Jackie Robinson was hired in 1947 as the first black Major League Baseball player. Despite malicious racist harassment and constant verbal and even physical attacks, he always played fearlessly and professionally. He knew he was the equal of any white player. Throughout his career, he managed to ignore the racism that raged around him, and because of his dignity and his skill, he is known as one of the greatest players of the game.
He had a sense of humour as well. His wife was excited to attend his professional debut, but it would be her first time in a major league stadium, so she was also somewhat afraid. “Listen,” he said, “at least you’ll have no trouble spotting me out there on the ball field – I’ll be the one wearing number 42”.
Amid all the controversy of a black man playing baseball in 1947, it would not have been difficult for Jackie Robinson to lose faith in himself and quit. He could have listened to what everyone was saying about him and given in to the racism and self-doubt. Obviously, for him to keep going with all the challenges that confronted him, there must have been some great reward. Knowing what baseball players earned in those days, especially African-Americans, the reward was surely not financial. It must have been something more internal: a sense of pride and self-worth, and the knowledge that he was making a historic difference that would have a hugely positive impact on generations to come. Robinson is quoted as saying, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives”.
I was reminded of Robinson’s story as I was studying this week’s parasha, Shelach Lecha. Shelach Lecha presents the story of the twelve tribal leaders who were sent by Moses to scout out the Promised Land. They return after forty days with a glowing report. The land is indeed wonderful, flowing with milk and honey and bountiful with giant fruit. However, the people there are powerful. They are stronger than we are and we cannot conquer them.
With each telling, the description of the inhabitants of the land becomes more fantastic. The people become like giants, and the Nephilim – the super human offspring of the union between earthly women and heavenly beings (Genesis 6:4) – live there as well. Then the scouts go on to say, “And we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33).
Our tradition generally teaches us that the sin of the scouts was their lack of faith in God. They did not believe that the Israelites could overcome the giant inhabitants of the Promised Land and conquer it for themselves. This lack of faith angered God. Did they not understand by now that God was capable of anything? If they were promised this land, then certainly God would make sure that they were able to conquer it.
But perhaps there is another perspective to consider. Perhaps the scouts’ negative report had nothing to do with their lack of faith in God; perhaps it had everything to do with their lack of faith in themselves. They said it: we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them. If they felt themselves to be small, insignificant, powerless and insect-like, then how else could they appear to their adversaries? They did not stand a chance against these giants (whether or not the really were giants, but they certainly appeared that way) compared to how small they looked to themselves.
Self-doubt is extremely debilitating. We all feel small at times. Like the Israelite scouts, we can feel small compared to those around us. We feel powerless and insignificant. We look at what is going on around us, throughout the world and in our own community, and we say to ourselves, “What can I do? I’m just one small person. I’m not well known like some Hollywood star, or powerful like some senior statesman, or even wealthy like some of the philanthropists that I read about in the Jewish news. What kind of a difference can I make?”
Each one of us can make a difference, and realising that truth is the first step to doing so. Sometimes, the most difficult of circumstances can make giants out of the smallest of people. For Joshua and Caleb, the two of the twelve Scouts who remained steadfast in their faith and encouraged the Israelites to move ahead toward the Promised Land, they were rewarded with the privilege of leading the People of Israel into their land. Like Jackie Robinson, they refused to succumb to the fear inherent in their circumstances. They remained confident and positive and wanted to make a difference. They had faith, in God and themselves, which made an impact on generations to come. As long as you care enough to want to make a difference, then it doesn’t matter how big you are, or how rich, or even, like Jackie Robinson proved, the colour of your skin. You can make a difference.
About the Author:
Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen is a rabbi at Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada