Thoughts About the Portion: Shelakh
John Amaeche was a professional basketball player. He play a number of years in the NBA (for the uninitiated: The NBA is the premiere basketball league in the US). In 2007, he was one of the few professional athletes to admit that he was gay. Since his career ended, he has become a businessman and a motivational speaker (wrote a book as well). For a modern athlete to ‘come out’ it takes a lot of courage. Unfortunately, professional athletes are still part of a narrow minded fraternity, which frowns upon gay athletes. Some, like Billy Bean and David Kopay, eventually wrote about their struggles as gay athletes and how they concealed their true identities for fear of any ramifications. Peer pressure in the world of athletics is intense…
In our contemporary world, individuals often pay an unnecessary price for being different. The burdens of peer pressure are certainly not limited to gay athletes; nor confined to any age or gender. Even in the Jewish world, soon to be B/B Mitzvah families confront the challenge of keeping up with the Schwartz’s. I have known families who borrowed significant sums from the bank to pay for elaborate b’nai mtizvah receptions they could not afford. They did so in order to remain in their social circles. It takes much courage and self-confidence to withstand peer pressure; even if by doing so a family finds itself outside of the coveted friendship circle to which all their neighbors belong. I still recall-with great admiration-a comment made by a student during a Hebrew High informal discussion. As we were talking about peer pressure, this student (who is now married with family) recalled what she told her friends before her Bat Mitzvah. As her family lived modestly, her party would reflect such modesty. Any friend who had a problem with her reality could stay home. Most of our children could not react with such security; especially since we-the adults-succumb to peer pressures as well.
These thoughts come to mind when considering the theme of Shelakh; the Torah portion for Shabbat. Twelve scouts are appointed (one from each tribe) to scout out the land of Israel; to determine how inhabitable it will be for the Jewish people. Ten of the twelve returned with a negative report. Only two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, reported more positively. After the majority presented their negative impressions, the general population began a mini-insurrection against Moses. Joshua and Caleb, however, stood their ground. I can only imagine what they endured throughout the entire mission. They were probably threatened by the others not to deviate from the general plan. They might have been subject to ridicule and even physical violence. As it became evident where the two lone wolves stood, I imagine they were intentionally cast aside; rejected by the others. Nevertheless, they returned to the desert and reported that the majority was wrong; that the Land of Israel was suited to their long term future. Although the other scouts eventually faded away, Joshua and Caleb rose to greater leadership and prosperity within the nation.
Overcoming peer pressure may exact a price; and sometimes that price is severe. At the same time, standing up with self-confidence and conviction brings a peace of mind; which enables us to gaze into a mirror and to be proud of what we see.
Rabbi Michael Klayman