Rav Blair Nosanwisch has been our student Rabbi for the past three years and we have grown along with her as she is now ordained as Rabbi Blair Nosanwisch. We share her parting words that leave us with abounding insight.
In this week’s parsha, Shlach Lecha, we encounter the company of the spies. After scouting the land of Canaan, they return to the Israelite camp to give their much awaited report. But the spies speak from their fear rather than their faith, sharing that the land, though full of bounty, is also full of people who stand in the way of their inheritance. The spies seem overwhelmed not just by their own small stature, but more importantly by how they must appear in the eyes of others. I imagine we can each relate to the spies feeling small and intimidated. These days, I feel overwhelmed by the world’s problems all the time. Listening to the news, connecting with family, I can tumble into a disagreement or a series of devastating reports and feel very, very small.
When the spies tell the Israelites of their experience in this promised land, they say: וַנְּהִ֤י בְעֵינֵ֙ינוּ֙ כַּֽחֲגָבִ֔ים וְכֵ֥ן הָיִ֖ינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶֽם׃. Bamidbar Rabbah explains that this statement “And in our own eyes we were like grasshoppers.” is forgiven by The Holy One, blessed be S/He, who said, “I forgave them for that [remark].” Hashem understands the Israelites feeling small in their own eyes. This is a shared human experience.
But, the midrash continues: “I was exacting [when they said], ‘And so we were in their eyes.’ The Holy One, blessed be S/He, said, יוֹדְעִים הֱיִיתֶם מֶה עָשִׂיתִי אֶתְכֶם לְעֵינֵיהֶם, מִי יֹאמַר שֶׁלֹא הֱיִיתֶם בְּעֵינֵיהֶם כְּמַלְאָכִים. “Did you know what I made you in their eyes? Who would say that you were not like angels in their eyes?” From the perspective of this midrash, the sin of the spies is NOT that they act out of fear, or that they experience self doubt, it is that they confuse their self doubt, their feeling of smallness, for the real thing. They actually believe they ARE small, not just that they feel small.
I really relate to the spies. I can’t even tell you how many times I act out of my fear and not out of my strength. But the spies are punished harshly for their fear – they, and the generation of Israelites they reported to, are sentenced to 40 years wandering the desert. So their story feels like a harsh rebuke, but I chose to read it as an invitation.
I believe this is an important spiritual lesson for our times, times where the problems seem so big, so beyond us, that we feel like grasshoppers scratching at the toes of giants. This story of the spies shows us how natural, how human that feeling is, but it also implores us: we must not confuse our feeling small for an actual inability!
There is one character amongst the spies who models for us what courage looks like. Only Caleb is spared the punishment and allowed to enter the land, and it is his descendents, the tribe of Judah, whom Hashem says will inherit the land. All of this “because he was imbued with a ר֤וּחַ אַחֶ֙רֶת֙ a different spirit.
Lest we think this is about Caleb being superhuman, Torah commentator Abarbanel points out that Caleb was “merely human,” having no prophetic destiny like Joshua. It was because AS A HUMAN BEING he remained loyal to God (or, I’ll say, loyal to himself) that he was rewarded. It is because Caleb manages to follow his inner voice and speak what he knows to be true that God rewards him. It is courage like Caleb’s that I believe we need in these times. We need to seize opportunities to share our truths, not as blunt tools that we punt at those who disagree with us, but in loving, meaningful, and engaged ways.
I have learned a profound lesson in serving all of you – I have learned that relationships are to be treasured, and relationships take time. I have found friends, teachers, and hevrutas amongst you. When I began my time at Beth El, I was told “we are really a very small community…” and this wasn’t always shared with pride. But I can say that you were never small in my eyes, and I hope that through my years with you I have reflected back to you all the wisdom, beauty, and love that I feel in this community.
May you each be profoundly blessed with the courage to be yourselves and the wisdom to love each other.