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The Greater Part of Valor – Thoughts on Torah Portion Shelach Lekha

Rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue in Mar Vista, CA

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Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue in Mar Vista, CA

The Greater Part of Valor

Thoughts on Torah Portion Shelach Lekha 2020 (adapted from 2019)

All Ohr HaTorah regulars know about my little bit of a trick question: “How long did it take the Israelites to get from Mt. Sinai to the land of Canaan?” The uninitiated almost always say, “Forty years.” This incorrect answer is based on a mistranslation of Numbers 14:33. The Israelites had rebelled against Moses when they were faced with the prospect of fighting their way back into their homeland. Ten of the 12 who spied out the land, tribal leaders all of them, rooted for going back to Egypt. The rest of the Israelites, by and large, fell for this distraction from their life’s purpose. These demagogues and those who fell under their sway did not realize that going back to Egypt was not an option. They found out the hard way.

The punishment for rebellion? In Numbers 14:33 we are told, “Your children (i.e., of that rebellious generation) shall be shepherds in the desert for 40 years, and they shall bear (the guilt of) your straying, until the last of your carcasses (fall) in the desert.” Hard stuff. The children will not enter the land until the last of their parent mutineers had died.

But where did this rebellion happen? On the borders of the land of Canaan. The promised land was just over the horizon. The Israelites had already arrived, had already made the journey from Mt. Sinai to Canaan. The Israelites had left Mt. Sinai on the 20th day of the second month (May 14th year), as we were told in last week’s Torah portion. They arrived at the first harvest of the grapes – late July, early August. The journey took about six to eight weeks. That’s it, six to eight weeks.

Where did the “40 year” misconception come from? Many Bibles mistranslate Numbers 14:33, and render “desert shepherds” (ro’im bamidbar) as “desert wanderers.” I can find no Bible dictionary that translates ro’eh as “wanderer” – the word simply means “shepherd.” This mistake goes back to the King James translation, and continues thereon.

Aside from this being a great trivia question, what is the lesson of all this?

Very simple: we were not in the desert for 40 years because we lacked geographical directions; we were in the desert for 40 years because we lacked inner direction. We lacked courage.

This idea, “courage,” is a tough one. I actually like the saying, “the better part of valor is discretion” (“discretion” meaning here using discernment to determine a course of action) spoken by the character Sir John Falstaff in Act 5, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s Henry the 4th, Part One. As with many of Shakespeare’s most famous sayings, the line is said in great irony. The corrupt and dishonest “false staff” has acted with great cowardice, and then justifies this cowardice with the this often quoted saying.

Does the fact that the origin of the saying’s is it’s being said by such a duplicitous man diminish the power of this epigram? To think so commits what is called the “genetic fallacy,” the concept that the worth of an idea depends on who said it. (This fallacy is discussed in Morris Cohen and Ernest Nagel’s book, Logic and the Scientific Method (1934).)

It is fallacious to doubt the validity of the idea that “the better part of valor is discretion” just because Shakespeare wrote it (if only to be spoken by a notable scoundrel). I trust the profound wisdom of Shakespeare to at least pause a moment.

Acting with valor at a given moment can be foolhardy; the risk is great and the benefit minimal.

On the other hand, as I have counseled people through the years, I have heard vast and complex presentations of discretion, the whole point of which was to avoid being courageous. I much prefer a person who can say, “I have a completely irrational fear of doing that” as opposed to the person who rationalizes away their fear as actually being the virtue of discretion.

Much of the time, courage is an instinct to act, to do the righteous thing in spite of great risk, even if just risking of the disapproval of others. For others, courage is discovered through a careful process of thought, where one weighs all of the alternatives and arrives at the most righteous one, the act that creates the most good, all things considered. Courage is the will to do what is discovered as right, in the face of risk. Every path we take includes a path not taken. Everything we do has a cost.

As a person considers an act, and whittles things down to their basic alternatives, one often discovers resistance to doing the right thing. Sometimes what we discover is just weakness – a given action or inaction is easier or more immediately gratifying that another action. We discover that we need strength and moral direction, to do the right thing.

Other times, though, as we consider an action, we discover not weakness in face of the temptation to take the easier route, but fear. If we do a certain thing, we are risking. The “discretion” part of valor is asking: is this course of action truly worth it; is it right enough to risk something?

One might say that the greater part of the courage that comes from deliberation – as opposed to the courage that comes more spontaneously and instinctively – is honesty. Discretion perhaps talks you out of a courageous but foolhardy deed, but honesty might talk you into it. Deep, searching honesty might guide you into doing something that involves the possibility of incurring pain or harm, but the act must be done. Honesty sometimes leads to the fact that, in some existential way, there just is no alternative.

The Israelites, as they considered fighting their way back into Canaan apparently used Falstaffian discretion. The enemy was too great, the land too poor, and Egypt, upon careful reflection, was actually not all that bad.

Joshua and Caleb, the two who recommended valor, realized something very simple. At the most basic level, there was no alternative. The true deed must be done. It will involve risk and loss, and maybe death. So be it. This kind of courage amounts to the resolute will, prompting us to do the most true thing.

Maybe in most day-to-day things, discretion is the greater part of valor. There are times, though, when the greater part of valor is just valor.

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