Denial and Despair

Sermon delivered on August 8, 2008, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


Certain members of my family, present company included, are accused of telling the same story, over and over again. At the risk of sounding defensive, I would argue that some stories are worth re-telling.

Tomorrow morning, Matt will read from the first chapter of Deuteronomy, a story that also appears in Numbers. The Children of Israel are on the verge of entering their Promised Land. Moses sends twelve spies, one from each tribe, to scout out the Land. When they return, all the scouts are in agreement that God has assigned them a good land. On the other point under examination, however, the spies are divided.

Ten of the spies emphasize that the people of the land are giants; and their cities, heavily fortified. The message clear: We cannot conquer this land, so we should not die trying.

The other two spies, Caleb and Joshua, dispute none of the reputed facts of the majority report. However, they insist that, with God’s help, nothing is impossible.

Sadly, the people share the pessimism of the ten. They sulk in their tents. They complain about ever having been liberated from Egypt. They refuse to move toward the destiny God has assigned them. Therefore, God assigns a new fate, at least to the generation in the desert. They will wander for forty years. With the notable exceptions of Joshua and Caleb, all those currently living will die in the wilderness. Their children will enter the Promised Land.

I was deeply moved, several years ago, here at the Temple, when my sister-in-law, Dr. Amy Lang, offered a D’var Torah based on this story. We were at a Healing Service, in a small circle on the bimah of the Oppenheimer Chapel. Amy noted the many, very real, responses that people may have to the challenges that face us. When, for example, a person receives a difficult medical diagnosis, she may despair. She may give up all hope, like the ten spies and their followers among the masses.

On the other hand, a man loses several jobs, one after the other. He repeatedly finds cause for blame in his employers and supervisors. He is in denial about the fact that he must make some changes himself, if he is to succeed. Unlike the Israelites in our story, the man forges ahead, but he does so recklessly, with little real chance of success.

In her D’var Torah, Amy noted the response of Caleb and Joshua. Truth be told, neither they nor any of the other spies have actually seen giants among the inhabitants of the Land. The city walls do not actually reach the heavens, as reported. Nevertheless, our two heroes don’t dispute the report. Conquering the land will be a difficult task. Caleb and Joshua urge the people to move forward with their eyes wide open, prepared to confront the very real challenge that lies before them.

Denial and despair are twin evils, either of which can keep us from moving ahead in life, from achieving our goals. The story of the spies is worth telling twice, to remind us to forge ahead, with full awareness of the challenges that we face.

We all agree with that message, on a rational level. What would any of us say to the student, who is worried about a very tough science test in the near future? What would we counsel, if she said, “I’m going to fail anyway, so what’s the use of studying?” We would, of course, reject the hopelessness. We would urge her to study, to do her very best. If she were our own child, we would require no less.

And what of the different student, facing the same difficult exam, who announced, “I can ace that test with my hands tied behind my back.” Still, we would counsel that he study. If he were our own child, we would demand it. We can be so rational when we’re talking about somebody else. Neither despairing of ever passing the exam, nor denying its challenge, is an acceptable response.

Did you ever wonder why people addicted to alcohol call themselves alcoholics, years, even decades, after their last drink; while people who smoked cigarettes for fifty years, but not the last six months are “ex-smokers?” Alcoholics Anonymous, and similar 12-step programs, rely on acknowledgement of the full extent of the problem. When a person begins to look upon himself as a former drinker, and no longer a person with a problem, not an alcoholic, he is more likely to take that first drink that leads back to full-blown substance abuse. I am a smoker. I know that, and I acknowledge that, even though I haven’t had a cigarette in almost seventeen years.

Conversely, I know more than a few people who have told me that they know they should give up smoking. They want to stop. And yet, they tell me that they simply can’t do it. Well, she will admit, she can quit; she’s done it countless times. Trouble is, she has started up again every time. She knows she will fail every time. With that level of despair, she is probably right.

Societies, like our own United States, are susceptible to many of the same frailties that affect individuals. Take, for example, one of the most significant problems facing America today: we face a crisis with transportation fuel.

The rising price of gasoline places a terribly heavy burden on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, but it affects us all. Whether it’s the plane ticket to visit family at Thanksgiving or the cheese shipped from Wisconsin, so many prices have risen, straining family budgets. At a time when our economy seemed to be weakening anyway, this petroleum crisis threatens the well-being, not only of our nation, but of the world.

At the same time, we are engaged in a war on an evil ideology and its adherents, on hundreds of millions of people who would annihilate our way of life. The other side of that war is being funded, in large measure, by the money we spend to buy fuel to drive our cars and fly our planes, even when we buy it from our supposed allies. Continuing our current energy consumption is a threat to national security.

Add to that the fact that transportation fuels produce a significant portion of the greenhouse gases that most scientists believe are causing global warming. The way we use energy threatens planet Earth.

For a very long time, our nation’s leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, have failed to enact automobile fuel standards. At the behest of the American automotive industry, Presidents and members of Congress have enacted policies to support what President Bush recently acknowledged to be our “addiction” to oil. These elected officials have been stalwart in their denial of the economic, national security, and environmental catastrophe that awaits us.

And the result hasn’t even been good for the American automotive industry.

We Americans aren’t good at paying attention to long-term problems. Perhaps the trouble is that we despair of having any real effect. Imagine, though, if our nation had paid attention to President Carter, thirty years ago, when he told us that we would have to attack our energy crisis with fortitude and creativity. But we didn’t want to hear that we had real problems. Our nation chose “morning in America” instead. Imagine if we had committed our country to the development of alternative transportation fuels by the end of the 1980s, the way that America dedicated itself to putting human beings on the moon in the 1960s. Had we steered clear of denial and despair, we might have avoided the potentially horrendous perfect storm of simultaneous crises facing us today.

I do not despair. I pray that, unlike the Israelites at the end of the story of the spies, we are not forty years away from reaching a promised land of peace and prosperity. I am grateful that both major political parties have chosen presidential candidates who acknowledge most of the problems facing our nation, and who generally articulate visions for addressing them. Let our next President, and all of us who must support him, be disciples of Caleb and Joshua. Let us eschew despair and reject denial. Let us recognize the challenges before us, and let us approach them with faith.

With God’s help, surely we can prevail, even if our enemies be giants; and their fortifications, higher than the clouds.

Amen.