Shelach lecha

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I spy, with my little eye…

The first fact-finding mission in Jewish history – the twelve spies – return from scouting out the land of Canaan with glowing reports. The land, they say, flows with milk and honey. But there is a drawback, say ten of the spies. The inhabitants of the land are fearsome giants, and the Israelites stand no chance against them:

“There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of the giant tribe of the Nephilim. And we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so were we in their eyes…” (Numbers XIII:33)

The spies’ report tells us much about what they saw in the land of Canaan. But it reveals even more about how they saw themselves.

Abraham Twersky, the well-known Rabbi and psychiatrist, sees an important psychological insight in the report of the ten spies. First we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, they say, and only then did we become as grasshoppers in the eyes of others. Our standing in the eyes of others, Twerski notes, is often a function of our own self-esteem.

In a world which has often viewed Jews and the Jewish state with suspicion and disdain, this insight suggests that one key to improving our standing in the eyes of others is maintaining our own estimation of ourselves. As one popular folk-saying has it: No-one can make you feel small without your permission.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes a contemporary example of this insight. A young woman in Moscow went to visit an elderly rabbi. She was clearly in distress and explained why. She was Jewish, but had hidden her Jewishness all her life and was convinced that nobody knew the secret of her origins. But just recently a group of youngsters had seen her in the street and shouted “Zhid” at her as she walked by. The elderly rabbi paused then asked the young woman: “I have lived in this town for many years. I am clearly identifiable as a Jew by my beard and my clothes. And yet never has anyone shouted out the word ‘Zhid’ at me. Why do you think that is?”

The young woman hesitated, and then answered: “Because with me they know I will take it as an insult. But you – you will view it as a compliment”.

In others’ words

“On almost any campus in the United States, a young Jewish student will be confronted with questions that challenge his or her most basic identity. Some may stem from ignorance, some from hostility, but all have to be faced: Why, they will be asked, have Jews been hated for so long – is there really no smoke without fire? How can Israel, a country founded to combat racism, have a Law of Return for Jews only? Haven’t the Palestinians been made to pay the price for the Jewish Holocaust? And why, of the 3000 peoples that could claim the right to self-determination, should the Jews be entitled to their own state?

“How well have we trained our younger generation to confront such challenges? Are they aware of what their heritage has given mankind in the past, and what it has the potential to give now and in the future? Or of the astonishing role played by Zionism as a rare model of national liberation and democracy? Or of the fact that there are 35 democracies which have a law of return?

“I see here a terrible gulf in the education of our youth. On the one hand we have a small group of youngsters from committed homes with strong Jewish backgrounds and identity, but for the most part sheltered and ill-prepared to engage with the outside world. And on the other hand we have the vast majority of our Jewish youth, who do meet with this world, who do have the tools, but sadly have little or nothing to communicate.

“We need to cultivate a generation of leaders who can straddle and synthesize, who have the tools and the raw materials to be a bridge within our communities and our most effective spokespeople to the world at large.

“We need to give our next generation this sense of responsibility, and this sense of pride. Pride in our history as one of the oldest and most radical of faiths, and one of the youngest and most remarkable of states.”

Rabbi Michael Melchior, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Inaugural
Address at opening of the University of the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, November 2001

On a lighter note

A popular Jewish joke from before the Second World War highlights the power of self esteem, even in the harshest of circumstances:
Goebbels was touring German schools. At one, he asked the students to call out patriotic slogans.
“Heil Hitler,” shouted one child.
“Very good,” said Goebbels.
“Deutschland über alles,” another called out.
“Excellent. How about a stronger slogan?”
A hand shot up, and Goebbels nodded.
“Our people shall live forever,” the little boy said.
“Wonderful,” exclaimed Goebbels. “What is your name, young man?”
“Israel Goldberg”, replied the boy.

Told in ‘Humor in the Holocaust’ by John Morreall.

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