Monsters, Giants and Other Formidable Obstacles

Shelach 5767 – Monsters, Giants and Other Formidable Obstacles

© Rabbi Paul L. Saal

In the spring of 2002 I went to an art exhibit that was featuring a grouping of pictures painted by a good friend who was beginning the process of leaving the safety of a career as a commercial artist and pursuing an art form that was uniquely his own. The collection was entitled quite simply, "Monsters". I was not prepared for the transition in his work. My friend's commercial work had always been clean, crisp and professional and uncluttered. His new art was dark, convoluted, layered and primitive, obscuring warm colors with dark shadows.

What my friend had done was to take his seven-year-old son's crayon drawing of monsters and reinterpret them in a more adult, almost surrealist genre. The oil re-creations hung next to the crayon originals in this sophisticated Massachusetts gallery. Though there was no written explanation of the work, it communicated to me an honest, yet often ignored reality of life. The fears, horrors, and insecurities of our childhoods do not disappear with time as we might imagine, but rather remain buried deep in our psyche only to reemerge in more sophisticated genres and expressions. Unless we deal with, slay, shrink or unmask the monsters and giants of our past, they make a subconscious home next to our "child within."

Giants of Old and Now

The Torah and Haftarah today are related events bridged by Israel's 40 years of wandering, a divine discipline. But more than a punishment for their unfaithfulness, the wilderness experience was God's further preparation for the Israel to endeavor in the Caananite conquest, which they were not yet ready for. The Torah portion begins with Moses sending out twelve agents, one from each tribe to examine the land and give a report to the people. All of the reports expressed that the land they had come to was indeed a good land which did "indeed flow with milk and honey" (Bamidbar 13:28). But ten of the twelve tribes saw only the potential for calamity in the land and could not imagine that the God who had guided them to this land might also deliver it into their hands. Their report is very telling, "we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, as so we must have looked to them" (13:33). What is even more telling is the reaction of the majority of the people who wept all night and complained about their leadership imagining that they would have all been better off staying in Egypt. In fact they even contemplated heading back to Egypt. In their minds they were still slaves, undeserving of freedom.

On the surface their reaction seems so illogical that it would have been not only silly but also improbable. Of course their lives in Egypt were a 400-year living hell – beatings, starvation, thankless labor, and often-unceremonious deaths at the hands of ruthless masters. Yet how can we explain that even today, in the midst of our "enlightened" society, there are those who remain under the thumb of object abuse? Wives and children who are regularly beaten, employees who stay in thankless underpaid jobs, and devotees who remain in systems of heightened spiritual abuse, exhibit the same tendency to endure the hardship of the known, rather than face the giants and monsters that loom so large in their imagination.

In stark contrast thought, the spies of our Haftarah portion give us a renewed sense of hope. They went into Jericho after forty years of wandering and came out with a completely opposite opinion to their predecessors, "Truly the Lord has delivered into our hands all of the land; and moreover all of the inhabitants of the land melt before us."  What happened from one generation to the next? How did they conquer their fear? They spent forty years observing that an unseen force nurtured, protected and preserved them. They came to believe that the God who had delivered them from bondage for the sake of their fathers, and who had promised them the land they were about to enter, could and would bring it to pass. The fact is, that fear is to courage, what inhaling is to exhaling. It is hope, though, that gives us the courage to do what we are afraid to do. We fear and we hope at the same time; and fear lurks behind hope, just as its bright face hides the dark side of the moon.

The Faces of Courage

Courage has many faces. It can mean saying no to compromise, or it can mean making a difficult compromise. It can entail dying a heroic death or living through terrible pain. It can mean fighting a good fight, or knowing when it is best for all to concede. But always courage involves facing our fears.

Having courage often means enduring when troubles are upon us. This is a kind of passive courage where the real risk is not death but rather genuine life, and hanging on to life when the sullen days of a wearying winter are too long and dark to endure. Mustering this kind of courage that we go on even when we complain inwardly and outwardly, that life is unfair. Morrie Schwartz exemplifies this kind of courage as recorded in the book Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom. Morrie was Mitch's beloved professor who he had kept sporadic contact with.  But when Morrie became terminally ill Mitch decided to visit him with regularity. The book documents their every Tuesday meetings and Morrie's rapid physical decline. But as his condition declined his inner courage became more evident.

The Children of Israel certainly endured much torment during the years of enslavement. Much is made of their lapses of faith and mutinous activities, but not enough is spoken of Israel's emerging courage. In large Israel endured despite endless foes and constant threat to their survival, and so it continues today, through inquisition, holocaust, pogrom and jihad, Israel has grown in its passive courage.

But active courage is also essential. This requires us to act well at the risk of danger. We look our fears full in the face and do what we must in spite of it. Israel had to muster this type of courage as they prepared to enter the fortified city of Jericho. It would have been easier to find elsewhere to sojourn. After all they had livestock, and gold and treasures taken from Egypt. Weren't they the descendants of nomads, and after all wasn't their encampments in the wilderness vastly superior to their past life of bondage in Egypt. But that would not have allowed them to fulfill their destiny.

Ruby Bridges is no longer a household name. But when the Louisiana public schools were integrated back in the turbulent 1960's, Ruby was the first little girl cross the line and enter a previously segregated public elementary school. Having only sheriff's deputies and Sate Policemen between herself and the assembly of bigots who came out to spit and hurl insults, the courageous little girl walked the gauntlet to a new school where she would have no friends, no acceptance and no comfort. When interviewed Rubie's mother described why Ruby did what she did, "There's a lot of people who talk about doing good, and a lot of people who argue about what's good and what's not good, but their were also some other folks who put their lives on the line for what's right." Active courage is no more difficult to muster than passive courage, but easier to put off. Much of our procrastination is a sluggish denial of our fears.

Oxford English Dictionary defines courage as "facing danger without fear." This may be a popular opinion, but I think patently untrue. In fact, I believe only people who are afraid truly exhibit courage. Fear is to courage what breathing in is to breathing out. The question is where do we get the strength to do the things we are afraid of? The answer is hope. The spies in the Haftarah are in a sense are the reconstituted courage of Caleb and Joshua who stood up to the masses and their own monsters and giants and believed the promises of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who risked everything to fight thee Nazis. He was put in prison, and from he penned letters that give people hope today. In one wrote this prayer. "Give me the hope that will deliver me from fear and faintheartedness. " He was given hope and hope gave him courage. The nazi's killed Bonhoeffer anyway. But his hope was not unrealized. The Nazis were defeated, and God was seen as he always is, the ultimate victor.

We are often afraid that we are losing the fight, and we suffer fear and anxiety. But hope brings back a faith that we will win. So face those fears, large and small, head on, and echo the words of the Shaliach, "I can do all things through Messiah who strengthens me."

Stephanie Escalnate