Life and Leadership Free of Ego
D’VAR TORAH / SERMON
RABBI DAVID BENJAMIN FAINSILBER
26 SIVAN 5779 // JUNE 28, 2019
PARASHAT SH’LACH LECHA
If you were chosen as a leader among your people the Israelites
to spy in the land of Canaan,
to visit the Promised Land for the first time,
and given the opportunity to bring back a report of the land:
How would you lead?
Would you lead with your ego?
Or would you lead selflessly?
And what report would you bring back?
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
Hashem spoke to Moses, saying,
Send men out
וְיָתֻ֙רוּ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן
to tour, to scout, to spy on the land of Canaan
אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֥י נֹתֵ֖ן לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
the land which I am giving to the Children of Israel
אִ֣ישׁ אֶחָד֩ אִ֨ישׁ אֶחָ֜ד
send each person, one person each,
לְמַטֵּ֤ה אֲבֹתָיו֙ תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ
from the tribes of their ancestors,
כֹּ֖ל נָשִׂ֥יא בָהֶֽם׃
send out the chieftains, the leaders among each tribe.
12 spies were to be sent out to the Promised Land
to collect information about the land:
What did the cities look like?
And who inhabited the land?
Medieval commentator Rashi picks up
on the uniqueness of the namesake of this parashah:
Send thee, read quite literally as ‘Send for yourself’, לך.
According to Rashi,
this means that you should use your own judgment.
G-d did not command them to send the spies,
but they can use their own judgment
as to whether they should or should not pursue this course of action.
אֲנִי אֵינִי מְצַוֶּה לְךָ,
אִם תִּרְצֶה שְׁלַח
I do not command you, says G-d,
but if you wish to do so: send the spies.
In their pursuit of freedom and of the Promised Land,
they were given total and complete autonomy,
a test of their free-will,
as to how to pursue their cause of conquering the land.
I have noticed that things can get complicated
when humans are involved,
when free-will is wielded.
People have needs and wants.
They have opinions.
They have personal fears and hopes.
In the end, the Israelites sent spies to the land,
but they suffered the consequences of their own free-will.
For when the spies came home at the end of 40 days,
they gave a scathing report of the land
and of the prospects of taking control of it.
The spies said:
“We came to the land you sent us to;
it does indeed flow with milk and honey…
However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful,
and the cities are fortified and very large…
We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we…
The country that we traversed and scouted
is one that devours its settlers…
we saw the Nephilim there…
and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,
and so we must have looked to them.” (selections of 27-33)
The spies come home with stories of their own inadequacies,
and of the power of their enemies.
Driven by their free-will,
they show themselves to be chieftains of fear.
The grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism,
wrote a book in the late 1700s,
which includes many teachings he heard directly from his grandfather.
The Degel Machaneh Efraim writes the following
on the phrase in our Torah portion:
כֹּ֖ל נָשִׂ֥יא בָהֶֽם׃
Send out the chieftains, the leaders among each tribe to scout the land.
מילת ״נשיא״ יש בה אותיות ״אין״ ואותיות ״יש״.
The word ״נשיא״, which means chieftain or leader,
has in it the letters ״א.י.ן״
Difficult to adequately translate into English,
״אין״ means something like:
nothing, none, zero or nothingness,
and ״יש״ means
something, something that is,
being, reality, existence.
The Degel Machaneh Efraim writes:
נשיא שמחזיק עצמו ל״אין״—הוא ״יש״.
A leader that thinks of themself as nothing—is actually something.
אבל אם מחזיק עצמו ל״יש״—הוא ״אין״.
But a leader that thinks of themself as something—is actually nothing.
Meaning, if you have an ego about the role you play in life,
if you are serving because you believe you are something,
because you believe you are the centre of existence,
you are truly nothing.
You have the wrong intention in your service and your leadership.
You have wielded your free-will for your own gain.
If, on the other hand, you serve from a place free of ego,
where you are not the centre of attention,
but instead you serve in selflessness,
where your service is not about you,
where you are humble and full of humility,
where you negate all that is prideful,
you truly are something.
Interestingly, the spies saw themselves as grasshoppers
up against an enemy of giants.
You might think that they actually saw themselves as nothing, as lowly,
that they were free from ego,
that they thought of themselves humbly.
But that, I believe, is a misinterpretation.
To be nothing,
we should not give up our selves to the giants among us.
Giants are no greater than grasshoppers.
Stronger and bigger, for sure,
but no greater or lesser in the eyes of G-d.
To be nothing is to use our free-will for the good.
We are meant to give ourselves up to that which is selfless,
to the place of faith,
where hope is possible,
where we are nothing,
where our fears are nothing—
where in the face of the greater cause,
and in spite of our fears,
we lean into the humble act of leadership.
The spies were afraid for their lives to be sure.
That is because they did not have the faith or fortitude
to let go of their own relatively small fears.
They were driven by their emotions and their egos.
Each of us surely carry our small fears and insecurities.
We make ourselves into grasshoppers.
We tell our ourselves that are not capable enough;
we are not strong enough;
we are lesser;
our voices are not eloquent enough, like Moses himself said;
we do not have the stamina, the fortitude, the skills enough, to give.
What we are missing is the ability to let go of our insecurities,
to release into something bigger than ourselves.
The Kabbalists understood G-d as The Great Nothingness.
They called G-d אין סוף—
The one without end,
the nothingness at the end of existence.
If we could but touch that nothingness, we could be truly something.
Let us lean into our lives and into humble leadership
in spite of our fears.
Kein yehi ratzon. May it be so.