The Power of Positivity
June 16, 2023
By Rabbi Brent Gutmann

This week, twelve scouts are described as entering into Canaan to survey the land as the Israelites prepare to settle it.  Of those twelve scouts ten report: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the giants there.” (Num. 13:27-8). 

Only Caleb and Joshua advised the people not to listen to the naysayers.  Caleb insisted, “Let us by all means go up, for we shall surely overcome it” (13:30), but the others would not listen, and this uncertainty made the Israelites anxious.  They melted into a pool of self-pity, tears, fears, and retreat.  “Better for us to have died in Egypt—better for us to die in this wilderness then to fall by the sword” they declared. (14:2-3)

As we well know, God recognizes on the basis of this episode that (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb) a generation—forty years—must pass before the Israelites will be able to enter the land.  Only those born outside the bonds of slavery will be able to take possession of the land.

One of the purposes of this episode seems to be to warn us of the danger of pessimism. Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk comments, “What the scouts reported was factually correct but it was not the truth. Truth is more than a summary of empirical facts. It must include the response of the soul to those facts, and this is where the scouts failed in their duty.”  

Few things have a larger impact on the outcomes of our efforts than our belief in our capacity.  World-class athletes visualize themselves triumphing in the race or winning the championship.  Success is always easier when we are confident.

On the other hand, all of us, even world-class athletes, have known moments of doubt.  The Hassidim had their own terms for states of confidence and doubt.  They called them gadlut and katnut; literally meaning, largeness and smallness, respectively.  And sometimes katnut is unavoidable, but the scouts experience warns us to be careful what we might say or how we might behave in this state.  Doubt can be contagious.  For this reason, Rabbi Larry Kushner offered advice to young Jewish leaders that when one finds oneself in a state of katnut, its best to disappear until we can resume a positive perspective.

Positive thinking should not be confused with seeing the world with rose-colored glasses.  Rather, it acknowledges significant obstacles to be overcome, but focuses our energy on the details we can control and the choices that are available to us.  This sense of hope, focus, and desire formed the basis of establishing a Jewish State.  Theodore Herzl declared, “If you will it, it is no dream.” 

Sometimes the key to meeting an intimidating challenge is one’s own will and belief in their capacity to change.  With conscious effort, persistence and determination, anyone can redefine their habits.  Through intentional reflection and redirecting of our thoughts, we can change our mental pathways.  Countless individuals of every age have demonstrated its possible to change their habits and become healthier individuals.  Even late in life, plenty of individuals have successfully learned new skills or redefined their careers.  Against tremendous forces of social resistance, civil rights leaders have prevailed to win greater equality and justice for the vulnerable.

Still today we must insist we can build a better world for our children.  How do we know we can?  Because hope, faith, positive thinking, and sheer will power have enabled those before us to accomplish equally audacious feats.  So, by all means, let us go up, for we surely can overcome.

Brent Gutmann was recently installed as the 11th Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Zion.

The Power of Positivity - Jewish Thought of the week 2022