Yachol Nuchal, Surely We Can Overcome

September 27, 2020Rabbi Jason Fenster

We’ve been stuck in this strange place for what feels like much longer than six months. And as we make our way through this moment, I think about the Israelites, wandering through the wilderness for 40 years. Sure, we think there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We think we are making our way toward the promise… but can we be sure? We’ve been wandering so long at times it feels like we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be settled, like all we’ve ever done is wander.

Do you know why they wandered? Not the golden calf. Not the whining. The sin of the spies. Because of the sin of the spies, the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years. Because of the sin of the spies, an entire generation lost the chance to enter the Promised Land.

Let me set the stage for you.

After 400 years, the Israelites, now freed from slavery, are making their way to the Promised Land. But 400 years later? This Promised Land has reached mythological status. Is it even real? What does it look like? Can we actually even go there?

They appoint one scout from each tribe to go investigate the land. Is it good land? What grows there? Will we be able to conquer it? Are the cities fortified? Are the people there strong? Can we do this? After all we’ve been through, will we actually be able to inherit the promise? To achieve the dream?

And so the 12 scouts go and investigate the land for 40 days. They come back to the people triumphant heroes. They cut down one cluster of grapes so large it needed to be carried by two men; fertile and beautiful, worthy of the dreams of generations prior.

But after saying that, indeed the land flows with milk and honey, their report took a turn. The cities are fortified, the people are fierce, there are giants in the land! Yes, it is the Promised Land, but how could we ever overtake them?

The people start to murmur, saying the task is too great and we should turn back.

And then Caleb jumps on top of a stool and he says, Aloh na’aleh, let’s go up. Let us ascend. Yachol nuchal, surely we can achieve it. Yachol nuchal, surely we can. (Number 13:30)

10 of the spies retorted, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and surely we looked that way to them as well.”

Of the entire generation, only Caleb and Joshua say yachol nuchal, surely we can. The rest? They see themselves as grasshoppers – too small, too powerless to fulfill the dream.

They see challenges and fold their hands. They only see what cannot be accomplished and refuse to see what could be. And it is this small mindedness, this inability to see opportunity and vision, this lack of faith in themselves and their people that yields the punishment of wandering for 40 years.

Of the entire generation, only two are merited entering the Promised Land – the two spies who refused to descend into skepticism and scarcity, Caleb and Joshua.

Caleb and Joshua also scouted the land. They also saw the fortified cities and the mighty armies. They also saw the giants. They never deny that report. But, in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, they say yachol nuchal, surely, we can overcome it.

We too, have been wandering. We too, see seemingly insurmountable challenges. And we too have a choice. We can see ourselves as small and incapable, or we can look our challenges in the eye and say yachol nuchal – yes, this will be hard, but surely, we will overcome it.

We learned a lesson during our desert wanderings. The indefatigable Jewish spirit, the insistence on hope in the face of crisis and tragedy, became core to our identity. We are a people who looks for opportunity, constantly adapting and evolving in the face of growing challenges.

Jewish history is a story of yachol nuchal, of “surely we can.” When the Temple in Jerusalem was razed in 70CE and the center of Jewish life and theology was destroyed, we built the rabbinic Judaism – inventing a liturgy, adapting a culture and identity around books, wisdom, and ideas to accommodate diaspora living. In Spain, we wrote poetry; in France, new visions of law and discourse. In the wake of tragedy and massacres of the Crusades, we created a theology and liturgy of mourning and remembrance. As Europe struggled with the Jewish question in the 18th and 19th centuries, we adapted an ancient tradition to science and modernity. And even out of the Holocaust, we developed new theologies and commitments to justice.

And we made the desert bloom. We returned to that same land surveyed by the scouts thousands of years ago and built a state with the dream of fulfilling haTikvah bat shnot alpayim, the 2,00-year-old hope.

We are not a small-minded people. We are a people who, in the face of crisis, says yachol nuchal, surely, we can overcome it.

My teacher, Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, introduce me to a Chasidic distinction between the attitude of the 10 spies versus the attitude of Caleb and Joshua. The 10, who see themselves as grasshoppers, are victims of mochin d’katnut, small-minded thinking – an inability to vision and dream, an inability to have confidence and faith in what is possible. They contrast that with mochin d’gadlut, expansive thinking – the ability to see what is possible.

And now, we find ourselves in this newest, strangest moment. We’ve heard the clichés and the tropes. “Unprecedented times,” “the new normal.” And here we are, still wandering in the desert. And, like the spies, it is all too easy to feel as small and vulnerable as grasshoppers – to feel overwhelmed by the myriad challenges we face.

Daily we face this illness and isolation. We are challenged to learn to work from home while supporting loved ones. We struggle to find time for our mental health while giving so much of ourselves to others. We have to learn anew how to grow and change without concrete guideposts or milestones to look forward, those rituals and celebrations that offered a steady path for generations. We miss hugging our children, our grandchildren, our parents, and our grandparents.

Everywhere we look, we face challenges that appear giant. Teachers face impossible choices to balance safety and developmentally appropriate standards; frontline and essential workers are asked to place the needs of their community over their own.

And with all of the external challenges, we also know that the largest and most daunting challenge can exist in the still quiet of our own homes: That it’s possible to be grateful for FaceTime and Zoom while still feeling completely and utterly alone.

We know the frustration and exhaustion from having lost routine and access to community. We miss praying together and sharing cookies at onegOneg Shabbatעֹנֶג שַׁבָּתThe "joy" of Shabbat—refers to refreshments after Shabbat services. . We know that lifecycle moments have been delayed or have had to change in ways that we’ve never expected. We know that many of the things we do to support each other in moments of loss or sadness just aren’t possible.

We know that the toll of this virus is counted in the hundreds of thousands of lives lost and millions of people who have gotten sick. And we also know that the other losses we’ve faced are real and need to be mentioned aloud.

I say it because we have to know what is in front of us. We have to survey the land, see the fortifications and the mighty armies. And, when we do that survey, we must also notice the sweetness, the land flowing of milk and honey, the joy and gratitude. That is real too. That too is worthy of our attention. And then, when we have a full report, muster our courage and say yachol nuchal, surely we can overcome.

And Reb Nachman of Bratslav, the 18th-century Hasidic master tells us how. He knows. He knows that Judaism is not just an attitude. Judaism is not just about what we think; it’s about what we do. Through the merit of those who sustain the poor, through the merit of those who care for those in need, the masses are saved from plagues. Also in their merit, mochin d’gadlut, an attitude of abundance, triumphs over mochin d’katnut, an attitude of scarcity. (Sefer HaMidot 2:5)

How perfect. This is, of course, not to say that, as if by magic, giving money to the poor will make COVID-19 go away. But when we turn ourselves outward, when we put our attention on, care for, and strive to sustain everyone in our community, we can defeat a plague.

This is who we have been, and this is who we will continue to be. In these months, we have seen generosity, patience, and kindness. We have seen righteousness, goodness, mercy, blessing, grace…

You have donated and called. You have taught each other technology. You have attended Zoom seder, Zoom b’nai mitzvah, Zoom shiva. You have delivered challah. You have sent meals. You have given blood. You have made masks and face shields. You’ve had window visits and backyard visits. You’ve found ways to celebrate and find gratitude in the midst of this crisis.

You didn’t have to. You could have stayed under the covers. But you insisted on finding sweetness and blessing. You insisted on gratitude. The indomitable Jewish spirit, mochin d’gadlut, seeing opportunity and abundance during a time of fear and anxiety.

What about this moment? We stand at the precipice of a new year – and this is strange. There are giants, and the cities are fortified. You watched High Holidays services in your home or your backyard. Maybe on the couch. Maybe at the table where you eat your meals. Not in the sanctuary, surrounded by your community. It is not hard to amass a list of mochin d’katnut concerns – of focusing on scarcity, of focusing on what we lack.

But no. We access our mochin d’gadlut and see the world with abundance. We can see the chance and the potential for a new year. We can pray we open hearts. We can pause and reflect. We have this miracle of technology that allows us to be safe and to experience the High Holidays together. Is it the same? No. Of course not. But is it real? Well, that’s up to us.

Do we see ourselves and this moment as grasshoppers, or do we jump on top of our chairs and say “Yachol nuchal, surely we can overcome this”? Surely this moment is real, and surely we will proceed toward the promise, the hope, the aspiration, dream together.

It’s a new year, a chance for a new beginning. We can choose how we will approach the year ahead.

Will we enter with small minds, seeing ourselves as grasshoppers in a world of giants? Or will we enter with a lens of abundance – not to deny the challenges we face, but to see them squarely and insist, yachol nuchal, that surely, together we will overcome? We will see what opportunity exists, confidently adapt, and insist on compassion and righteousness.

God, hear our cry: Yachol nuchal – surely, we can overcome it.

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