Cantor Peicott's Shabbat Message - June 28, 2024

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Cantor Peicott's Shabbat Message - June 28, 2024

One of the first pieces of music I ever learned was from the musical “South Pacific.” For those of you who may not be so up-to-date on your American musical knowledge, I will summarize. The plot centers on an American nurse, Nellie Forbush, stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. Nellie falls in love with a middle-aged expatriate French plantation owner, but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. Now place all of this racial tension on an unnamed island in the South Pacific, during the raging battles of World War II, and you have a 10-time Tony award-winning musical, but I digress…

The song is called “Cockeyed Optimist,” and is sung by Nellie as she contemplates the difficulties of the world around her. The tune delivers the message of a so-called optimist, staying positive while many are not. A person who is buoyed and even strengthened by the anticipation of brighter and sunnier days ahead. While the chipper message of this fictional navy nurse from Arkansas might be a welcomed reprieve to all of us, amidst the political, cultural, and societal upheaval of our times, the message of this catchy tune is also incredibly Jewish. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha, 12 scouts from high ranking tribal families are sent into the Promised Land to bring back a report for Moses and the Israelites. At the end of 40 days, the scouts return. They go straight to Moses, Aaron, and the whole community with their findings:

“The land does flow with milk and honey…BUT the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large.” 

Only 2 of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, triumphantly respond:

עָלֹה נַֽעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ כִּֽי־יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָֽה

 “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we can make it through.” (Numbers 13:30)

The other 10 spies cry out, “We can’t attack them; the people are big and strong, and the land is difficult. The people there are giants; we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”

Upon hearing this, the Israelites immediately revert to fear and panic. They cry out and bemoan their fate. “We should have stayed in Egypt…why did you lead us to die here…let’s find a new leader and go back to the desert…we were better off slaves!” 

God becomes furious with the Israelites (yet again) and decrees that this generation will die on the outskirts, and so our ancestors are left to wander just outside their promised land for 40 more years. A failure of epic proportion.

But if you look closely at the text, Caleb and Joshua don’t actually contradict the words of the report. They don’t deny the gravity of the situation at hand. They agree that the land of Israel is filled with big and scary tribes. They agree that it won’t be easy.  And yet they still say Yachol nuchal lah – We can make it through.”

Joshua and Caleb are the only ones who focus on the opportunity rather than the obstacle before them. They are the ones who see that although the situation is challenging and scary, it’s also a chance to learn and to grow. Sure enough, 40 years later, Joshua and Caleb are the only ones of the original Israelites to finally enter the land. To top that off, Joshua is eventually named as the successor to Moses, and is the new leader of the Jewish people. Joshua and Caleb are “cockeyed optimists.”

Our lives are filled with challenging moments – at work, with our spouses, our parents, our children. The list goes on and on. There are times when we feel utterly overwhelmed with the chaos of the world around us. There are times when we feel dejected and hopeless. There are times when it seems like life has dealt us a raw hand. I hope that in those moments when all feels lost, that you can take a deep breath, and remember the lesson of the Torah this week: Yachol Nuchal Lah – We can make it through.

And if you ever need a little reminder, here’s a catchy little ditty to get you back on track.

Shabbat Shalom,

Cantor Lisa Peicott