My favorite sporting memory took place in Istanbul on May 25th 2005. On that night Liverpool Football Club of England faced AC Milan of Italy in the final of the European Champions League, the biggest club competition in football or soccer (depending on where you are reading this). AC Milan were the big favorites going into the match, as many people still couldn’t believe that Liverpool had even made the final. Within the first minute AC Milan were one-nil up, and by half-time it was three-zero to the Italians. Where I was watching the game there was a sense of despair as we waited for the second half to kick off. After all of that work to get to the final (the first time since 1985) Liverpool looked like being on the receiving end of a thrashing.
Nine minutes into the second half the ball was crossed in from the left-hand side, Steven Gerrard, Liverpool’s captain and talisman rose above the defense and headed the ball into the goal. He didn’t immediately celebrate the goal, instead he waved his arms at his team and supporters in a call to action, a request for support and a reminder that it was not yet over. In the next six minutes Liverpool scored two more times to draw level, and at the end of extra time, when penalties came, Liverpool emerged triumphant, they were the Champions of Europe; the seemingly impossible had become reality.
I think about Steven Gerrard when I read this week’s Torah portion. Twelve spies (one more than on a football or soccer team, maybe the substitute was included) were sent to the Promised Land, to scout it out on behalf of the Israelite community. They returned to the people with their report, and said ‘We came to the land where you sent us, and surely it flows with milk and honey’ (Numbers 13:27). One would imagine that there was optimism about what lay ahead, but that good mood was short lived: ‘Nevertheless the people, who live in the land, are strong, and the cities are walled, and very great and moreover we saw the children of Anak there’ (Numbers 13:28) – supposedly a tribe of giants.
We do not read, at this point, that the people despaired, but Caleb had to quiet the people to say to them: ‘Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it’ (Numbers 13:30). Caleb did not dispute the might of the people living in the land, or the challenge of their walled cities; he recognized the test which lay ahead. But he still maintained faith that together the people would be able to conquer the land. He was ready to motivate the people and lead them forward.
The people listened to the voice of the other spies, who said: ‘We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we’ (Numbers 13:31). And they suffered the consequences. The entire generation who left Egypt, except for Caleb and Joshua, died in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land.
The difference between Caleb and the other spies was not in their assessment of the land, it was about their faith in God and belief in themselves that they could overcome what lay ahead. Caleb may have been worried by what he saw ahead of them, but he did not let that show, he maintained faith that the seemingly impossible could be achieved, and he was ultimately the one to drive out the sons of Anak (Joshua 15:14).
Caleb and Steven Gerrard remind us that when we believe that we can achieve the impossible, sometimes our faith is rewarded.
And if you want to listen to this Two Minutes of Torah: