Bad enough that the spies sent by the Jews to investigate the Land of Canaan came back with a malicious report. Sad that the people foolishly believed them and started mourning and moaning. Even worse that G‑d punished the nation with forty years of roaming around the desert. The true tragedy, however, may be that the whole sorry saga might have been averted with just one counseling session by a good psychologist...

Modern-day guru of every stripe concur that the basic flaw preventing us from reaching our true potential, crossing new vistas, surmounting life's hurdles, accessing new paradigms, utilizing opportunity, etc., etc., is an insufficient sense of self-belief. Effectiveness in life, we are informed, is predicated on believing in oneself, and then actually getting off one's derriere and getting out there and doing it.

And that's where the spies fell down on the job: a lack of confidence.

"We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than us… We appeared like grasshoppers in our eyes, and that's how we were in their eyes." (Numbers 13:31-33)

True self-belief is self-referentialAlmost every Biblical analyst comments that the spies' lack of self-confidence is readily apparent. Obviously their own low self-esteem led the Canaanites to have equally poor estimation of the Jews' ability. When we act strong, with an expectation of success, others tend to be awed by our aura, and victory is inevitable. Conversely, when we walk small, conscious of our (perceived or real) immaturity and incompetence, then other's opinions automatically accord with our expectations.

Who Are You Looking At?

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the "Kotzker Rebbe," extends this logic beyond that of the salesmen. The experts advise us that exhibiting confidence in ourselves will eventually impress others. From this perspective, self-esteem is a gimmick, no more than a method of persuasion. As George Burns put it, "Acting is all about sincerity, and if you can fake that, you've got it made." Though ostensibly working to improve my own self-image, my underlying focus is the eventual effect I'll have on others.

The Kotzker reckons that this approach is equally flawed. My job is to do the right thing, irrespective of anyone else. We're on a mission from G‑d, and can't afford the time or trouble to even worry what the spectators will do or say. From this take on the story, the sin of the spies didn't begin when they chickened out and refused to scale the heights, but started long before when they allowed themselves to be distracted from their mission by wondering what the natives were thinking about them.

True self-belief is self-referential. An absolute certainty that I'm doing the right thing and I will continue fighting till the job is done. It might take courage to head off on a journey of conquest without even a small look back over your shoulder, but that is the only way to guarantee that you'll arrive safely in the Promised Land.