Dare to Be Different – Shelah Lekha 5783

D'var Torah | Numbers

The Israelites believed the report of the ten scouts and were thus doomed to die in the wilderness. Of the two dissenting scouts who would merit entering the land their colleagues had slandered, Caleb in particular is singled out. He is described by God as “my servant” (Numbers 14:24) who had a “different spirit” (ibid.)  RaShI explains that a different spirit means a second spirit: he voiced support for the other scouts but kept his intentions to dissent secret until the right moment. But there is no need to see Caleb as duplicitous and thereby diminish his heroism.

Instead, the text is easily read to mean that Caleb was unlike the other scouts and was willing to disagree. He was not prepared to yield to the majority when the majority was wrong. The truth must be defended even at the cost of being unpopular.

The courage to stand on principle is a Jewish trait that goes back to the time of Abraham. Described as a Hebrew (‘ivri) by the Torah, the rabbis interpret the word to mean iconoclast. Abraham, claims Rabbi Yehudah in Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, stood on one bank (ever) of the river and the rest of the world on the other bank. Likewise, the apocryphal book of Jubilees reports how Abraham smashed the idols his father made and sold as a total rejection of the polytheism of his day. Abraham’s courage finds expression in other, later ways. Michael Walzer (Exodus and Revolution [1986]) sees the courage to dissent as characteristic of Judaism subsequently co-opted by others. Historian Jonathan Israel (Revolutionary Jews [2021]) biographizes Jews in the modern period who resisted the status quo in pursuit of a higher good.

Caleb dared to be different. His actions are worthy of praise and emulation.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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