Lazer Gurkow

 Heroic Struggles of Ordinary People

Heroic struggles are for ordinary people. Extraordinary people have no struggles. They are brilliant and gifted. Their hearts aflame with love; they are humble, kind, generous, and pious. They melt with ecstasy at the mention of G-d, and they tremble with fear at the specter of sin. They follow all their hearts’ desires because they desire only good things. What struggles do such people have?

Ordinary people have many struggles. They are constantly working to rein in their hearts and do their duty. Ordinary people are proud, hold grudges, experience jealousy, and have temper issues. They are filled with vices like greed, lust, and envy. They can be cruel and heartless, selfish, and hedonistic. They are prone to unhealthy urges, addictions and obsessions, insecurities, and fears.

Okay, let’s be honest. Not every ordinary person suffers all of the above. That would be rather unusual. But it is a menu of troubles; if you are honest, you can tick off at least two or three that ail you. Those are the vices against which you and I must struggle. Those are our heroic struggles because, indeed, when we struggle, we are heroes. Not just any hero, but G-d’s hero.

My Servant Caleb
We infer this from an odd passage in this week’s Torah portion. The Torah tells us the story of the spies. We are all aware that Moses sent twelve spies to scout the land of Israel. Ten spies returned with a negative report. Joshua and Caleb returned with a glowing report.

Joshua declared himself from the start to be in favor of Israel. Caleb disguised his opinion and pretended to support the spies. He broke away from them one day and visited the cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron to pray for success in his delicate mission. When the spies returned to the desert and offered their negative report, Caleb asked for the floor. Thinking he was on their side, they allowed him to speak, and he surprised them with a glowing defense of G-d, Israel, and Moses. This was a dangerous double cross, but he pulled it off brilliantly. This was the success for which he prayed in Hebron.

The Jews believed the negative report and refused to go to Israel. G-d told Moses that they would die in the desert. Moses prayed for them, and G-d consented in part. That generation would die in the desert over the next forty years, and their children would enter Israel. There would be one exception: “My servant Caleb because he was imbued with a different spirit and remained loyal to me.”

This is a curious passage. G-d pretended as if Caleb were the only one with a different spirit. What about Joshua? Wasn’t he also an exception? Did he, too, not have a different report from the others? Only several passages later, Joshua was mentioned directly. “Of those who went to scout the land, only Joshua, son of Nun, and Caleb, son of Jephuneh, survived.”

My Servant
Here we come to a deeply moving explanation. In his commentary Or Hachayim, Rabbi Chaim Ibn Atar explained it like this. The different spirit referenced here was not Caleb’s loyalty to G-d. On the contrary, it was his vacillation. Caleb was of two minds and could not figure out which way to jump. Part of him was drawn to the plot of the spies, and another part remained loyal to Moses.

Joshua didn’t have this problem. Before the spies left, Moses blessed him and prayed for G-d to save him from the designs of the spies. Joshua was clear-eyed and single-minded throughout. This is why Caleb made pilgrimage to Hebron and Joshua did not. Caleb needed the additional support of our patriarchs’ and matriarchs’ blessings. Joshua already had Moses’ blessings.

Ordinary people have two urges: an urge to do good and a desire to do wrong. When we are beset by an urge to do wrong but overcome it, it is considered as if we did something good. Extraordinary people don’t have two wishes. They only have the urge to do good.

You would think that G-d would single out Joshua, the extraordinary righteous Jew who never wanted to join his colleagues. The peer pressure never got to him, and the enticements never moved him; his fidelity was beyond reproach. You would think that is the person G-d would have singled out.

But G-d singled out Caleb. The person who was of two minds, the one who had a different spirit but overcame it and remained loyal to G-d.  Not only does Caleb get singled out, but he is also given the moniker “my servant.” You are not G-d’s servant if you want to do His bidding. You are doing what you want to do. You are G-d’s servant if you don’t want to do his bidding, and you overcome that urge out of loyalty to G-d. That is serving G-d.

Heroic Struggles
We now return to our heroic struggles. Don’t think that your weaknesses and faults make you a bad person. Don’t think your urges and vices turn you against G-d. G-d created you just as you are. He gave you these foibles and temptations. He made us broken vessels, and He loves us.

But He made us broken so that we could make ourselves whole. He gave us these urges so we could overcome them. And as he gave us the ability to do so. Let’s never believe that our cravings are stronger than us. We are G-d-made vessels, and nothing can stand in the way of G-d’s vessels, broken or whole.

We are engaged in heroic struggles when we work to overcome our urges, vices, weaknesses, and insecurities. We are not only heroic; we are heroic to G-d—G-d’s servant. We are doing what He tasked us to do, facing our demons, confronting our weaknesses, and working to overcome them.

Heroes don’t always succeed. Sometimes even heroes fail. But what separates the hero is the willingness to get up and try again. Heroes don’t lose faith in G-d and the abilities with which He endowed us. We are heroes and engage in heroic struggles. When we fail, we pick ourselves up off the ground and try again with the certainty that our past doesn’t dictate our future. That yesterday’s fall sets up tomorrow’s climb.

We continue our heroic struggles and believe we will succeed next time.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at