Imagine standing at a crossroads. We have all experienced moments in our life’s journey when we had to make a crucial choice and decide whether to proceed along one road or along another.
We have all also experienced moments much further along in our journey, when we reflected back upon our decision and wondered what would have been if we had pursued the alternative road.
I have been fascinated by the experiences of Holocaust survivors. Whenever I have been fortunate enough to have the time to engage in conversation with one of them, I listen eagerly to their stories. When they permit, I ask them questions about their choices.
I especially remember the discussions I had with one of them — let’s call him Mr. Silver. He had a companion then — we’ll call him Simon. Mr. Silver and Simon were boyhood friends who together witnessed the murder of their parents, and who together managed to escape and join the partisans. Eventually, they were both caught and incarcerated in prisons and concentration camps.
Mr. Silver compared his attitude throughout those horrific times with the attitude of his friend Simon. He would say, “You know how I’ve always seen the bright side of things, the hopefulness of every situation, however dire.” Indeed, I assured him that I could vouch for his consistent optimism.
“As much as I was an idealist,” he would continue, “so was Simon a hard-core realist. He saw things as they were and dealt with them accordingly.”
Many years later I finally met Simon and we compared the life he led subsequent to the Holocaust, and subsequent to his crossroad decisions, with the life of Mr. Silver. After the war Simon chose not to marry and lived in a remote American community with little contact with other Jews. Mr. Silver married, raised a large family, was involved with Jewish causes, and chose to live out his final years in the State of Israel.
This week’s Torah portion, Shelach, gives us the opportunity to witness individuals at the crossroads who make radically different decisions and whose lives thereby played out very differently.
Let us focus on the personalities of Nachbi ben Vofsi, prince of the tribe of Naphtali, and of Caleb ben Yefuneh, prince of the tribe of Judah. Up until the dramatic moment described in this week’s parsha they led almost identical lives.
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 this very same crossroads in their lives; one full of hope, trust, and confidence, and the other frightened, albeit very 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, and 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.