In the Torah we read this week about the story of the Spies. The Spies were emissaries of Moses, who sent them to the land of Israel on a specific mission. Their mission was very simple: all they had to do was go to the land of Israel and describe the conditions in the country — is it strong; is it weak; what are the people like. They weren’t supposed to give their commentaries and opinions, just the facts.

What was their flaw? When they came back, they said, “Oh, this land is very frightening. The people are so strong! We’re never going to be able to do it. We will not be able to go up and conquer this land.” That was their downfall. Who asked you whether we’ll be able to? You weren’t sent for that! You weren’t sent to Israel to come back with predictions. You were just going to report the weather.

But when they came back they said, “Oh, this is just too much. We will definitely fail; there is no way we can conquer this land. We’d better stay here.” The people then became distraught. They started crying, and wanted to go back to Egypt. The problem of the Spies was that they forgot what their mission was, and they messed up. They didn’t do what they were sent to do!

In the Torah we see that when the Spies were sent, it wasn’t really by direct command of G‑d. There wasn’t a commandment in the Torah to send Spies. G‑d said to Moses, “If you want to send Spies, okay. I’ll let you send them — on your behalf, if you wish to. I am not commanding you or asking you; it’s not something I specifically want. If you want to do it, do it in good health. But I’m not telling you to do it.”

There are two domains of activity in life. One domain is governed by the express precepts of the Torah. There are certain things we must do: we should keep Shabbat, we should keep kosher, we should place mezuzahs on our doors, etc. These are things we have to do. There is also a tremendous gray area, limited only by what we may not do (the prohibitions of Torah), in which we have, to a very large extent, free choice — you may do something (it is permitted), but you don’t have to. If you want to do it, go ahead; if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to.

Let’s consider the example of two people who have some free time. They’re not busy every minute of the day; they have three hours in the day that they’re just free — there are no precepts that they have to do. One person decides, “You know, I have this free time. I know an old lady next door. Let me just see how she is doing.” She goes to visit and finds out that the elderly neighbor needs some company, she needs someone to go shopping for her. So she decides to help this woman during her free time.

The other person spends her three hours doing her needlepoint or going swimming, or just relaxing in bed and reading a book. Now, this person who stayed home didn’t do any prohibitions. Reading a book is not a prohibition; sleeping is not an prohibition; eating chocolate is not an prohibition. But, you have that option. You can either do a good deed with your time, or you could just do neutral things with your time.

In the Torah G‑d is hinting to the Jews that sending the Spies wasn’t a precept and it wasn’t a prohibition; it was just a thing that they wanted to do. The Spies had the potential to elevate their mission to something divine — they could have come back and said, “This land is strong. And we know that with G‑d’s help, we’ll conquer it.” They could have used it as an opportunity to instill faith, trust and inspiration in their fellow Jews. But instead, they took it and turned it into one of the most tragic events in Jewish history.

This is to teach us the tremendous responsibility we have in what is called free choice. We have free choice in many, many things in our lives. And G‑d truly gives us the strength to do as we should. Yet, we must always be aware of the purpose of our mission in life, because the problem with the Spies was that they forgot why they were sent.

At every minute we have to be conscious of why are we in this world. Why are we alive? What is the reason G‑d sent us here? Keep this in the forefront of your consciousness at all times.

It’s like suddenly getting a severe pain in your leg and ending up spending four weeks in a hospital bed. If you don’t realize your mission in life, you could spend those four weeks in absolute agony, misery, complaining for four weeks... You could just have a totally negative experience. However, you should remember all the time: “I was sent to this world for a purpose. And this purpose is to make this world a dwelling place for G‑d, to reveal G‑dliness in everything that comes into my life. So what difference does it make if I’m in my house, or if I’m in a hospital, or if I’m in an airplane.” Being laid up in bed in one or several hospitals could be a mission that G‑d is sending you on to meet people that you would never have met had you not been sick. Perhaps there are people that only you could reach or help in some way.

This is the way you must think. Suppose you’re fired from a job and you cannot figure out why you were fired. Realize that G‑d obviously wants you to go from this job to another, because there are people you have to come in contact with in this place of work or in that one. All your moving around is not only for the reasons you know — every individual that you come in contact with in your entire life, and every event that takes place, is really for the purpose of revealing G‑dliness in the world. If you keep that in mind, you see every event with totally different eyes.

There is a story about Rabbi Mendel Futerfas, a Russian Jew who later emigrated to Israel. Mendel spent many years in jail in Russia for spreading Judaism, and for helping Jews escape from behind the Iron Curtain. He was a special Jew who placed his life in danger for the other.

Mendel came out of Russia in the 1970s; when I was still a young girl in New York, he had just come out. At that time his wife was living in England, so when he left Russia, he first came to London to be reunited with her. The next holiday he traveled to the Rebbe, in New York, for the very first time. You can imagine what an emotional event it was, not just for Mendel, but for everyone else who knew his story and the tremendous sacrifice he had, to bring Judaism to Jews under the worst circumstances.

Mendel was sitting on the plane going back from New York to London, which is about a five or six-hour flight. He barely knew English — he had only been in London for a few weeks, and in New York for another few weeks, but even so he had spent most of his time speaking Yiddish and Russian. On the plane, he looked over at his neighbor, who looked to him to be Jewish — he didn’t ask him his name, but he could tell he has a Jewish face. Reb Mendel, being so full of enthusiasm for Judaism and so full of life, not try to make contact with this Jew? But how will he talk to him? He can’t speak English!

So he thought and thought, “It must be Divine Providence.” It can’t be for no reason that this person is sitting two inches away from him for six hours! Finally, he got an idea. He took out his tefillin, phylacteries, and pointing to them, he said to the man sitting next to him, “I Jew, you Jew. I tefillin, you tefillin.” His neighbor consented and donned the tefillin. With these few words of English, he got this Jew to put on tefillin — without any eloquent English oratory.

So I think we have to take Reb Mendel’s lead and say: it’s Divine Providence that this person lives next door to you, or that storekeeper happens to be on your block. They are people that G‑d planted in your life. You know it’s not a mistake if there is an old lady who just happens to be part of your world. Just smiling, or giving a hand to her is a start. They may be little to you, but very big to the person next to you.

We all have free choice. We could either ignore these people, these opportunities, these events, or we could see everything in our life as a G‑d-sent opportunity to use our free choice to sanctify G‑d ’s name in the world.

Of course, making choices in life is not so simple. Very often, there seem to be many obstacles standing in our path when we want to do what G‑d wants. We sometimes feel it’s not fair that G‑d asks us to do these things and then makes it so hard for us to do what He wants us to do. As the Rebbe would says that very often these difficulties are partly in our minds. If we see them as difficulties and as obstacles, that is what they will be. But if we decide that they just don’t exist, then it’s like what Rabbi Mendel did in Russia when he said, “Look, the Czar has his thing to do and I have my thing to do. Let him do his thing and I’ll do mine. I’m not going to let him prevent me from doing what I have to do.”

This is how you should feel about all those people that laugh at you, all those people that want to make life difficult. Just say, “Well, that’s their job; they’re here to make life difficult for me. Let them go ahead and try. But I know what I have to do.”

Your attitude is all important. If you have the attitude that, “I know what I have to do,” and you go ahead and do it, you’ll see those obstacles will just vanish, or diminish into nothingness. Many people can attest to this in their own lives. The Spies saw the giants as an obstacle. Other people would see them and say, “We’re soon going to witness G‑d just dissolving these giants; it’s nothing!”

This is our challenge in life. And we have the strength to see it through.