I’m sitting in the waiting room, and the receptionist comes out from behind the door into the waiting area where my wife and I are sitting. The receptionist then turns to me, without really taking me in, and asks:
“Are you Muhammad?
Wearing a big kippah (yarmulke) on my head and my wife wearing a Jewish head covering as well, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud and say back to the receptionist quizzically:
Why? Do I look like a Muhammad?
And so it goes in life, where people make ridiculous assumptions about others based simply on their looks or even on nothing that makes any sense at all.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach, Moses sends the twelve spies to surveil the Promised Land of Israel. However, ten of the spies see only the superficial and come back with a slanderous report saying that the people of Canaan were mighty, lived in fortified cities, and that the Israelites would therefore not be able to prevail against them. Further, they said (Numbers: 13:32–33):
And all the people whom we saw in it were people of size… We were as grasshoppers in our eyes, and so were we in their eyes.
Only Joshua and Caleb, from the spies, saw beyond this and understood the situation for what it really was, and they retorted that the land was indeed great, and if G-d so desired, He would give it to the Israelites, a land flowing with milk and honey.
The Chabad Rabbi Moishe Kavka then told the following parable:
A man is distraught with how his life looks to him, and he says to G-d:
I want a new life instead of this one!
G-d answers the man and says
Well, if you want a new life, it will cost you.
Shaking his head, the man retorts:
But I only have $20 in my pocket.
Okay, then it will cost you $20 for a new life.
The man is taken aback, and replies:
But then I won’t be able to fill up my car with gas.
You have a car too, then it will cost you $20 and the car for a new life.
The man’s eyes widen, and he says:
But then how will I get to work and feed my family?
You have a job and family too, then it will cost you $20, the car, your job, and your family for a new life.
Hearing this, the man realizes all that he has, changes his mind, and tells G-d that he now wants to keep his current life!
The moral of the story is an important one: While we can look at our own lives negatively and say that the glass is half empty (or at others disparagingly with whatever bad stereotypes come to mind), very likely, we are looking superficially and not beneath the surface at how many blessings we really have in life (or at the good in others).
This is similar to the story of the spies. G-d redeemed the Israelites with a mighty hand from Egyptian slavery, brought the ten plagues on the Egyptians, split the sea for them, revealed Himself, and gave them the Torah at Sinai. Yet upon hearing of the giants in Canaan, the Israelites saw just mere mortal might and danger to themselves, and they forgot the bigger picture: that G-d can do anything (including defeating any enemy and delivering us to the Promised Land)!
Of course, it’s difficult to see things clearly in life, especially when we take into account that people are complex and that biases, fears, and narcissistic thinking cloud our human vision.
In the book A Jewish Guide to the Mysterious by Pinchas Taylor, he discusses how people have many layers of depth to them. In addition to having a body (i.e., how they look), a person has a holy soul (i.e., the breath of life from G-d). In fact, a person’s body without the soul is just lifeless dust. It’s only the deeper spirituality that G-d endowed within human beings that makes us unique among all of G-d’s creations.
Further, this duality of body and soul can be evident in the “aura” (energy field), which is similar to the word “orah” (light) around our bodies and which can convey elements of the more profound spiritual aspects of the person. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for health (בריאות) has the exact letters for house (בית) and light (אור), perhaps to tell us that the body houses the soul and is only fully healthy when the body is covered in the spiritual light of Hashem.
In short, similar to how the receptionist didn’t really look at who I was, the spies who surveilled the land of Israel did not see beyond the imposing nations before them. However, we are all much more than our physical manifestations in this world, and looks can definitely be deceiving. The most important thing in dealing with ourselves and others is to look beyond the superficial and see each person for who they really are, and G-d’s holy spirit has an outsized role in realizing the potential of who we can be. Finally, body and soul not withstanding, know that G-d is with us, whether in going to the Promised Land or pursuing our other missions along the way.