Aviators tell us that there is a point in the flight plan where you just can’t go back. It’s the location along the flight path where the fuel that remains in the gas tank of the airplane just isn’t enough to take you back to your origin. Once you’ve flown to that point in time and space, your options narrow considerably. If something were to go wrong, you could find a safe runway to land nearby and if things go right, you press on to your destination, but one thing is certain — the place where you began is now unreachable. At this moment you cannot go back to where you started.
You arrived at the place called the point of no return.
The events that have unfolded over the last several months, including a global pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests, have brought all of us on our journey to our own collective point of no return. For many, life after COVID 19 must be different than life before. Whether it’s pushing back on having to make hour-long commutes while missing precious family time, or being more scrupulous in our in-person contacts, the difference in work and leisure could take on a permanency that we are only now beginning to realize. For others, the hope for a more racially just country that reckons with all of its systems, symbols, language, perhaps moves us into the “more perfect union” that we seek.
There are options and opportunities in front of us if we choose to avail ourselves, but what we cannot choose to do is to return to the place we left; doing so would be fatal.
We are at the point of no return.
In this week’s Torah portion Shlach Lecha, the Israelites have reached their point of no return. As the Israelites cross the desert, Moses decides to send twelve scouts to search out the Promised Land. (Num. 13:2) As the scouts returned to the camp they reported that the very land they dreamed of was indeed flowing with milk and honey. (Num 14:8) The land, however, was also very dangerous, filled with warring nations and even giants. (Num. 13:3, 33) The Israelites became frightened; even Moses and Aaron, the leaders of the nation, fell on their faces in despair. (Num. 14:5) Better to go back to Egypt, they thought, then to press forward. (Num. 14:4)
So many of us, like the Israelites, are afraid of the future. The point of no return is a challenging place. It’s when we have to make hard decisions about who we are and who we want to be. Many of us are stuck in our jobs or stuck in a life we just don’t want to live, but are so afraid of reaching out towards the uncertainty of the future that we are not willing to go past the point of no return.
These events, as they have unfolded over the last several weeks, have inspired thousands to both stay home because of the virus and to take to the streets to demand justice. But the point of no return calls forth something more than enthusiasm, more than wearing a mask, more than making a sign or shouting a cheer.
The point of no return calls forth more than inspiration; it demands our transformation.
For the Israelites, when the scouts returned, they were ready to give up. All, that is, except for two of the twelve scouts, Joshua and Caleb. Joshua rose to address the trembling public and said, “Have no fear, our enemies are our quarry, the LORD is with us, do not fear!” (Num. 14.9) Caleb looked out upon the nation and boomed, “Let us by all means go up and possess it, for we shall overcome.” (Num. 13:30) Against the tide, these two men saw that they could not go back to Egypt, to slavery.
The Midrash explains that at first Caleb nodded his head in agreement with the other spies. The land is good, the way there is fraught with danger. But then something inside of him changed. The Midrash explains that in his chest, his “heart started speaking the truth.” Caleb stopped listening to the voices outside and began to listen to the voice inside, his godly conscience, that said to him, “you can’t go back.” He rose, as the Torah goes on to say, was infused at this moment with a ruach acheret, “a different spirit,” and proclaimed to his people, “We shall overcome!” Num 14:24. If the Exodus from Egypt freed Caleb from his shackles, it was seeing the uncertain future and believing that life could really be different that broke the chains around his heart. (Bamidbar Rabba 16:19)
At that very moment, he had arrived at the point of no return.
This is the moment to which we all have arrived. While the future remains uncertain, we cannot return to the Faustian bargain from which we began. No longer can we trade the prosperity of the few for the paucity of the many. No longer can we be a nation born for the cause of liberty while enshrining slavery. No longer can we abide the bitter waters of bigotry with hands over our hearts, proclaiming, “liberty and justice for all.” If we make the decision to feel more than simple enthusiasm and hear the call to do the actual hard work of change, then we can move from inspiration to transformation. We can live with a different spirit. We can push through this moment to the promised land that has been the dream of so many.
We must move forward. We cannot go back. We have arrived at the point of no return.