Sunday, May 26, 2013

Who says you're going to fail? / Shelach-lecha

When my first child was in kindergarten, she told me that she could not learn to read English. “Why?” I asked. Because, she explained, a person can read in only one language, and since she could read Hebrew, it would not be possible for her to now learn to read English. I have no idea where she got this notion, but she was so certain of its veracity that she paid no attention to the teacher’s efforts to teach the children to read.

Henry Ford is credited with having said: "Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right." The self-fulfilling prophecy is a well-documented powerful psychological phenomenon. No news here.

The story of the Twelve Spies sent to reconnoiter the land of Canaan, found in this week’s parashah Shelach-Lecha, reads very much like a primo example of the self-fulfilling prophecy at work.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribe, each one a chieftain among them.” So Moses, by the Lord’s command, sent them out from the wilderness of Paran, all the men being leaders of the Israelites. (Numbers 13:1-3)

Torah proceeds to list the names of the 12 tribal leaders of Israel. Ten of the twelve spies bring back a negative report; they say that the land is populated by unconquerable giants and even the land itself “devours it settlers” (Numbers 13:32). The fears of the Israelites rise to a panic:

The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died in the land of Egypt,” the whole community shouted at them, “or if only we might die in this wilderness! Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!” And they said to one another, “Let us head back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:1-4)

The result? God decrees that the Israelites should wander the Wilderness for forty years until the generation born into slavery had died. That generation was convinced it could not succeed, and indeed would make a self-fulfilling prophecy of their conviction. Torah presents it as God’s angry punishment, but perhaps God recognizes the power of a self-fulfilling prophesy on a national level. They would be (as Henry Ford pointed out) right.

The chapter of the spies is considered a travesty in Jewish religious history, so much so that Mishnah Ta’anit 4:5, in listing a series of “negative turning points” that led up to the destruction of the Second Temple, includes the episode of the spies. But according to biblical chronology, this occurred 2,000 years before the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. How could there be a connection 20 centuries later?

The Torah is clear enough about what transpired, but the Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem Talmud) fills in blanks we didn’t know even existed. When the spies come to report to Moses and Aaron, they find their leaders engaged in studying laws that will prevail exclusively in the Land of Israel: challah (the dough offering) and orlah [orlah is the status of produce prohibited during the first three years of the growth of a tree]. Moses and Aaron are thinking positively and actively preparing to enter the land. The ten spies, however, will soon set the entire nation back forty years.

And they came to Moses and Aaron (Numbers 13:26). They came and found them busy studying the laws concerning challah and orlah. [The ten spies who brought the negative report] said to them: “Now you in fact are not going to enter the land, and yet you are occupied with the laws of challah and orlah?!” Forthwith: Then all the congregation raised a loud cry; and the people wept that night (Numbers 13:26).

The Rabbis go on to describe the spies’ experience in the land of Canaan:

In every city they entered, the most important man in the city died. So while the people were busy burying him, [the spies] could reconnoiter the town and come out again, and no one even knew that they had been there.

What remarkable luck! The funeral of a dignitary in each city, occupying everyone’s attention. The scouts could go about their business unnoticed. The Yerushalmi paints us a picture that even surrounded by positive signs — Moses and Aaron studying up on laws that pertain to agriculture in the land, and the deaths of the leaders of the cities (which smacks of divine intervention to help the spies along) — even with these encouraging signs, ten spies succumb to a defeatist attitude which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for all Israel.

As we asked a moment ago: Why does the Yerushalmi connect this event with the Destruction of the Second Temple by telling us it also occurred on Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av)? After all, the Destruction happened 2,000 years later. And perhaps that is precisely what they want us to see: the consequences stretched through generation after generation, like a mutated gene or a toxin, repeatedly exacting a great cost.

There is no such thing as a single event in isolation. All the events of our lives are linked inseparably in the chain of our reality, the chain of our perception of what is possible and what is not. Sometimes negativity is bequeathed to us by previous generations.

This is true not only for nations, but also for individuals. Consider your own life. What negative messages from long ago abide with you and color your thinking about what you can and cannot accomplish? We all retain messages we have received along the way. Unless we can consciously confront and dismantle them, there is danger that we will internalize them and make them self-fulfilling prophecies.

Another option is for someone wonderful to dismantle them for us. Not all of us are fortunate enough to have such a someone in our lives. Happily, my daughter had that someone in kindergarten. I told my daughter’s teacher what my daughter had told me. The teacher smiled and said: “Leave it to me.” Some weeks later, while volunteering in the classroom, I found my daughter busily engaged in work I didn’t recognize. Peering over her shoulder, I was surprised to see that that the teacher had photocopied several pages of word problems from a third grade math book. The math wasn’t an issue — my daughter was passionate about math — but word problems? I said to the teacher, “What are you doing? She doesn’t read English.” The teacher smiled and replied, “She thinks she doesn’t read English. But she wants to do the math so badly that she has taught herself to read the English in order to get to the math. She just doesn’t know it yet.” And sure enough, when I asked my daughter if she was enjoying what she was doing, she grinned ear to ear and read me the problem she was working on. Without any realization she had read the problem to me, she said, “Math is such fun.”

An addendum:
There are formulations too numerous to count offering advice and instruction in how to change our self-defeating mindset in order to achieve our goals and avoid being plagued by self-fulfilling prophecies. Many formulations seem to boil down to three steps; I have added a fourth:

1.     Identify the things you want to create, explore, master, or attempt in your life, and what results you hope to achieve. Write them down.
2.     Develop a plan for accomplishing your goals. What will it take? How can you divide it into smaller, more manageable pieces or steps? Write them down.
3.     Examine the beliefs and the messages in your head that are holding you back. Write them down. Acknowledge them for what they are and jettison them.
4.     Yehoshuah b. Perachiah said: Acquire for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend; and judge everyone [including yourself!] for merit. (Pirke Avot 1:6)

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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