D’var Torah: Parshat Shelach – One Person Can Make A Difference

How much difference can any one person make in the world? I have often wondered whether individuals can shape their times or if the times shape the person. My history professors taught me that there are no simple answers to complex questions so both are important. However, one of Judaism’s big contributions to the world is that every individual matters; to me, this means that individuals can make a big difference.

I enjoy reading obituaries because I often learn about people who make big differences, even though some of them aren’t very famous. I learned about three such people last week.

The first is Pen Hallowell (article from Washington Post) who is a Civil War hero I hadn’t heard about. Hallowell swam across the Potomac River three times under fire during a battle to rescue wounded soldiers. He was an officer who served alongside Robert Gould Shaw who was famed for leading the all- black Massachusetts 54th regiment depicted in the movie Glory. (This movie inspired campers to create the “Oh My Lord” Friday night tradition.) Hallowell argued that black soldiers should receive equal pay and he helped finance a private school for black students after the war. Read the article, it is worth it.

The second obituary is about Ida B. Wells, from “Overlooked,” a series of obituaries in The New York Times about remarkable people whose deaths went unreported in the newspaper. Many of these people had been forgotten and most of them are women or people of color. Ida B. Wells was born a slave and became a newspaper editor in Memphis. She did incredible research and reporting on lynchings and dispelled the false notion that black men rape white women. She was chased out of the south and was threatened and her newspaper was ransacked. It didn’t stop her. She said about her dangerous work, “If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service. Other considerations are minor.”

The third is Roy Benavidez (article from Washington Post or Dallas Morning News); some have suggested that a military base should be named for this hero. Reading his story, as the Washington Post article asserts, seems like a Hollywood script that would be rejected for being impossible. This Medal of Honor winner volunteered to rescue trapped and injured soldiers while holding his own intestines in his hands. He was put in a body bag because they thought he was dead; he spit on the doctor to alert him that he wasn’t. Seriously, read the Dallas Morning article.

What does this have to do with this week’s parsha? Well, this is the week we sent out spies to scout the Land of Israel. Ten of the spies were scared of the inhabitants and reported we could not conquer the land. Caleb and Joshua reported that it would be tough, but it could be done, especially with God’s help. Caleb and Joshua lost the argument and the entire Israelite generation was sentenced to perish in the desert. Yet it is Caleb and Joshua who are remembered as heroes and standing up against peer pressure and negativity.

I think it is important that we emphasize to our campers and staff that every person can make a profound difference. Sometimes these differences impact one person, a few or many. Our ability to have an impact can happen in an instant or over a lifetime or a combination. We don’t have to end up in a history book to change the world. All we have to do is see an opportunity to do good and take action. Shabbat Shalom.