THE PERIL OF BUT
Rabbi David Walk
During college I had a summer job making vinyl covers for skimobiles. That summer my grandmother passed away at the age of 96 (at the graveside her cousin claimed that she always lied about her age and was really 98). I got permission to miss work and go to the funeral. The next day I was impressed and touched when my boss quoted to me from her obituary. He told me not to be impressed; he was only checking my excuse for missing work. Then he complained about a former employee who had asked for permission to go to his third grandmother's funeral. He was fired right after being informed that grandmothers are only two per customer. Step parents weren't as common then. Anyway, the litany of famous excuses is long and famous. We've come a long way from 'the dog ate my homework' (like: 'I didn't do my history assignment because I don't like to dwell on the past' or 'I did it, but it's been classified by the CIA'). However, this week I'd like to discuss a much more insidious form of excuse than those told to cover up the past; namely the excuses about the future which we make to ourselves for not doing the things we know we should.
This week we read the story of the 12 tribal leaders sent to scout the Land of Israel. It's a depressing tale. Our nation's greatest aspirations are dashed in the blinking of an eye by a spurious excuse. These intelligent and responsible men mislead the people with a demonstrably false claim. They return from their 40 day mission full of glowing praise for the Land Flowing with Milk and Honey, which was their assignment. Then all is lost when they say 'but' (efes). They nullified their entire mission, because they claimed that the inhabitants are too fierce to be subdued. The seven nations of Canaan were formidable, but the Jews' destiny was controlled by God, Who brought mighty Egypt to its knees. What went wrong?
The normal answers revolve around the idea that the Jews had been slaves for so long that they had developed an automatic self-doubt. This leads to knee jerk excuses about their inability to get the job done. Maybe, but let's generalize the problem. Why do so many people give excuses rather than do the job which must be done? This is true about homework or work, but is also true about diets, exercise, contacting family, dating, and so many other tasks. Dr. Marty Nemko calls this phenomenon Excuse-Making Syndrome. The facile answer is 'laziness;', but I think that there are other underlying reasons.
Psychologists talk about self-handicapping, that's 'behavior that precedes a performance and is intended to explain away any potential poor results (Amy Nordrum, 'What's your Excuse?', Psychology Today, June 2014).' Many times people refuse to take the action they know is necessary because they are afraid of either failure or blame. This may explain the behavior of the Spies. I don't think that they had lost faith in God; I believe that they lost faith in themselves. Sadly, the entire nation shared their doubts and disaster ensued. Our Sages teach that the date of this failure to accept the challenge to enter the land was Tisha B'av, anniversary of the destruction of both Holy Temples. The rabbis aren't just discussing the calendar. They are informing us of the underlying cause of failure and disaster in Jewish history and in many private lives.
What's the antidote to this paralysis caused by self-doubt? Our parsha gives us two great pieces of advice. Let's call the two options the Yehoshua method and the Calev method. Yehoshua is a disciple. This explains much about his persona. His mentor, Moshe, deserves a lot of credit for his great success, and that's true in our scenario as well. Before the spies' departure, Moshe changes his name from Hoshea to Yehoshua. The names mean 'salvation'. Moshe adds the letter yod, which transforms the name to the future tense. Yehoshua is now confident about his future success, even without his great master.
Calev, on the other hand, is a self-starter. Where did he get his confidence that the job could be done? From God. When the Torah described the entry of the Spies into Israel it says that they entered from the south, but he went to Chevron (Bamidbar 13:22). The change from plural to singular is explained by the Midrash to mean that only Calev went to Chevron, and he went there to pray at the tomb of our ancestors. His prayer was simple, 'Please, God, save me from the evil attitude of the others.' Well designed prayers can assist us a tremendous amount, because they have the power to define clearly the problem you want help with. Sometimes, that's half the battle. Calev identified the doubt in the other spies, and sought support from our Maker to annul it within himself.
Dr. Susan Biali (just her name makes me hungry) advises that if you find yourself mired in excuse making, to the detriment of reaching your life goals then, 'Take a brutally honest look at your most common excuses and then...start catching yourself in the act. When you do…(you'll) start changing yourself and your life for the better.'
Falling into the Excuse-Making Syndrome can truly be debilitating. Remember what Benjamin Franklin said, 'He that is good at making excuses is seldom good at anything else.' It's sad that we're often prevented from reaching our full potential because of the self-doubts which create our excuse making.
So, I'd like to say to everyone who resides outside our Holy Land exactly what I wish that I could have said to the generation in the desert. It's a quote from one of my favorite actors, Melvyn Douglas (ne Hesselberg), 'Don't make excuses and don't talk about it. Do it!' There are no 'buts' about it.