Confidence and Barriers – Shelah 5784

D'var Torah | Numbers

Moses instructs the reconnaissance party of twelve sent to Israel to bring back a complete report. The report must include a topographical report of the full extent of the territory the Israelites stand to conquer, the disposition and location of any defending forces, the relative strength and population density of the inhabitants, the types of fortifications, if any, and the fertility and fecundity of the land (Numbers 13:17-20). The reconnoiters set out on their mission and return with their report. Unanimously, they praise the qualities of the land. But on the question of whether the inhabitants can be defeated, the scouts are divided. Sadly, the Israelites accept the pessimistic report of the majority rather than the optimistic report of Caleb and Joshua.

What ensues is consequential. However, what is of interest to sixteenth century Italian rabbi Ovadiah Seforno is the instructions themselves. Moses tells the scouting party to report on whether the inhabitants live in “unwalled encampments (mahanim, in Hebrew) or in fortified cities (mivtzarim)” (Numbers 13:19). Counterintuitively, Seforno explains that the greater worry would be the former rather than the latter. Inhabitants who live in unwalled cities are people who have no fear of invaders. They need no fortresses to protect them since they are confident in their own martial powers. Inhabitants who live in walled cities are people who fear invaders and put their trust in physical barriers to protect them.

Ostensibly, Seforno is talking about the report of the scouts. Nevertheless, his observation applies far beyond the context of this biblical story. In effect, censorship, for example, is an attempt to erect barriers against free and open discussion. It is the building of walls to protect against invasive ideas that those who impose censorship are afraid to confront. Lacking confidence in their own viewpoints, censors hide within their own fortresses. Likewise, within the Jewish community there are those who refuse to cooperate or enter into dialogue with members of a different movement. Part of the justification of the refusal is that cooperation implies tacit recognition. Even so, there have been and still remain Orthodox rabbis who will gladly cooperate with non-Orthodox rabbis, arguing that those who have confidence in their own positions need not fear dialogue. Only those who lack a robust sense of what they stand for erect barriers.

And the same can be true in family life. An esteemed senior colleague of mine, Rabbi Erwin Schild, once addressed a bride and groom by citing Seforno and charged them to make their home like the huppah under which they stood: unwalled – figuratively speaking ­– and open to all. All it takes is confidence.


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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