Choices at the crossroads

Choices at the crossroads

Shelach - Numbers 13:1-15:41

We have all been at a crossroads, moments in our life’s journey when we had to make a crucial choice whether to proceed along one road or another.

We have all also experienced moments much further along in our journey, when we reflected back upon our decisions and wondered what would have been if we had pursued the alternative road.

Imagine standing at a crossroads with a close friend. Both of you face an identical choice, this road or that. You choose one road, your friend, the other road.

You would each have an intriguing tale to tell if, after many years, you met and had the opportunity to compare the results of your decisions.

Whenever I have been fortunate enough to engage in a conversation with a Holocaust survivor, I listen eagerly to their stories. When they permit — and they do not always — I ask them questions not just about their experiences, but about their choices and decisions.

I especially remember a discussion I had with someone I will call Ezra. He told me about the hellish years he spent fleeing and fighting the Nazis in the forests of Poland. He had a companion then; let us call him Simon. Ezra and Simon were boyhood friends who together witnessed the murder of their parents and together managed to escape and join the partisans. Eventually, they were both caught and incarcerated in prisons and concentration camps.

In his story, Ezra compared his attitude throughout those horrific times with that of his friend. “You know me,” he said, “and you know I’ve always seen the bright side of things, the hopefulness of every situation, however dire.”

“As much as I was an idealist,” he continued, “so was Simon a hard-core realist. He saw things as they were and dealt with them accordingly. He had no illusions of hope whatsoever.”

Many years after my conversation with Ezra, I met Simon and was able to compare the postwar life he had led as a consequence of his crossroads decisions with the life of Ezra. After the war, Simon chose not to marry and went to live in a rather remote American community where he had little contact with other Jews. Ezra married, raised a large family, now with many grandchildren, and was very much involved with Jewish causes. He eventually chose to live out his final years in the State of Israel.

Two individuals at the same crossroads, making different decisions, with starkly different life outcomes.

This week’s Torah portion gives us the opportunity to witness individuals at the crossroads, individuals who make radically different decisions and whose lives therefore played out very differently.

Let us focus, for example, on the personalities of Nachbi ben Vofsi, prince of the tribe of Naphtali, and Caleb ben Yefuneh, prince of the tribe of Judah. Up until the dramatic moment described in Shelach, they led almost identical lives. They both experienced the Exodus from Egypt, the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea, the revelation at Mount Sinai, and opportunities for leadership of their respective tribes.

They were both assigned as spies to the land of Canaan and both criss-crossed the Promised Land and returned to give their reports. But then we read (Numbers 13:30-31): “Caleb…said, ‘Let us by all means go up, as we shall gain possession of the land, and we shall surely overcome.’ But the men who had gone up with him” — one of whom was Nachbi — “said, ‘We cannot attack that people, for they are stronger than we.’”

Two individuals, at the same crossroads, one full of hope and trust and confidence, the other frightened, albeit realistic.

How differently their lives played out from this point forward. Nachbi perished in ignominy in the desert while Caleb remained a prince, enhanced his reputation, and was granted his reward, the city of Hebron.

We all face crossroads in our lives, some of great significance, some seemingly trivial. Our choices can be Nachbi-like — practical and safe, but ultimately cowardly. Or they can be informed by hope, trust, and confidence and ultimately be brave and heroic.

The choice is ours, and so are the consequences for the rest of our lives.

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