a colorful illustration of two men hefting a large branch with a large bunch of grapes on it
The Israelite spies return from Canaan laden with a bounty of grapes by Richard Andre, 1884

With faith, you can climb mountains and face down giants

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Numbers 13:1–15:41

In these uncertain times, we are often confronted with challenges that test our resolve and our faith. We encounter obstacles that seem insurmountable and giants that appear too big to conquer. But it’s how we perceive these challenges that makes all the difference.

Consider a story from this week’s Torah portion that speaks urgently to our current struggles. When Moses sent 12 spies into the Promised Land, 10 of them returned with reports of fear, overwhelmed by the sight of the land’s inhabitants, whom the spies termed “giants.” “We cannot conquer this land,” they declared.

However, two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, saw the same giants but returned with a different report: “We can do it, and it’s going to be beautiful,” and confidently proclaiming, “God is with us.”

What made Joshua and Caleb so different from their peers? What qualities made them distinct from their fellow spies? When everyone else folded, they stood tall.

The explanation lies in a field of research pioneered by Dennis Proffitt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. Proffitt studies human perception, the ways we interpret our environment. He has done extensive research on a fascinating phenomenon, that people consistently overestimate the steepness of hills.

Proffitt conducted experiments in which he asked students to estimate the grade of various hills around the university’s campus. When presented with a hill with a 5% grade, the typical participant estimated a 20% grade.

But one batch of experimental data was strikingly different. Proffitt was stunned to find that, suddenly, a group of students was strikingly accurate at estimating the grade of hills. Proffitt and his team delved into the mystery and discovered that the latest batch of questionnaires had been filled out by members of the university’s soccer team. The hills didn’t look so steep because the subjects were athletes, trained to peak physical condition, capable of easily climbing them.

This revelation was a game-changer, and it highlighted a powerful truth: Our perception of obstacles is not fixed but fluid, influenced significantly by our physical and emotional conditions. Our environment is determined by the angle of our perception.

Since Proffitt first discovered this phenomenon, researchers have replicated it again and again.

People carrying a heavy load perceive hills to be steeper than those without loads — precisely because it is harder for people with heavy loads to climb them. People who have just consumed energy drinks perceive hills as less steep than those who have not. People who have just listened to sad music see steeper hills than people who have just listened to happy music.

Even baseball players in the zone see the game differently — the ball appears larger and more hittable, like a beachball.

The underlying principle is the same. Our perception changes based on our state of mind and body. The temperature of the world out there is an extension of our internal weather.

Joshua and Caleb had that spiritual energy drink, that uplifting melody. They were filled to the brim with confidence: “God is with us!”

Their faith made the giants look smaller, the challenges less daunting. Imagine living with that kind of faith, where every challenge, every giant you face, becomes smaller because your belief is bigger. Our only limits are the ones we impose on ourselves.

As we draw insights from these ancient texts, let us remember the enduring power of perception. Those giants in your life, those steep hills you’re facing — they’re not as insurmountable as they seem. With faith, with God on your side, you are able to say, “I can do it. It’s going to be beautiful.”

Let us approach our challenges with the faith of Joshua and Caleb. It is our spiritual and psychological inheritance. Let’s look at our challenges and say, “Because God is with us, we can conquer this land. We can overcome these obstacles.” Let that faith transform your perception. Let it fill you with the energy and strength to face your giants and to climb your hills with confidence.

The land before you is not just filled with giants; it’s filled with promise. It’s a land of opportunity, a land of beauty, a land that God has prepared for each and every one of us. And it’s ours for the taking, ours to enjoy. All it requires is a slight change in perspective. It’s not about the size of the giant in front of you, but the size of the faith within you.

So, let’s step into that land with faith, knowing that with God, all things are possible. n 

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.