> Weekly Torah Portion > Beginner > Brainstorming with Baars

Living Comfortably

Shlach (Numbers 13-15 )

by Rabbi Stephen Baars

This is the outline of the major story in this week's Parsha:

In preparation for entering the Land of Israel, the Jewish people send in a reconnaissance team. Unfortunately, these spies report more than just roads and bridges. They describe a land vastly superior and essentially incapable of being conquered. Despite the objections of their leadership and even God Himself, the people refuse to enter.

God at this point is, as we might say in the West, very ticked. Nevertheless, Moses convinces God not to destroy the Jewish people. As a result, God commutes their punishment, and they are informed that they will not be allowed to enter the Land, but rather wander in the desert. Then, after 40 years, and after everyone of that generation has died off, their children will be allowed to enter.

One would think this would be good news - it's somewhat close to what they wanted.

But that would be too simple.

Upon hearing this, the Jewish people are besides themselves. Quickly they form an army, and over the objections of Moses (again) who tells them they will not be successful, they march against a foe they themselves declared only a short while ago to be far superior. Of course they are not successful and are soon repelled.

You would not be alone if you asked, "What on earth is going on?"

Let's sum it all up:

1. God tells the Jewish people to enter the Land of Israel.
2. They refuse.
3. God tells them to stay out of the Land of Israel.
4. They refuse.
5. God tells them not to enter the Land of Israel.
6. They refuse.

Tell me I'm not making this up.

You are not making this up!

Unfortunately, this is not simply a description of them - it's in fact the story of us.

Let me explain. Which would you rather have - a comfortable life or a meaningful one? If you want to think about it a little, go ahead.

In my unscientific study, I have found nearly everyone answers: "A meaningfully comfortable life."


Given the choice of comfort or meaning, just about everyone would choose meaning. But that is never how the choice appears. How it appears is that there are three choices, meaning, comfort or comfortably meaningful.

As an example, the Western world knew that confronting Hitler was the meaningful and right thing to do. They also knew that the comfortable and wrong thing to do was to leave him alone. Given those two stark choices it wasn't just British Prime Minister Chamberlain who thought they found the perfect answer in signing a peace treaty with Hitler. Most sided with him because being comfortably meaningful is just easier.

It's also fairly easy to see these same types of mistakes being made in the world today. And not just in politics, but in everyday life.

For example, if you could choose between a healthy diet (meaningful), a chocolate cake (comfortable) or a diet coke (meaningfully comfortable), then it may take a while but eventually you will realize that the diet coke choice is not going to work.

And if you want to understand why the proponents of a "comfortably meaningful" life are so adamant (and probably rather defensive), try talking to someone about the downsides of drinking diet coke - people really do like their comforts! Because they know, that without the comfortable meaning choice, then the only thing left is the difficult one.

Similarly, in our story, the Jewish people wanted a comfortable life - that's what the desert represented. The desert was comfortable because God took care of them there. He fought their enemies with them, He fed them and sheltered them - in fact, all their needs were taken care of.

It's like a teenager living at home - it's nice and comfortable. He would like it to be meaningful too, and he wants to make meaningful decisions. But he doesn't want to be held responsible when those decisions go awry, because he doesn't really want meaning, he wants comfort.

Going into the Land of Israel was not comfortable at all. In the Land of Israel the Jewish people would have to fight evil themselves, cultivate the land, set up a system of government, and take care of each other. That's not comfortable or easy, but it is extremely meaningful.

The choice they should have made was to take the more challenging, but more meaningful road. Unfortunately, they wanted the diet coke. The Jewish people wanted to stay in the desert. By convincing themselves that conquering the Land of Israel was impossible, they turned the desert into a comfortably meaningful choice. True, it wouldn't be as meaningful as creating the state of Israel, but who needs so much meaning?

It's only when God said that you will stay in the desert, and it will be comfortable, but it won't be meaningful, that they decided to choose meaning over comfort. Why?

No amount of comfort will equal any amount of meaning. There is no value in life without meaning.

What do we learn from all this?

If you are making a choice between a meaningful life and a comfortably meaningful one, you should realize that there is truly no such thing as the latter. If you try to choose the comfortably meaningful life, you are really making a decision to have much less or no meaning in your life - eventually you will regret it.

Any time you are choosing a little less meaning, a little less right, a little less of the good path, so that you can have a little more comfort, you should realize that you will end up with little or no meaning at all.

In the end, that's what God told them - their choice of staying in the desert would be void of any meaning. Once they realized this, they were willing to take on any challenge for their lives to be meaningful.

After all, if not for diet coke, most everyone would go on a healthy diet. If not for Chamberlin and his ideas, the West would have had little choice but to stand up to Hitler much sooner.

In today's world of politics, if not for the United Nations "sanctions," the world would really have to do something about Iran. After all, we all understand that the right and meaningful thing to do is confront Iran, the wrong thing to do is to leave them alone, and of course, the comfortably meaningful thing to do is to ask the United Nations to solve the problem.

But then again, who needs so much meaning if we can be comfortable too?


* * *


Question 1:  What three things do you not do because they would make your life uncomfortable?

Question 2:  What three things do you do because they make your life more meaningful?

Question 3:  What is the biggest thing you do so that your life will be more comfortable?

Question 4:  Is it worth it?


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