13 Jun 2014

Shelah 5774: A matter of perspective

We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” 
― Abraham Lincoln

In perashat Shelah we find our ancestors standing upon the threshold of the Promised Land. They faced a reality that had been no more than a dream for centuries, and now it lay within reach. Moshe chooses to send spies into the land, one from each tribe, to scout and report their findings.

See the land — what it is like, and the population that is settled in it:
are they strong or weak, are they few or many;

And what is the land like:
is it fat or lean, are there trees in it, or not? (13:18,20)

It was a risky and dangerous operation. The first and most powerful impression the people would have of their new home rested entirely on the reports of twelve individuals. These scouts were acting as the nation’s eyes and ears. This meant that the scouts’ perception of the land would essentially define the reality for the nation. Situations such as these bring a keen relevance to Nietzsche’s idea that “There are no facts, only interpretations.” The perspective that the spies presented would have heavy influence over the multitudes that awaited their report. The nature of the mission endowed the spies with immense power.

The story’s unfolding is well known. Ten out of twelve spies report that, while the land is indeed rich with resource, the thought of conquering the native inhabitants is unimaginable. Israel would be devoured. This is all the people need to hear in order to fall into hysteria and turn their dream of the Promised Land into a nightmare. But there was another perspective that had also been presented. Caleb, the scout from the tribe of Yehuda, and Yehoshua, the scout from Binyamin, had seen what the others had seen but their interpretation of the situation was quite different.

Now Yehoshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Yefuneh…said to the entire community of the Children of Israel: ‘The land that we crossed through to scout is exceedingly good!…a land that is flowing with milk and honey.’ (14:6-7,9) 

Caleb and Yehoshua had a strong ally to validate their take on the matter. G-d saw it precisely as they did.

G-d said:
‘I have seen the affliction of my people that is in Egypt…So I have come down to bring it up from that land to a land, goodly and spacious, to a land flowing with milk and honey.’ (Ex., 3:7-8)

The story of perashat Shelah provides us with one of the most fundamental keys to finding success and happiness in life. Our mindset defines a large part of the reality that we experience. Perspective and frame of mind can render regular circumstances intolerable or make difficult times enriching. For the nascent nation, arrival at the borders of Canaan made the realities of freedom, responsibility, sovereignty and nationhood imminent. Some saw that prospect as disastrous while others saw it as hopeful.

There are many situations in life that we cannot control. But one thing that we can control is the way we choose to think about the situations and how we respond. We can take problems and navigate them with a positive attitude or we can manufacture problems where there are none.
So much information passes through our eyes and ears that is pre-framed in certain ways, whether it be in the media, online, or in conversation with friends and family. How we relate to the information is always up to us.

For this reason, the parasha ends with the mitsva of tsitsit which is aimed at setting the whole of Torah as our framework. The tsitsit are meant to provide a stimulus to remind us of the principles we live by and the interwoven system of life that the mitsvot create.

It shall be for you tsitsit (tassles) that you may look at it and keep in mind all the commandments of G-d, that you not go scouting-around after your heart, after your eyes… (15:39)

Our health and happiness are greatly determined by the mode of thought that frames our lives. In the end, the choice is ours.

Shabbat Shalom to you all,
Rabbi Joseph Dweck