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Parashat Shelach: Moments of Moment

Excerpted from Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider’s Torah United: Teachings on the Weekly Parasha from Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Chassidic Masters, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishing House

Moments of Moment

One cannot help but be captivated by the personality of Calev. Of the twelve leaders detailed to reconnoitering the land of Canaan, only he and Yehoshua returned with positive reports. Surprisingly, Calev turned out to be the hero in the drama that unfolded. He silenced the people and encouraged them, “We can surely go up and take it; we have the power to do it” (Numbers 13:30). In return, God honored him by calling him “My servant” (Numbers 14:24), an appellation used sparingly, and promised that his progeny will inherit the land. Indeed, when the Jewish people eventually conquered the land of Canaan, Calev was immediately given the city of Chevron as a gift ( Joshua 14:14).

When God praises Calev, He says, “he had a ru’ach acheret with him, and he followed after Me” (Numbers 14:24). The phrase ru’ach acheret is typically translated positively to mean that he had a different intention or plan that opposed the other spies. However, the Or ha-Chayim ha-Kadosh, Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar, interpreted the term in light of kabbalistic terminology, where acher/et refers to the “other” side of the divine emanation, the side of darkness and evil. The scriptural phrase now means that Calev had “the other spirit,” the evil inclination, with him, “but he followed after Me” nonetheless. The pressure was strong to join the near consensus of the spies, who were good people, and Calev did battle with himself to maintain faith in the divine promise of a good
land. In the end, as God Himself attests, he prevailed.

This human take on Calev fits the Talmudic story, which has it that Calev left the company of the other spies to travel to Chevron and prostrate himself at the graves of our patriarchs and matriarchs. His purpose was to draw strength from the faith of his ancestors, so that he could resist joining the cabal of his companions.

Calev might have won the internal battle, but he would still need all the fight left in him to take on the other spies and the masses of receptive ears. After his colleagues delivered their depressing intelligence estimate, Calev acted swiftly: “Calev silenced the people toward Moshe and said, ‘We can surely go up and take it; we are able to do it’” (Numbers 13:30). The formulation here is curious: Why does it say Calev quieted them “toward Moshe”?

The Meshech Chochmah, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, posited that this is indicative of a larger concern. The people panicked out of concern that Moshe would not lead them into the land. Recall that according to the Sages, Eldad and Medad had prophesied that Moshe would die and Yehoshua would assume the mantle of leadership.3 How could the Jewish people defeat giants without a spiritual giant of their own? Calev’s counterargument was that they had it all backwards. Moshe’s greatness and ability to work miracles came from the people themselves, and not the other way around. So long as the people were worthy, God would help them fell giants.

The Piasetzner Rebbe, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, focused on a different element of Calev’s response. The briefing of the spies seemed sound to its audience. It was predicated on facts, and the measures to take or not take seemed rooted in common sense. Was it not the sensible danger assessment they were tasked with drawing up at the outset? Calev provided no contradictory evidence, nor did he poke holes in their logic. Even worse, the spies mixed truth with lies when they said they had seen the offspring of giants (Numbers 13:28), because only Calev had seen the colossi upon entering Chevron. Why did he not call them out, then? How could he expect to sway the people without presenting a rival account and mounting a skillful defense? Why did he simply say the biblical version of “we can do it”?

The Piasetzner answered that the true test of faith is not when reason points the way to being rescued, but when there appears to be no way out:

The faith of the Jew needs to be         אֲבָל כָּךְ צְרִיכָה לִהְיוֹת אֱמוּנַת
such that he believes that God            אִישׁ הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִי, לֹא בִּלְבַד בְּשָׁעָה
will save him not only when                שֶׁרוֹאֶה מָבוֹא וְדֶרֶךְ לִישׁוּעָתוֹ גַּם
he sees a logical or natural way           עַל פִּי שִׂכְלוֹ וְדֶרֶךְ הַטֶּבַע יַאֲמִין
of being saved, but even when,            בַּה׳ שֶׁיּוֹשִׁיעֵהוּ וְיִתְחַזֵּק, רַק בְּשָׁעָה
God forbid, he sees no logical or        שֶׁאֵינוֹ רוֹאֶה ח״ו שׁוּם מָבוֹא עַל פִּי
natural way of being saved, and         שֵׂכֶל וְדֶרֶךְ הַטֶּבַע לִישׁוּעָתוֹ יַאֲמִין
strengthens his faith and reliance      בַּה׳ שֶׁיּוֹשִׁיעֵהוּ וְיִתְחַזֵּק בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ
on God.                                                          ובִּטְחוֹנוֹ.

Calev did not expose the weaknesses of the spies’ account, despite the half-truths it included. To do so would have been beside the point. The Jewish people needed to have faith that insurmountable walls could be scaled and giants cut down to size, even when logic dictated otherwise.

Did Calev’s courageous words make any difference? The other spies did not miss a beat in flat-out contradicting him. They then went on at length about the difficulties presented by the land and its people. While it looks like Calev’s few words barely made a dent in the popular perception, the length and repetition indicate that Calev did score some points in the moment. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein declared this short-lived upswing a success nonetheless. He compared it to the halachic principle of violating the laws of Shabbat to save a life, which applies even when the life in question will only be prolonged for a few moments. Similarly, spiritual achievements are of great moment even if their duration is brief.

The power of a single word of encouragement or small constructive act is humanly immeasurable. Sometimes the seeds we plant bear fruit that we can see or even taste down the road; sometimes we are throwing a bottle into an endless ocean. On that fateful day in the wilderness, when the people cried out in fear, Calev’s soothing voice was heard and touched their hearts, even if only for a moment. Immortalized in the Torah, his words still resound, charged with optimism.