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Shelach: The Courage to Stand

In 1967, a high school social studies teacher in Palo Alto, California, set out to teach his students an unforgettable lesson about the insidious, nearly inevitable power of conformity. In teaching about the Nazis and the events leading up to the Holocaust, Ron Jones received many questions from his students about how so many thousands of seemingly normal people could turn virtually overnight into cold, callous serial killers. Jones decided to impart this lesson through experience. During the course of a few weeks, Jones, a charismatic, well-liked teacher, began a new order in his classroom. He and his students started what is now known as The Third Wave, a classroom experiment that demonstrated, in quite a disturbing fashion, the extent to which individuals can be changed, molded, and shaped to abide by new and even harmful rules and values, seemingly without thought, in the name of group solidarity.

Iterations and permutations of this classroom experiment have found their way into the annals of social psychology literature, and even into the Yeshiva Day School setting. In my own fifth grade classroom, my teacher conducted a similar experiment, separating those students with brown eyes from those with blue eyes, treating those with the latter with special treatment, and administering a difficult science test to those with the former. In my idealistic memory, I seem to recall some of us protesting this unfair treatment initially, but ultimately we all ended up acquiescing to the new order, which lasted a whole day before our teacher ended the charade and debriefed with us about the importance of standing up to and being aware of prejudice and conformity.

Some research on conformity sought only to provide evidence that human beings have this innate tendency to conform, this social susceptibility to the Group Think phenomenon. Other studies examine the characteristics of a particular group that render it more or less vulnerable to conformity or peer pressure, or the character of those people who, when faced with the pressure of the group, are still able to stick to their values or stand up for their individual ideas and ideals.

Confronted with history and research and the very real experience of our daily lives, it is clear that humans have a tendency to conform. Perhaps the best question is not when or why DO we conform, but rather, when and why do we NOT conform? Who are those individuals who stand up against the norm, who swim against the tide, who question and rebel against the new order, because it flies in the face of their values? Who are the dissenters, the ones who speak out not to be different, not because non-conformity is cool or contemporary, but because it is the only chance we have to cling to truth?

In this week’s Parsha, we come face to face with a rather sinister manifestation of conformity. When the Meraglim set out to spy out Eretz Yisrael, they see giants and gigantic fruit, they encounter funerals and death. They decide that it is a land that devours its inhabitants, and they speak slanderously about the land, causing a national uproar and upheaval, wreaking a havoc whose ripple effects we feel still today (13:32).

Yet, heroically and honorably, we know that two of the twelve spies, Calev ben Yefuneh from the tribe of Yehuda and Yehoshua (Hoshea) ben Nun from the tribe of Efraim, did not participate in this sin. The verse tells us that when the spies brought back their report, Calev and Yehoshua tore their clothes in mourning, a clear behavioral indication of their disagreement with the other ten spies (14:7). It is curious to note, however, that only Calev is seen to actually assert himself as a dissenter: only Calev tries to argue against what the spies were saying, to convince both the spies and the nation as a whole that their report was inaccurate and unnecessarily negative. The verse says, “ and Calev silenced the people and said ‘we will surely overcome them and we can go up and inherit the land’” (13:30).

Why is it that Calev receives this overt call out as a brave, honorable non-conformist and furthermore, why didn’t Yehoshua, who clearly also disagreed with the spies’ report, say anything to that effect?

It is not necessarily novel or noble to go against the tide in one’s heart. Many individuals who have found themselves in uncomfortable conformity-demanding situations, such as in the classroom experiment of Ron Jones and the more controlled experiments of scientists like Asch, have claimed afterward that though they were deeply convinced of their truths, values, beliefs, and righteousness, they found it impossible or unsafe to say so.

Chazal tell us “Shtikah k’ho’da’ah,” when one is silent in the face of untruth, immorality, or injustice, it is as if he is agreeing with what is being said, for he is not taking a stand against it. Thus, the goldmine of knowledge lies in understanding what enables a person to stand up for the truth in the face of deep opposition, to try to make some noise as a whistleblower through the cacophony of so many contrary voices. This is the quality that Calev possessed. Though Yehoshua doubtlessly believed in his heart of hearts exactly as Calev did, that the spies were mistaken and their slander was scandalous, he found it understandably difficult to speak out publically against them. Yet, because he tears his clothes and does not participate in the slander, he is still rewarded, and later becomes the leader of the Jewish people.

When Yehoshua takes over from Moshe, both Moshe (Devarim 31:7) and Hashem Himself (Yehoshua 1:6) encourage Yehoshua to be strong and courageous. Yehoshua was one of the most righteous Jews to ever walk the earth. As Moshe’s right-hand man, Yehoshua was the one who waited at the foot of Har Sinai for Moshe to return, and he was hand-picked by Moshe, greatest of all Jewish leaders, to lead the nation into the promised land. Clearly, he was a holy individual! Why, then, does he need the extra Chizuk to be strong and courageous? Perhaps this is both counsel and warning, reminding Yehoshua that, though piety goes very far, it is insufficient to keep one’s piety to oneself. It takes true courage to stand up to others, even and perhaps especially those one is leading, and particularly a stubborn, passionate people like Klal Yisrael.

We live in a world where we are constantly exposed to a barrage of opinions. We are endlessly scrolling through myriad messages we can like, post, share, or re-tweet. Messages, values, questions, prejudices, ideas and ideals infiltrate our mental and spiritual plane through so many mediums, it can be hard, if not impossible, to filter, let alone stand up against, some of the things others are saying and espousing. We must be mindful of the dangers of conformity, of the Group Think mentality, and we must similarly be able to assert our own beliefs. If someone says something against what we believe, or against another person, it takes courage to speak out. In a dignified, diplomatic, and respectful manner, we can counter slanderous speech by taking affirmative action. When people rebel against conformity, we say they are “standing up for what they believe in” - it takes far more energy, awareness, and effort to stand up than to sink down in our seats, idle and passive consumers of the global, social ideology of the day.

And yet, despite the beauty of refraining from conformity like Yehoshua, or the importance of active opposition demonstrated by Calev, going against the norm is extremely difficult. How can we accomplish this?

Whenever we set out to check or change a psychological reality or natural human instinct, we must do so mindfully, slowly, and with great humility. Perhaps the following can highlight some potential steps to take in trying to make space for your truth in the world:

  1. Be mindful. Be aware of your biases and feelings, and notice what people are saying and your own thoughts or reactions in response. Take in all of this without acting.

  2. Start saying, “I don’t know if I agree with that” or “I’d rather you didn’t say that in front of me,” to relatives and friends, before taking on the more threatening and less friendly audiences of everyone else you want to “set straight.”

  3. Start saying these kinds of things to people with whom you are less comfortable, and then, move (respectfully and diplomatically) from there to large platforms.

  4. Pray. Perhaps the key difference between Calev and Yehoshua lies not in their temperaments, personalities, or approaches in the moment, but in their actions before the report of the spies was even solidified. The Pasuk says, “VaYaalu BeNegev, VaYavo Ad Chevron,” and they went up in the south, and he went until Chevron (13:22). Rashi notes that the change in pronouns teaches us that while all twelve spies entered the land together, only Calev went to Chevron, to pray at the graves of our ancestors to save himself from their plot. Though Calev always planned to dissent if needed, he knew the very real threat that conformity poses. Rav Wolbe notes that Calev’s decision to Daven in Chevron highlights his awareness of the powerful sway that sin has over us; when we are subject to peer pressure, it is as though we lose all free will in that moment. While this, of course, brings up potential moral and ethical questions about free will and social influence that are beyond the scope of this discussion, Calev’s actions clearly illustrate that when it comes to Group Think and the threat of a grievous sin, we have to act like we don’t have free will. The influence and pressure is so real it diminishes our access to our own true will, belief, and desire. In such cases, we must attach ourselves to the merits of others, and we must pray for assistance.

This week, as the world continues to spin in a dizzying melting pot of opinions and dissenting opinions, let us try to access our inner truths, and pray for the strength and courage to stand up for those truths in as effective and peaceful a manner as possible.

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