Shelach-Lecha: When to Be Underhanded

When the spies Moses sent to Canaan returned with their report, ten of the twelve advised the Israelites not to even try to advance against the Anakites.  “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”  (Numbers 13:31).  

These men must have been selected for their trustworthy and discerning judgment.  Moreover, each had personally and repeatedly experienced G-d’s power to work miracles, including defeating the powerful Egyptian army, splitting the sea, leading the Israelites in the desert via cloud-by-day and fire-by-night, and sustaining them with manna from heaven.  It seems inconceivable that they would conclude that G-d could not also fulfill His promise to successfully deliver the Promised Land to the Israelites.  They must have known in their hearts that the advice they were giving was wrong! 

Why do people make decisions that they know are wrong?  This was the question explored in a “This American Life” podcast that I heard this week. 

The podcast recalled that in 1962, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a basketball game.  As talented a basketball player as he was, Chamberlain was a terrible free-throw shooter (career 51%).  But on the record-breaking night, he made an amazing 28 of 32 free throws – 87.5% -- by shooting them underhanded.  Yet, he didn’t stick with this dramatically more successful technique.  In his autobiography, he frankly acknowledged that he was wrong to change back to the usual overhanded free throw shot– and knew so at the time.  But he – a professional athlete for whom markedly better performance would presumably trump any emotional consideration -- just couldn’t continue because he felt silly. 

Football statisticians, the podcast further noted, have determined that if a team always “went for it” on fourth down rather than punting the ball away, it would succeed often enough to win two additional games each season -- a huge improvement in a competitive 16-game pro season.  Yet, no team employs this strategy.  Presumably, following the pack is “safer” for coaching longevity than seeking a more winning strategy.

We can learn from all these examples to guard against excessive reliance upon our intelligence and experience to guide our decisions.  These are too often motivated by emotions such as fear, peer pressure, temptation, and rationalization.  Motivated to get the results we seek, we do what we want to do, rather that what we know we should do.

It might not be much of an overstatement to say that all of Judaism is intended as a counter to this tendency.  As it is written in the Talmud: “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, Created the Evil Inclination, and the Torah as its Antidote.” (Kiddushin 30b).  

We can be better, more ethical people, and make better decisions, if we pause to examine our motivations and resolve to do what we know is right. 

Too often, if we are honest with ourselves, we resort to "underhanded" behavior best left to free-throw shooting and horseshoes. 

Shabbat shalom.  

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