Shlach Lecha – Seeing What Might Be

Joshua and Caleb, and Shimon Peres teach us to see the world in terms of its potential.

One of the books I enjoyed during sabbatical was Shimon Peres’ autobiography, No Room for Small Dreams, which was published just a few weeks before he died in 2016. Peres writes about emigrating to the land of Israel in 1934 from his native Poland, leaving behind an extended family who were later murdered during the Holocaust. He would go on to serve as Prime Minister, President, Foreign Minister and head of several other ministries. He was central participant in key moments of Israel’s history. A central theme is that what allowed him and Israel to thrive is the ability to see what might be in the face of realities that seemed contrary to that vision. Amidst uncertainty and stress, Peres was able to see what many of us would have labeled as unrealistic, or foolhardy.

The ability to see potential and possibility amidst those who reject that vision is also the story of the spies from this morning’s portion. Moses sent twelve men to spy out the land. The men were leaders, princes of their tribes, people of distinction. Yet ten of them came back with a negative report. (p. 843, 13:27) Ask yourselves why, as you read and hear their report: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortifies and very large.” The people are getting upset and the spies can only see the worst possibilities. In verse 31: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we. …The country that we traveled and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size, we saw the Nephilim there – the Anakites are part of the Nephilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves.” They didn’t believe they could succeed. They only saw obstacles and were defined by a self image of being small and weak – grasshoppers.

Yet two spies, Joshua and Caleb, didn’t see through eyes of fear. They saw potential. They tried to rally the people: “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.”

This was Peres’ book – how to envision what could be, when no one else believed it possible. One of the first historic moments he describes is his role in building the Israeli Air Force. We take the strength of the Israeli Air Force and the Israeli aircraft industry for granted. But at the outset of the state, Israel had a few broken down warplanes from other countries and no means to repair them. Peres met a man in California named Al Schwimmer – an Jewish American pilot and aviation engineer who joined the Israeli Air Force during the War of Independence. When the war was over, Al returned to California and in a remote airfield just north of Los Angeles, he rented a modest airplane hangar with the thought of creating aircraft for El Al, the newly created Israeli airline. Peres’ job was to purchase planes in the US and sent them to Al, who would repair and then fly them to Israel or smuggle them out of the United States. He began to envision creating a full-fledged aircraft industry in Israel, so that the planes could be serviced and possibly even exported. As they dream, they dared to imagine designing and building their own planes.

But how can you realize such a vision? It’s impossible! Israel was in financial crisis following the war. There was mass immigration – in three years the population had doubled from 600,000 to 1.2 million as people came in from countries where they suffered oppression. They were living in harsh conditions, there was rationing. Poverty was the central condition of the young state – how could you build an expensive aircraft industry in those conditions?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a beautiful drash for this week’s portion where he brings therapist David Burns to help us understand this part of our humanity.

Burns teaches that often we engage in all-or-nothing thinking – things are black or white, good or bad, easy or impossible. All of nothing leaves no room for nuance or complexity. We also ten to have what Burns calls negative filtering. We discount the positives as being insignificant, and focus almost exclusively on the negatives. We catastrophize, expecting the worst, no matter what.

Part of what we do is mind-reading. We assume we know what other people are thinking. In the passage we read, it wasn’t just the spies who saw themselves as grasshoppers, but they assume the people see them as grasshoppers! How would they know that? But they attributed to them what they felt about themselves.

Another piece of our behavior is our inability to see any other point of view. We arrive at our conclusion and refuse to consider anything else

The key to overcome this piece of ourselves is to question our assumptions, consider alternatives, check ourselves when we allow fear to define our essence. I loved Peres’ book because so much of Israel’s history occurs because he and other leaders see what can be. They dream big. Peres reminds us that cynicism is the greatest threat we face. “In a world of so many grave challenges, what could be more dangerous than discouraging ideas and ambition?” We need that vision right now to continue Peres’ quest for peace and belief that nation states need to reflect our highest ideals.

Joshua and Caleb, and Shimon Peres teach us to see the world in terms of its potential. They demand we dream big dreams. Peres ends his book with the following story: “Every once in a while, someone will ask me to look back on my career and identify the achievement in my life of which I am proudest. I respond by telling them the story of a great painter, who was once approached by an admirer of his art.

“Which of your painting do you consider your most beautiful?” the man asked.

The painter looked up at the man, then turned his gaze toward a large blank canvas, resting on an easel in the corner of the room.

“The one I will paint tomorrow,” he replied.

May that be our answer as well.