Shlach (Numbers 13-15 )
Part of growing up is learning how to think for ourselves and not just go along with the crowd. In this week's portion, as the Jewish people were about to move into the land of Israel that God had promised them, they sent a group of spies ahead of them to scout things out. When the spies returned to the people, most of them started spreading destructive negative rumors about the land. However, two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, refused to go along and were brave enough to tell the people the truth - that the land was really good. We can learn from them the value of thinking independently and not being afraid to swim against the tide.
In our story, a kid learns a surprising lesson about the power of independent thinking.
In Jay's school, if you weren't a member of some group of friends or club, you just weren't 'part of things.' There were different groups for different kinds of kids, but one thing everyone agreed on was that the coolest, most popular group of kids in the whole school was 'The Fearless Ones.'
Its leader, Kyle Jacobs, was not only captain of both the school football and baseball teams but a straight A student to boot. Tall, good looking and oozing with charisma, Kyle was just the kind of kid that everyone wanted to be around.
One day Jay found a note tucked into his locker telling him he was one of the 'privileged few' from his class invited to join 'The Fearless Ones.' You can bet he was more than thrilled. The note said he should come after school at 5:00 pm - and no later - to the equipment building on the far end of the baseball field for his club 'initiation'.
Jay had a hard time paying attention in school that day, and after rushing home and blasting through his homework and chores, he jumped on his bike and made to the designated spot just in time.
"Hey Jay, congratulations!" came a familiar voice from just inside the door. It was Pete, a friend of his from class.
"You made it into the Fearless Ones too? That's great!" Jay smiled. "Anybody else from our class?"
"Just Bob, and he's already in that side room over there with Kyle for his initiation. Out of our class of 35, it seems like only the three of us were cool enough to join." The guys were laughing when suddenly the door burst open and Bob came stumbling out. He was hacking and coughing and looked greener than the tarpaulin rolled up along the wall.
"Hey are you okay?" cried Jay.
"Yeah ... cough ... cough ... I guess so." he said. "They make you smoke ... cough ... one whole cigarette before they let you join. Kyle said everyone does it. I never smoked before and ... cough ... cough ... I feel really sick. But at least I got my club card and ... cough ... made it into the group. Gotta go!" he said, throwing his hand over his mouth and running outside, full speed.
"Next!" came a sharp cry from the direction of the inner room. The boys looked up and saw Kyle pointing straight at Pete.
"Are you going in there?" whispered Jay.
"Of course." said Pete. Isn't that why we're here?"
"Yeah, but what about the cigarette thing? You don't smoke do you?"
"Me, smoke? No way!"
"But, look," Pete shrugged, "They said everyone does it before they join and if that's the price of being a member, I guess I'll have to do it too."
"Let's go!" Kyle said sharply, and before Jay was able to answer back, his friend had slipped through the door.
Jay sat now alone and confused. He so much wanted to join this elite group but he certainly didn't want to smoke. He knew it was really bad for him. But if everyone else was doing it, even his friends...well, maybe...
A few minutes later, the door burst open again. This time it was Pete coughing his guts out just as Bob had done minutes before. Jay thought he heard laughter from the inner room.
"Last but not least!" Kyle called out to Jay.
Jay swallowed hard and walked into the small room. It reeked of smoke.
"Have a seat, Jay," smiled Kyle, pointing to a small chair across from him and Vince, his right hand man.
"Well, congratulations," Kyle said, holding out his big hand. "You have now made it to 'The Fearless Ones,' the #1 club in this or any other school. See you at the next meeting." Jay smiled back nervously. Maybe that was it and he was off the hook. He started to get up when, Kyle held up his hand to stop him.
"But first ... we have a little initiation ceremony for all our new members." Kyle lit a cigarette and held it out to Jay. "Smoke this."
"Um, no thanks, I don't smoke," said Jay, quietly. Vince burst into laughter.
"I don't think you get it," Kyle said. "You don't have a choice. To be a member of 'The Fearless Ones' you have to show you're fearless by smoking one whole cigarette. Everybody has to do it. You do want to be part of our club, don't you?"
"Good. So prove it."
Kyle held out the cigarette again. Jay started to reach out for it, then paused a long moment. It wouldn't be easy, but Jay knew what he had to do. He took a deep breath, looked the older boy straight in the eyes and shook his head, no.
"Kyle, I can't tell you how much I want to be part of the group, but I believe smoking is wrong. Even doing it just once. I'd like to join but if that's what it takes, then I can't." Jay got up, turned and started to walk out.
"Wait a minute."
Jay stopped and looked behind him. Were they going to yell at him or call him names?
"Nobody ever spoke his mind straight to me like that in here before." Kyle said. "Everyone either just takes the cigarette or runs out of here like a scared rabbit.'
Kyle put out the cigarette and reached into a drawer and took out an official 'Fearless One's' membership card. He tossed it to Jay, who happily caught it.
"I guess we can bend the rules this one time, huh Vince? After all, I think you just showed us that someone can be more fearless by not taking the cigarette than by taking it."
Q. How did Jay's friends feel about smoking the cigarette?
A. They felt like it was a bad thing to do, but did it anyway because they wanted to join the club.
Q. How did Jay feel about it?
A. He also wanted to join the club, but he wouldn't do something bad just because they said he had to and everyone else did it.
Q. What life lesson can you take out of this story?
A. Sometimes we can be tempted to 'just go along' and do something we know isn't right just because everyone else is or we feel pressured, but a truly fearless person sticks to his values and isn't afraid to speak out even in uncomfortable circumstances.
Q. Why do you think Kyle decided to let Jay into the club even though he didn't smoke the cigarette?
A. We might not realize it, but when we stand up for our values instead of just going with the tide, people have a lot of respect for us. That is what happened here. But even if Kyle hadn't let him in, Jay still made the right decision and in the end would be glad he did.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Can a person be an independent thinker and conform to the people around him at the same time? Why or why not?
A. Independent thinking isn't about conforming or not conforming. It means that we look at what is happening around us with open eyes and decide whether it is right or wrong based on our own values, rather than because 'everyone says so.' If what people are doing around is fine, there is no reason not to conform. If it isn't, then we shouldn't be afraid not to conform and do what's right anyway.
Q. Does independent thinking mean we shouldn't ask others advice? A. Not at all. Asking and considering the advice of experienced people whose values we respect is a valuable way to gather all the information we need to be able to genuinely think independently and arrive at an informed decision.