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‘Why’ and ‘Why not’ 

18/06/20 13:26:51


George Bernard Shaw put it well: “Some people see things as they are and ask “Why”. Others dream of things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’ 

These are telling words for a Corona age; they are also profound words consistent with Jewish wisdom and reflected in this week’s Parasha. 

The ten spies who returned from reconnoitering Canaan with a negative report were weighed down by what they saw. They saw a strong and secure society, a fruitful land filled with frightening warriors. They saw the promised land as it was and were perplexed and fearful of the capacity of the people of Israel to return to it. A heavy “why” rested on their hearts; why fight for this place, why give up the protection of God’s clouds and a secure food source (the manna), for the uncertainties of freedom and the unpredictability of a sovereign state? The two spies, Joshua and Calev, who returned with a positive report were infused with the dream of a Jewish future promised to Abraham. They were the “why not” duo, driven by destiny propelled by Providence. Unlike the tenuous ten who declare “We can do it” (Numbers 13:31), they boldly say: “We can surely do it” (Ibid 30). 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks refers to Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. Dweck’s thesis is that there are two types of people. Those with a “fixed” mindset see their abilities as given and unalterable; they avoid difficult and unusual challenges because of the fear of failure. Those with a “growth” mindset believe we grow through our efforts and experiences. They actively seek challenges and thrive in them. 

The ten had fixed mindsets and were afraid of failing and losing some of their prestige; they were after all princes of the people. The two, Calev and Joshua were not unaware of the challenges of the new land. They knew it would demand diplomacy and creativity to move into. They weren’t starry-eyed optimists, but confident in their faith. They didn’t do ‘can’t do’. They would have approved of historian David Landes statement that: “In this world optimists have it, not because they are always right, but because they are positive. Even when wrong they are positive...Educated, eyes-open optimism pays; pessimism can only offer the empty consolations of being right”. 

In my opinion there’s an additional element to a growth mindset, a sense of perspective. The dynamic duo appreciated that what you see is determined by your genes and your genesis. It’s not simply a case of seeing is believing. Two people can see the same thing and interpret it in completely different ways. As the old adage has it:

 ‘Two look through the same prison bars 

 One sees the mud, one sees the stars’ 

What we see, our perspective is shaped by our upbringing, as much as it is developed by our life experiences. If we are brought up to believe that risk-taking is always dangerous, or that we will fail as individuals if we don’t fulfill our parent’s expectations, then we will likely be fearful in our actions and limited in our perspectives. If we are brought up with the freedom to be and to see the wonder of challenge and opportunity, we are likely to be bold and wide in our perspective. 

Of course, there is another critical element that shapes our perspective- it's called empathy. Empathy says Professor Zuckerman of Boston (thank you Frank Oberklaid for sharing this) is the ability to cognitively understand or emotionally feel what another person is experiencing or just crying about another. He also reminds us that we learn empathy from our parents, teachers and religion. It starts in infancy when we observe our parent’s responses to our needs. We aren’t, however, doomed by poor parenting and some empathic repair is always possible. Perspective is powerfully informed by empathy (or the lack of it). 

One of the challenges of our times is to work on our “can do’s”, to develop (or enhance) a growth mindset, a principled perspective guided by empathy. Hopefully, when we start our post-pandemic society, we can repair our failings, foster an empathetic culture! In Zuckerman’s words “Empathic caring is communicable, let’s have it go viral. 

Shabbat Shalom 

Rabbi Ralph 

Mon, 18 January 2021 5 Shevat 5781