Some of you will remember this story: the Children of Israel have escaped slavery in Egypt. They have received the Torah at Mount Sinai, and now it is time to enter the Promised Land. Moses asks for 12 scouts, each a leader from one of the twelve tribes, to scout out the land and bring back a report. He says, “Go up into the Negev, and then up into the hill country, and see what kind of land it is: are the people few or many? Are the cities fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Are there fruit trees? And be sure to bring back some of the fruit of the land.”
And so the scouts journey into the landscape of the Promised Land, up to Hebron and the Wadi Eshcol, places still very much on the map today. But the Torah is not merely the account of a physical journey. It is a spiritual quest, translated, as is all human storytelling, onto a physical landscape. The ascent to the Promised Land is a metaphorical ascent, and each of us attempts it. As my friend Rabbi Shefa Gold writes in her book Torah Journeys: “Torah is the map; you are the landscape.”
It is through this mythic lens that our tradition reads the story, and I want to share some of those teachings with you tonight. The scouts find the land rich and bountiful – flowing with milk and honey – and occupied by giants! Not just everyday big people, but titans from the days of yore. As instructed, the scouts bring back some fruit of the land: a cluster of grapes so big that it takes two men to carry it! The children of Israel gawk at the produce, but then the scouts give their report: the land is indeed bountiful, but it is inhabited by titans. We’ll never take it. As the Israelites begin to panic, Caleb, the scout from the tribe of Judah, tries to hush them. “We can surely ascend to this land” he cries, “We are able do it!” But the other scouts drown him out, “No, we can’t. We are not strong enough. We saw the titans” – and here is the key phrase – “and we felt like grasshoppers to ourselves, and surely we must have appeared that way to them.”
The Children of Israel fall to pieces, weeping, wailing and railing against Moses and Aaron, “We should have died in Egypt, or let’s just drop dead here! What are you doing to us?” And then they say, “Let’s turn around and head back to Egypt!” Full panic has broken out. Caleb and Joshua, the other steadfast scout, try to exhort them: “The land where Life Unfolding is taking us is very, very good. Have no fear, we can accomplish this!” But by now the community is about to pelt them with stones. And the Presence of God appears…like the principal in the doorway.
God is ready to wipe everyone out – this miserable faithless bunch – but Moses intercedes and calms God down. Moses pulls out all the stops. He says to God, “What will the Egyptians say if you kill the people you just freed? And don’t you remember how you described yourself to me on Mount Sinai: slow to anger, full of kindness, forgiving wrongdoing? Please pardon this people.” And God speaks a phrase that becomes part of our Yom Kippur liturgy: “Salachti kidvarecha – I forgive, as you have asked. BUT,” God continues, “this generation will never enter the Promised Land. They will wander for 40 years and die here in this wilderness, for they do not have the faith to ascend to the Promised Land. Only Caleb and Joshua will go up, because they possess a different spirit.” And so it is. The Children of Israel wander for forty years, and only their children, reared in freedom and not carrying the crushed spirits of former slaves, are able to complete the journey. Somehow, Joshua and Caleb were able to survive the degradation of slavery with their spirits intact. One might say that they are the Nelson Mandela’s of our story, unbowed, even purified by years of harsh labor and cruel imprisonment, able to emerge from slavery and lead their people to freedom.
We know about Joshua. He leads that next generation of Israelites into the Promised Land, and even has his own book named after him. But who is Caleb? Caleb is one of the unsung heroes of the Torah, and the key to our deeper understanding of this tale. Caleb is the first to speak up, and is steadfast in his conviction that the ascent to the Promised Land can be made. Caleb is the part of each of us that keeps faith in us and our ability to face life and to grow, even while the rest of our self is screaming and wailing, throwing things and retreating back to slavery.
So, the landscape of our spiritual journey is overlaid onto the topography of the land of Israel. The scouts are told to ascend to Hebron. Hebron is the highest place in the Judean mountains, higher even than Jerusalem. So Hebron also comes to represent a spiritual peak. In Hebron there is a cave, purchased by Abraham. He and Sarah are buried there, along with the other patriarchs and matriarchs. After generations of descent into slavery, are the Children of Israel ready to ascend once again to their spiritual forebears? And there is more: our tradition tells us that not only are our ancestors resting in that cave, but in the back of that cave there is a light that leads to the resting place of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and the very Tree of Life!
All of this is discerned by our sages from clues in the Torah’s use of language. For as the scouts set out on their journey, there is an anomaly in the text. Moses instructed them to ascend to the Negev and then ascend to Hebron, but the text reads: “Va’yaalu vanegev vayavo ad hevron – They ascended to the Negev and HE arrived in Hebron”. He, not they. Also, when Moses instructed them to see if the land has fruit trees, the text actually reads: Is there a tree [in the singular] there or is there nothing? Strengthen yourselves and take from the fruit of the land.” Our sages teach that Moses was asking the scouts to locate not just any tree, but the Tree of Life. Only Caleb, in the singular, is able to ascend to the highest heights of the Promised Land, and the deepest depths of the cave that is there. Caleb rises to the quest, a faithful scout of Moses, while the others are unable to locate the Tree of Life. Only Caleb is imbued with, as the Torah says, “Ruach acheret imo vayemaleh acharai – a different spirit, filled with Life Unfolding.”
What makes Caleb so special? The Torah doesn’t tell us. But we do hear from Caleb again, in the Book of Joshua, and we find out. Forty-five years have passed, and Joshua has led the new generation of the Children of Israel in their conquest of the Promised Land. As the landholdings are being distributed, Caleb approaches Joshua. I like to think about all they have been through together, the only ones left who remember slavery. Caleb says (and I am lightly paraphrasing here): “Joshua, you remember what God said all those years ago concerning you and me. Well, that word has been fulfilled, and here we are. I was forty years old when Moses sent me to scout out the land, and I gave him a report from my heart, while my companions gave a report that took the heart out of the people. On that day Moses swore to me that the land I had trod would become my inheritance. Well, God has kept me alive and it is 45 years since that day when we were wandering in the wilderness and here I am, 85 years old. I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me. Give me Hebron.” And the text continues: “Joshua blessed Caleb and assigned Hebron as his portion…and the land had rest from war.”
Here is my question: Caleb says, “Here I am, 85 years old, and I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me”. What kind of strength is Caleb talking about? What kind of strength has Caleb retained all of these years? I know I want that kind of strength. Do you remember Moses’ original instructions 45 years earlier? “Is there a tree there or is there nothing? Strengthen yourselves and take from the fruit of the land.” On his spiritual quest, Caleb had the inner strength to seek the Tree of Life, and bring back its fruit. 45 years later Caleb still retains that inner strength. What is his secret? As is often the case in Torah, Caleb’s secret is embedded in his name. I always wondered about his name, Kalev. Kelev means dog. It never seemed like the most complimentary name. But then, what qualities does Caleb exemplify? “I gave him a report from my heart, while my companions gave a report that took the heart out of the people.” Caleb has heart. He is all heart. And he is truly faithful in following his master, Life Unfolding. So perhaps his name, dog, is high praise. But then I realized that Caleb, Kalev, has lev, heart, right in his name. Kalev means “like a heart”. Caleb’s secret is his heart. Heart in Latin is cor, the root of courage. When you “take heart”, you strengthen yourself with courage. When you “have a heart” you locate compassion and forgiveness. These are not physical attributes; they are qualities of the soul. We do not have to lose these qualities as we age. Like Caleb, we can be spiritual warriors, all heart, and shine stronger as the years progress.
Recently, while these thoughts were germinating in me, I had a dream. I was looking at some test results from a physical I had just taken. The report listed how much acuity I still had among my various functions. First on the list was visual acuity: 28%. Oh my, I thought, my eyes are getting pretty bad. At least I can still see. Next was hearing: 82%. Not bad. Smell: 82%. Okay, holding up. Then, the last item, heart: 100%. And I think to myself, oh well, my senses are going downhill, but my heart is good! That was the end of the dream. I puzzled over this dream until I started writing these words that I am sharing with you tonight, and I realized that the dream was a blessing: in the words of Caleb, I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me. The Torah speaks in our dreams, where you are the landscape, and the Torah is the map. Part of me is the Children of Israel, fearful, untrusting, damaged. But part of me is Caleb, all heart, unbowed by life’s hardships and betrayals, seeking the Tree of Life, as strong today as when Moses first sent me to scout out the Promised Land. No matter where life has taken me, I can be like Caleb, 100% heart. I can, and you can. Yom Kippur can cleanse us, and we can continue our journey with courage, compassion and heart, stronger than ever. Ken yehi ratzon - So may it be!