). It reminds me that no matter what pessimism and negativity the world throws at us, the path to true happiness and meaning lays within.

And that is the primary lesson of this week’s parashah, as a positive and confident minority, Joshua and Caleb, try to stand their ground against the negativity and fear of the majority that surrounds them.

This week’s Torah reading also answers the question: “Why did it take the Israelites 40 years to make it from Egypt to the Promised Land?”

At the beginning of Shelach Lecha, God instructs Moses to appoint 12 spies—one from each tribe—to scout the Land of Canaan.

In Egypt, God had promised the Israelites that they would eventually settle the Promised Land in freedom.

But the people had questions. “Are the people there strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?” (Numbers 13: 19, 20.)

And so, the 12 spies embark on their journey, and return with differing accounts.

Joshua and Caleb concede that the road ahead will be challenging, but they add that with God’s support and with faith, the Israelites are up to the task.

But the remaining 10 spies see it otherwise. They describe Canaan as a forbidding land. They portray a country inhabited by “men of great size.”

“We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves—and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:33) And the Israelites begin to moan. They ask Moses why he led them through the desert, only to be consumed in Israel.

“Perhaps life was better in Egypt?” God becomes enraged, and for a moment considers destroying the nation.

But Moses begs for forgiveness, reminding God that the Israelites are spiritually challenged, having endured generations of slavery. 

Moses reminds God, “You are slow to anger and abounding in kindness, forgiving inequity and transgression...” (Numbers 14:18)

God forgives, but with one consequence: The generation of doubting former slaves shall perish in the desert. Their descendants will form the core of a confident future Jewish nation. And that process will take 40 years.

I often think about this Bible story as I view today’s world. Too many follow the crowd—often enslaved by a culture of fear, blame and jealousy 

Too few take chances, too few have the faith that they can overcome challenges and reach their Promised Land.

And so, God’s decree comes to pass. The slavery generation does perish in the wilderness. But Joshua and Caleb—the voices of possibility and a more enlightened new generation—do not.

This week’s Torah message is that sometimes it takes strength and conviction to endure our wilderness. And sometimes that means taking chances.

Like the 10 spies, sometimes each of us can feel like a grasshopper within a world of giants. But when we nurture the God-given spark within each of us—if we have the courage to create our own miracles—anything is possible.

At the end of this month, I will turn 70. Much is going on as I prepare for our sixth CTI trip to Israel.

As I began thinking about what to pack on the trip, I went online and purchased that same 1963 edition of Every Boy’s Handbook. In so doing, I will bring it and a bit of my mother along. At age 98, she is fading, but some of the core values she instilled remain embedded in me.

I hope, in my life, I have followed her lead, as she—through her spirit of compromise, courage and conviction—has encouraged me to take chances, to believe in myself and in the potential that God has placed within.

I still remember how that Rudyard Kipling poem Mom read to me concludes.

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,

And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Perhaps you can share those precious words with your children or grandchildren. 

Mom, you have encouraged me and my brother to be the best Joshua and Caleb we can be—in our own way. You have encouraged us to believe in what is possible.

Thank you, Mom. I hope I have lived up to the If you saw in me. As I visit the Western Wall on my birthday, I will place a prayer of health, peace and thanks for you. 

You taught me Torah by your words and by your example.

I hope I have become the man you prayed for me to be.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784