At an interfaith conference I attended a number of years ago, — a conference which for the most part was filled with respect and openness — a keynote speaker was an evangelical minister. Addressing an audience of some 200 theological students and their teachers and deans, the minister declared, during his speech, that anyone who had not accepted Jesus into his or her life could never be saved. When the question and answer period started, shaking in my shoes and with my voice breaking, I stood up and said to him — in front of 200 other people, mainly Christian — “If that is your belief, then where does that leave the Jews?” I could not let his remarks go by unnoticed. This was a conference where we had come together to learn about each other’s religions in a spirit of openness and respect, and this minister had just condemned all of my people.
I write about this not to denigrate Christianity, but to underscore how difficult it was for me to stand up for my beliefs, though strongly held, in the presence of large numbers of people who may have felt very differently than I did. I distinctly remember how physically and emotionally uncomfortable I felt as I rose to challenge the minister, and yet I did it because I knew it had to be done.
I can imagine that Joshua and Caleb, in our parashah, felt much the same way I did, when they stood up in front of thousands of Israelites and said: “The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land… Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey” (Numbers 14:7—9). Their fellow scouts had just told the same thousands that the Promised Land was one that “devours its settlers” (13:32) and that “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them [the inhabitants of the land]!” What kind of courage it must have taken for Joshua and Caleb to stand up for what they believed in, to stand up for what they knew was God’s plan — in the face of thousands of people desperately frightened by their fellow scouts’ words! And yet they did it, because they knew that it was the right thing for them to do.
In discussing how Moses changed the name of Hoshea (Hosea) to Yehoshua (Joshua) (Numbers 13:16), which means “God will save”, Rashi, the reknowned medieval commentator, says this means “May God save you from the malign influence of the other scouts.” Rashi understood the strong influence that the 10 other scouts’ report could have — not only on the people — but also on the last two scouts. In the face of strong popular feeling — even if it is misguided — it is hard to stand your ground, stick to your beliefs and do the right thing. Rashi knew just how difficult this can be, and acknowledged Joshua’s strength of character in supporting God’s plan, despite the tremendous opposition coming from his fellow scouts and from the thousands of frightened Israelites.
Almost all of us, in our lifetime, will face times when we must stand up for important beliefs which we hold dear, but which will be unpopular or controversial. My prayer is that we can gain strength from the model that Joshua and Caleb show us — of being resolute and determined, and showing strength of character in defending ideas, beliefs and behaviors which we know to be true and good and enduring.
The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.