Once I was sitting with a professional singer, adored by many, who hated the sound of his own voice. Another time, I counseled a couple for marriage and the woman, a professional model, could not understand why anyone found her attractive. I’ve studied with business executives who, after finding great success and prosperity, could only think of what got away from them. In each of these cases and so many more, we look at ourselves, our accomplishments, our talents are lost to the throws of our own subjectivity, we are blinded to the goodness in our lives and only see our flaws.
But there we are, ambiguously looking in the mirror, and where others see our success, all we see is the need for change.
I’m reminded of French writer and poet Alfonse Karr, who is famously known for penning the phrase, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Karr was a romantic writer who knew that negativity of the human spirit has a way of gnawing at us so that even a promotion at work still feels like work or a raise brings more expenses. The idea is that life is ambiguous, and the darker sentiments have a way of being sovereign over even the best moments of our lives.
That place, in the middle of life where our perspective is shifted downward even as we move upward, is strange and foreboding. It’s a place where our embarcadero can no longer be seen and our destination is still miles over the horizon. It’s a place with no boundaries unless we create them and a place where melancholy seeps in like an invader. It’s a place of ambiguity and uncertainty.
In other words, it’s the wilderness.
The Book of Numbers, in Hebrew, Bamidbar, is the book of the Torah that understands the great expanse of the middle of life where ambiguity of the boundless desert creates great upheaval, and the people itch for certainty. Into this uncertain place, we find the Israelites, far from Egypt and miles and miles from the Promised Land.
They are in the wilderness.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shlach, Moses sends twelves scouts to the land to see, “what kind of land it is.” (Numbers 13:18) Indeed it is a fertile land, flowing with milk and honey. Rather than focusing on the land, the Israelites are seized by their own negativity. Ten of the scouts were struck by fear, saying that there were giants living on the land and we, “looked as grasshoppers in our own eyes, so we must have looked that way to them.” (Numbers 13:33)
Yet we know from other places, that those the Israelites pass by are anything but grasshoppers. Further in the book of Numbers, the Israelites are likened to great and powerful ox, ready to lick clean the land. (Numbers 22:4). Bilam, the archpriest of the Moabites, could never fully see the entirety of Israelite encampment because it was so large and powerful. (Numbers 22:41) Further still, the Children of Israel are depicted by others as “rising like a lion, leaping up like the king of beasts…” (Numbers 23:24)
Look at the disparity of how these scouts thought of themselves versus how others saw them. Are they grasshoppers or lions? Are they oxen too numerous to count or vermin to be swatted away? One can see so easily that when faced with the ambiguity of life, how easy it is to take the darker path and think the worst of ourselves when others see the best of ourselves. Even as the future is arriving on their doorstep where they can return home to the place that they have been promised, the windswept wilderness makes them cast their eyes downward, fills them with fear and saps their power. The ambiguity of the wilderness fashioned most of the Israelites into an ambiguous people.
Many of us feel like these scouts – overwhelmed by the ambiguity and uncertainty of life, but
overcoming that sense of inner strangeness is at the heart of the spiritual journey. Accepting ourselves and choosing to push back the negativity is the way through the wilderness. In our Torah portion, two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, rose to push back the darkness saying, “Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey: their protection has departed from them, but the LORD is with us. Have no fear of them!” (Numbers 14:9) They knew that the land was beautiful but also difficult. Yet, unlike the other spies who let the ambiguity transform them, they saw their lives not as powerless, but powerful.
The Torah tells us here that in God’s eyes, there are no flaws and no weaknesses. In your eyes you might feel broken and imperfect. You might feel weak and small like a grasshopper, but to God you are not broken, you are not flawed. You are like a lion, waiting to leap.
A holy life means being unapologetically alive. They saw themselves not from their own uncertainty and frailty, but drawing upon strength, given by God, to become their own agents and take destiny into their own hands.
Interestingly Alfonse Karr also knew of this moment when one makes the choice to overcome the sadness of the world and seize the future. The same man who felt the sovereignty of disappointment, realized that life is more meaningful when you choose to push against the negative and seize the future itself. He wrote, “Some people are always grumbling because roses have thorns; I am thankful that thorns have roses.” When presented with life that is both beautiful and terrible, you can look upon the rose and dwell on the thorns, or you can look upon the thorns and have thanks for the roses.
This is the sacred choice the scouts make and we must all make. To look upon the ambiguity and uncertainty of the wilderness and choose to see ourselves not as grasshoppers, but as lions, ready to jump fully into life.