Rabbi Micah Citrin
June 12, 2015
Yes, we can! Those words rang out across our nation in 2008 as Senator Barak Obama ran for President of the United States. Whether you supported President Obama’s candidacy or not, we can recognize that his campaign slogan ignited the passion of many across the nation. Yes, we can! These simple, unabashedly optimistic words motivated people to become involved with the election, and to feel a sense of hope for the possibilities of the future. Yes, we can! It feels good to say.
In this week’s Torah portion, we literally have the Jewish equivalent of “Yes, we can!” Moses has sent twelve spies into the Land of Israel to evaluate its resources and assess the challenges of conquering it. The spies return to report that the Land does flow with milk, honey, and abundant produce. Two spies schlepped a cluster of grapes back from the Promised Land so large that it had to be carried on large wooden frame. But then 10 of the spies burst this idealistic bubble. The people who inhabit the land are very powerful, and the cities are very large and fortified, they cried. We cannot attack for those people are stronger than we, and we looked like grasshoppers in our eyes, and we must have looked like grasshoppers to them, too (based on Num. 13:25-33).
Only Caleb and Joshua, brought a different vision of what was possible. Caleb hushed the people and said, “Let us by all means go up, for we shall surely overcome it – Aloh na’aleh, ki yachol nuchal. (13:30)” Listen to the double verbs in this sentence emphatically affirming what Israel can accomplish. Aloh Na’aleh – Up! We can go up! Ki Yachol nuchal – For we can and we will! Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Caleb and Joshua urged the Israelites. Notice that they did not deny the assessment of their colleagues. Significant dangers lay ahead of them. But, their attitude of what was possible differed radically. Their will to see a vision to fruition gave them heart.
The Israelites could not see what was possible. Deflated by the spies’ self-defeating report, the Israelites melted into a pool of self-pity, tears, fears, and retreat. Better for us to have died in Egypt, they declared. Better yet, we should go back to Egypt rather than meeting the unknown hurdles on the horizon. For this defeatist attitude the Israelites received a harsh punishment. God condemned the spies, and all their generation to die out in the wilderness, thus the 40 years of wandering. Only those born in the expanses of the desert, with the fortitude to meet uncertainties, and the hope of freedom would reach the Promised Land.
Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk comments that though the spies did not lie about what they found, their negativity and lack of faith in what they could accomplish created a false reality. Nachmanidies, the Medieval Spanish commentator agrees. The spies seeming fulfilled the instructions and reported what they saw. But our commentator notes that sometimes our biases and our doubts can become self-fulfilling. Our attitudes can dictate and shape a situation.
The power of positive thinking should not be confused with seeing the world with rose-colored glasses. Positive thinking accepts the reality of significant obstacles and challenges, but focuses our energy on scaling the mountains that rise in our path. There are examples of people living with cancer using the power of hope and positive thinking to focus on their body’s healing abilities. World-class athletes visual themselves triumphing in the race, or winning the championship. They picture themselves taking the exact steps that they will employ when the event or game takes place.
This sense of hope, focus, and desire formed the basis of establishing a Jewish State. Theodore Herzl declared, “If you will it, it is no dream.” Sometimes the key to meeting the intimidating goal or solving the seemingly insurmountable problem is our will. Do we want it badly enough, have realistic hope, fortitude, and faith to make an honest effort. Sometimes we might fall short or fail. If we start with a “Yes we can attitude” we are more likely to overcome than if we start from the place of the spies, that our efforts will be for nothing, that we have failed before we started, that Egypt is preferable to embarking on the uncharted, sometimes daunting future. We only arrive at Promised Lands by going forward with conviction.
We all struggle with the voices inside that say we can’t, that we will never be able to, that it is impossible. We are small. But, Yachol Nuchal, yes we can. We can change the tired habits that keep us from being a good friend, spouse, sibling, co-worker. Yes, we can start to exercise, eat better, run that mile, or conquer that marathon. Yes, we can look to fellow congregants and listen to one another, to work together to create a bright and healthy future for Temple Israel. Yes, we can fight for equality, to continue to bend history’s arc toward justice, and embrace a world that rejects inertia and status quo. And how do we know we can? Because hope, faith, positive thinking, and sheer will power have enabled us to do so in the past. That is God at work. Let us go up, for we surely, can, yes we can.