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Jun 13 2014

Grasshoppers and Courage

Personal courage is one of 7 Army Values.  Captain Matthew Riggs, in an essay on this value, writes that, “Personal Courage as defined by the Army, is to face fear, danger or adversity. Personal Courage is the ability one has to overcome a difficult task or situation with steadfastness, or in contrast, to do the moral and right thing when given an opportunity to benefit themselves, by hurting someone else.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, we witness the results of lack of courage in the report of the spies sent by Moses to scout out the land in anticipation of the military invasion Canaan.  Joshua and Caleb return with confidence that, with God’s help, the Israelite forces will succeed.  The other 10 tribes have neither confidence nor courage.  In Numbers 13:33 they famously infect the entire community with their bad morale- “We were in our eyes like grasshoppers and so we were in their eyes.”  Grasshoppers cannot conduct a successful military option, neither can they exercise personal courage on the battlefield of life.  They also cannot be successful leaders.

Apple Computer manager Dave Patterson aptly points out this aspect of leadership, writing, “The leader is the evangelist for the dream.”  Our ancestor’s dream was to enter the Promised Land.  By abandoning their role as the evangelists for this dream, the 10 spies sealed the fate of the dor hamidbar, the generation of the wilderness, condemning them to wander 40 years until a courageous new generation arose who could and would heed the words we find in Deuteronomy 31:16- “Be strong and courageous, not fearful or in dread, for Adonai your God is the one who accompanies you.”

A leader cannot be in fear and dread.  An appropriate level of caution and preparation is critical, but a leader must feel and inspire confidence.  In an article on strategic leadership in the military context, W. Michael Guillot described the role of the leader as moving the community from the art of the familiar to the art of the possible.  Our ancestors were most comfortable with their familiar surroundings- as slaves and as fugitives.  Telling them- “We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes and so we must have looked to them” was not helpful in inspiring them with a vision of possibilities.

Courage takes many forms.   I’d like to briefly touch on four of them:

Courage to stand up for what’s right

Courage to live in the face of overwhelming suffering

Courage to accept one’s own imperfection

Courage to trust others enough to open up to them

  1. Courage to stand up for what’s right- This is the courage of the prophets, who confronted powerful kings with the evidence of their own wrongdoing.  This is the courage of Abraham, who challenged God, “Shall not the judge of all the universe do justly?”  This is the courage of Esther, who bravely faced King Achashverosh with the words, “And if I die, I die.”  “To be,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is to stand for.”   Andre Jackson put it this way, “One man with courage is a majority.”  Or two, in the case of Caleb and Joshua!
  2. Courage to live in the face of overwhelming suffering and to choose life-  This is the courage that I am privileged to witness again and again in my holy work as a rabbi.  It is the courage of a woman who loses her husband and her daughter within a few months, and finds the strength to go on.  It is the resilience of another soul who admits her daughter and her husband to the hospital in the same week, and is able to support them both while continuing to parent a child at home.  Our human ability to survive unspeakable tragedy is an inspiring act of courage.
  3. Courage to accept one’s own imperfection- To be is to decide, and often we make poor decisions.  What a challenge to say those simple words, the words Rabbi Harold Kushner describes as the four holiest words in the English language, “I may be wrong.”  Again and again we see ourselves as grasshoppers, and, while arrogance is to be avoided, we must also be grateful for the possibility of teshuvah, of repentance and return, in order to forgive ourselves and others for the consequences of our all too human imperfection. Each day, with each decision that we make, we build the self-discipline to make the really tough decisions when moral courage will be required.

Finally-

  1. Courage to trust others enough to open up to them- In the book of Genesis, in the story of the creation, God creates the world with the refrain, “And God saw that it was good.”  Vegetation, Seas, Animal Life- all good.  The first thing about which the Torah tells us “it was not good” is for us to exist in isolation from each other.  We are designed to be social creatures and, oh!, the challenges this creates.  In an article called, “The Angry Monk,” Shozan Jack Haubner writes, “Group monastic living has taught me that the people in your life don’t get in the way of your spiritual practice; these people are your spiritual practice.”  It requires much courage to open ourselves up to the inevitable hurt of community life.

The root of the word courage is “cor,” meaning heart.  The original meaning of courage had to do with speaking the truth from the heart.  The generation of the spies needed to die off in the wilderness- their negative attitude- “we looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes and so we must have appeared to them”- was demoralizing to the community. We all need to find the courage to cling to stand up for what is right, to choose life in the face of overwhelming suffering, live with and forgive imperfection, and to be open to the loving support of friends, family and community.  On the Shabbat of Shlach Lcha, may we be blessed with courage.

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