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June 16, 2023

Parashat Sh’lach: Believe

Daniel S. Ross

This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.

Parashat Sh'lach: Believe

Rabbi Dan Ross

In this week’s Torah portion Sh’lach, the Children of Israel have departed Mount Sinai, and we pick up their story at the border of the Promised Land. At God’s command, Moses sends 12 men to scout the territory before them. And after surveying the land, they return with their report.

The good news: The land indeed flows with milk and honey.
The bad: It’s inhabited by giants and we’re doomed.

But two of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua, disagree. In fact, Caleb urges our ancestors on:
עָלֹ֤ה נַעֲלֶה֙
“Let’s go!”

כִּֽי־יָכ֥וֹל נוּכַ֖ל לָֽהּ
“We can do it.”[1]

But the Children of Israel aren’t convinced. They hear the word “giants” and stop listening. They even threaten to pelt Caleb and Joshua with stones. The results are brutal: God sends a plague that kills all the scouts, sparing only Joshua and Caleb.
And then God declares that no one from that generation will enter the Promised Land.

Interestingly though, Rabbi Shai Held observes that Caleb and Joshua never dispute the other scouts’ account of their expedition.[2] They never say there aren’t giants in the land. What Caleb and Joshua dispute is what their kinsmen say about themselves: “We cannot attack those people, for they are stronger than us…
וַנְּהִ֤י בְעֵינֵ֙ינוּ֙ כַּֽחֲגָבִ֔ים

“And against them, we were like grasshoppers in our eyes…”[3]

That was the real problem: Our ancestors didn’t believe in themselves. They didn’t believe they could battle giants. They likened themselves to insects. They forgot that grasshoppers can fly.

Two weeks ago, the third season of the Emmy Award-winning comedy Ted Lasso came to a close. The show is about a failing English Premier League soccer club that hires Ted, a college football coach from Kansas, to be their new manager. Ted’s soccer team is a lot like our ancestors: talented but not quite ready to get to the Promised Land.

There’s a lot to say about the Torah of Ted Lasso. But this Shabbat, I want to focus on a signature element of the set. As Ted is making his new team’s locker room his own, his finishing touch is a yellow piece of paper that he tapes above his office door. It has a single word scrawled in blue: “Believe.” You can’t miss it. It’s a reminder for all to see. But why do we need to remind ourselves to believe? What’s so important about belief?

There’s a great teaching by the Baal Shem Tov about two different ways we believe in God. The first is what we usually mean when we talk about God. We believe in God as Borei, the Creator of the universe, transcendent, awesome.
Remember when God split the Red Sea? Fed us manna from heaven? Appeared at Mount Sinai? Having witnessed so many of these miracles with their own eyes, our ancestors must have believed in God as Borei.

But the Baal Shem Tov also taught that there is a second, subtler way to believe in God. We believe in God as Shechinah, as the divine presence within us, imminent and intimate. This is the God we believe in when we breathe. When we see God’s face in the people we love. When we feel God in our beating hearts.[4]

Which brings us back to Ted Lasso and his sign. Usually, when we use the word “believe,” we’re talking about believing in something. We believe in the soccer gods. In love at first sight. In the power of Judaism to transform lives.

But Ted’s sign simply reads “Believe.”

Which is a message I think Caleb would have appreciated. Because in Hebrew, his name is kaleiv, which means, “like a heart.” Caleb’s name teaches us that just as important as what we believe is where our belief comes from. True belief comes from the heart.

Caleb is so hopeful: “Let’s go. We can do this.” But our ancestors don’t believe in themselves. They fall short, right at the goal line, which is what can happen when our hearts aren’t in it.

What do we need to believe in ourselves? To believe in God as Borei and Shechinah? To believe in God without and within? To believe we can get to the Promised Land?

We need signs, but not from God above. We need signs we hang above doors. Signs that fill our hearts. Signs that remind us, simply, to believe. Because when we believe in ourselves, we can do anything. We can fly like grasshoppers, and we can even conquer giants.

Shabbat Shalom.


[1] Numbers 13:30

[2] Held, Shai. 2017. The Heart of Torah, Volume 2: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. p. 126.

[3] Numbers 13:31-33

[4] https://elmad.pardes.org/2023/06/shelach-5783-real-self-confidence-is-born-in-faith/

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.