Kalev’s Prayer: Maintaining Integrity of Self in a World of Easy Associations

Proudly presenting another bit of Sixth Grade Torah …

Shelach. The Spies. Rashi uses a textual ambiguity to derive that Kalev arrives in Chevron alone and prays at Me’arat HaMachpeila for Divine assistance from עצת מרגלים – the advice of the other spies – almost identical language to that used by Rashi to describe Moshe’s earlier prayer on behalf of his protege Yehoshua that that spy, too, be saved from עצת מרגלים. This fascinating moment of self-discovery by Kalev is worthy of its own post, and my students over the years have produced some beautiful insights on that front. But for now, a different question that I had not heard until this year: why now? Why does Chevron have this transformative effect on Kalev?

A student this year asked this question, and then answered it by looking more closely at the Pasuk, and specifically at the juxtaposition of Kalev’s self-discovery and the presence of three giants who were also in Chevron at the time. We know that the other spies would use these giants to bolster their claim that the Jews could not possibly survive in the Land, but Kalev’s very time in Chevron leaves him unwilling to do that. So why are we told now, as Kalev is praying alone in Chevron, that he is surrounded by giants?

Perhaps, proposed this student, Kalev saw something in those giants that scared him even more than their imposing size. Perhaps the giants made Kalev realize, in a way that he had not before, how different he was from the other spies – or how different from them he wanted to be. Suppose Kalev saw the giants as a challenge placed in front of him by Hashem to confirm Kalev’s faith that Hashem would help the Jews conquer the Land. The other spies, Kalev knew, would see the giants as proof that the Jews could not possibly conquer the Land. To Kalev, the giants served as a mechanism by means of which to draw inspiration – and by extension, to draw a line between himself and his colleagues.

People are social creatures, and we seek the protection and confirmation of those around us. That is healthy and natural – until one crosses a line beyond which he is acting merely as part of that group and against his own truer convictions. Moshe has a similar moment in yesterday’s Parsha, Shemot. The Torah tells us that before killing a murderous Egyptian, ויפן כה וכה, וירא כי אין איש – he turned in each direction and saw that no one was watching. Moshe had grown up as an Egyptian in Pharaoh’s palace, but here, staring him in the face, was his own line beyond which he would not be acting in consonance with his true inner self. So he took a stand.

When I first got to Yeshiva University, I faced a challenge which confronts everyone in such a large and varied institution: defining oneself on the basis of association with particular groups. Sizing me up – perhaps by my conservative dress or extra learning time – as another right-winger on campus, a “penguin” (an unflattering term around YU for those who tend to dress in monochrome ) approached me to ask if I would consider learning with him. I asked when he had in mind, as I had a rather tight schedule, and he suggested 3:00 on Monday’s. I replied, naively, that I had English class at that time. He knew that. In fact, he was in the same class. He wanted to know if I would learn during class with him in the back of the room. (Unfortunately this arrangement is not unheard of at YU.) Although I felt the pull of wanting to show the extent to which I was part of a group with which, in some other ways, I did identify, I was also disgusted by the suggestion and attending rudeness and Chillul Hashem. That was a ויפן כה וכה moment for me. Past that line, I would not have been true to myself. Convenient as it would have been to take the easy route to self-identification at that moment, I had to admit that I was not entirely them in order to remain true to the necessarily life-long task of constantly finding myself.

At the same time, although it would be tempting to conclude this post here and skirt the issue – and as much as I have never conceived of this blog as a means of mud-slinging, venting, or airing dirty laundry – I would not be true to myself if I did not express the disappointment I feel in being part of a group which chose to cancel a weekly family-based learning program in lieu of a playoff football game on TV. Although in many ways I identify with that group quite strongly, I cannot help but admit what was staring back at me, for here was all the hypocrisy, laziness and misplaced-prioritizing slung at Modern Orthodoxy from the Right and the Left on display for all the world to see. The fact that the weekly program is for families and children, and not a Shiur for adults, makes it all that much more painful as it reeks of the mixed messages we must work so hard to avoid giving our children. So that’s my ויפן כה וכה line for today, that point beyond which I would not be true to myself: Convenient as it would be to take the easy route to self-identification at this moment and tow the party line (or at least be silently complicit on the issue), I have to admit that I am not entirely them in order to remain true to the life-long task of constantly finding myself.

Luckily, I can end on a more positive note. Sharing the earlier part of this post with a friend yesterday, I pointed out that Kalev’s ויפן כה וכה moment did not change his being part of the group of spies. Despite his estrangement with their overall approach and worldview, he did not immediately return to the Jews but coalesced around a new outlook. My friend pointed out to me that for Moshe, the opposite was necessary – he needed to separate himself entirely from his past in order for his ויפן כה וכה moment to have meaning. In this regard, I am glad that I have always been able to be a Kalev, retaining allegiance with the Penguins of YU (despite my many differences with them and their never seeming to quite understand me) and, today, with the Modern Orthodox among whom I am proud to share many parts of my life. But like Kalev, I will never definitively and conveniently choose to be anyone in order to forgo the life-long task of constantly finding myself.

This entry was posted in Classroom Experiences, Communal Matters, Parshat Hashavua. Bookmark the permalink.

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