By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Imagine standing at a crossroads. We have all been there. 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. (Except for Yogi Berra, of course, who famously said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”)
We have all also experienced moments much further along in our journey, often many years later, when we reflected back upon our decision and wondered what would have been if we had pursued the alternative road.
Now, imagine standing at a crossroads together with a close friend. Both of you face an identical choice, either this road or that. One of you chooses one road, and the other decides differently and selects the other road.
Each would have an intriguing tale to tell if, after many years, they had to meet and have the opportunity to compare the results of their different decisions.
Throughout my adult life, I have been fascinated by the experiences of survivors of the Holocaust. Whenever I have been fortunate enough to have the time to engage in conversation with one of them, I listened eagerly to their stories. When they permit, and they do not always, I ask them questions not just about their experiences, but about their choices and decisions.
I especially remember the discussions I had with one of them—let us call him Mr. Silver. He often would tell me about the hellish years he spent fleeing and fighting the Nazis in the forests of Poland. He had a companion then—let us 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.
In his story, Mr. Silver compared his attitude throughout those horrific times with the attitude of his friend Simon. “You know me,” he would say, “and 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. He had no illusions whatsoever of hope.”
Many years after my conversation with Mr. Silver, I finally met Simon and, together with him, was able to compare the life he led subsequent to the Holocaust, and subsequent to his crossroad decisions, with the life of Mr. Silver. Simon, after the war, chose not to marry and chose to live in a rather remote American community with little contact with other Jews. Mr. Silver married, raised a large family with numerous grandchildren, and was very much involved with Jewish causes, and eventually chose to live out his final years in the state of Israel.
Two individuals at the same crossroads, making different decisions, with starkly different life outcomes.
This week’s Torah portion, Shelach, gives us the opportunity to witness individuals at the crossroads. Individuals who make radically different decisions and whose lives thereby played out very differently.
Let us focus, for example, 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. They both experienced the Exodus from Egypt, the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea, the revelation at Mount Sinai, and opportunities for leadership of their respective tribes.
They were both assigned to spy out the land of Canaan, and they both crisscrossed the Promised Land and returned to give their reports. 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 and 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.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.