Shabbat Shelakh L’kha: There Are People Living There

Once again, the scouts of Sh’lakh-L’kha are left holding the bag.

Every year around this time we Jews who engage in weekly Torah study again reach this story, of the moment when our ancestors stood at the verge of the land they had traveled to find, the land of their ancestral home. Scouts sent ahead to reconnoitre come back from their mission and report in. Ten of them say this: the land does indeed flow with milk and honey.

But please know this: there are people living there.

The other two scouts discount the report; in their opinion everything will be fine, if the people will only trust in G*d.

Jewish tradition blames the ten scouts for calumniating the Land, and for causing the people of Israel to doubt, and then to rebel against, the leadership that had brought them to this point. Two thousand years of commentary has piled it on: they brought bias into what should have been a neutral report. They were guilty of cowardice. They aided and abetted idolatry! In short, their honest voices are covered in loud, angry blame. The two scouts that would have us close our eyes and trust are held up as the only appropriate model.

Those of us who have come to oppose Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory beyond the Green Line might sometimes feel like those ten scouts. Yes, we carry a difficult message, and we do get blamed, sometimes loudly, as a result. Jewish anxiety over Israel is profoundly deep, and we have good reason to fear an onslaught of anger that is out of proportion, and hurtful.

Rabbis have lost jobs, many Jews have suffered social ostracism and more, for speaking the message of the scouts aloud: there are people living there.

For rabbis, I believe that we must remember that we are ordained not rabbi for a town or a community, but “rabbi in Israel”. Of what purpose is our work if we do not honor the primary relationship we share with all the history, the people, and the land of Israel by acting with all the integrity of which we are capable? As Rabbi Israel Salantar, the founder of Musar (an early modern school of Jewish ethics), said, please pardon his gendered language, “A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is not really a rabbi, and a rabbi who fears his community is not really a man.”

I believe it to be an essential part of my rabbinic duty to respectfully and clearly share my thoughts, concerns and hopes for Israel in ways that teach Torah. I’ve encountered rabbis who share my views but are hesitant to speak out about them to their constituencies, worried about offending anyone or failing to maintain impartiality. Yes, there will be strong and negative feelings from some, but others welcome the chance to hear more than one honest rabbinic opinion about the best way forward for our beloved Israel.

Jews with right wing views tell me that they feel a passionate responsibility to speak out for the sake of Zion. Jews with more moderate views feel that responsibility just as keenly, do they not? Further, as a citizen of the United States, I know that healthy discourse requires more than one thoughtful, caring perspective. We do ourselves and our people a disservice when we allow one viewpoint a monopoly on public opinion. My silence might lead those who hear me to believe that their only options are to be hawkish or stay silent.

We are Jews, and we must seek out Torah. We are not required to be political experts, but we should be learning every ethical Jewish text we can find about Israel, from Jeremiah, to Kamtza and bar Kamtza, to the simple Torah text that commands us to help our enemy raise the mule that has fallen under its load.

The most sensitive issues are where our learning is most needed.  An end to the occupation and a peaceful resolution to the conflict are vital to safeguarding Israel’s future. We dare not allow ourselves to turn away from our people’s homeland, and so we need to re-learn, and insist upon, makhloket l’shem shamayim, the art of talking honestly, openly and respectfully about the challenges Israel faces. We can’t let raised voices deter us from our duty to guide our people in the moments when they most need our support.

For Zion’s sake I will not be silent.  – Isaiah 62.1

(This d’var Torah appeared in the Times Of Israel in 2016 as an op-ed.)

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Shabbat HaHodesh: Say His Name

This Shabbat carries so much significance – it is Shabbat HaHodesh, the Shabbat of The Month, that is, the first month of the Jewish year, the month in which we will commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. That escape occurred on the 14th day of the month we now call Nisan, and every year we gather to tell the tale. The power, we are taught, is in the words that we share.

And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this ritual?” you shall tell them, “this is the Passover.” (Ex.12.26-27)

Our Rabbis taught that even those who know the tale well are considered praiseworthy if they tell it at length, this story of how one moves from slavery to freedom. Tell it again, tell it over and over, tell it until it is heard, and recognized.

We are so much in need of that story today. When we retell it, we remind ourselves of the importance of saying what is important out loud. From the beginning of creation, when the first people helped G*d create the world by naming all its creatures, Jewish tradition has understood the great power of speaking truth in words, out loud.

When I visited City Hall on the morning of March 1, I witnessed the power of speaking words directly. A group lifted up the simple chant:

Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! 

No matter how you feel about the tactic of refusing to allow regular city business to proceed as usual by showing up during open city council sessions and disrupting them, it is powerful to realize that a simple, repeated chant cuts right through such attempts to proceed with business as usual.

There is a tremendous power in speaking truth directly. Alas, we also know that there is a great deal of power in refusing to speak what should be spoken, and thus recognized as real and significant.

Our Jewish tradition decries the act of remaining silent when speaking up is the needed moral act, even as it denounces those who speak falsely in order to manipulate the truth to their own advantage. We have a surfeit of the latter, but what do we know about the former? 

For Zion’s sake I wil not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be still, until her justice shines like a light, and her help like a burning torch. (Isaiah 62.1)

That chant continues to ring in my ears: Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! 

On this Shabbat HaHodesh, we are called to consider the importance of saying our truth out loud, and supporting the rights of others to that same speech. The words of G*d echo through every person’s truth, even – probably especially – the truths that disturb our peace and quiet. 

And on this Shabbat which is also called VaYakhel-Pekudey, after the Torah parashah that we are reading in the yearly cycle, we cannot but also note that VaYakhel, which means “gathering”, reminds us that words must not only be spoken aloud, but also heard, and witnessed, by the gathered community. Only in such a community of shared meaning and purpose do our words fulfill their purpose: to tell the story, and tell what it means.

Today at 2pm Quanice Hayes will finally be laid to rest – a horribly long time after he was tragically killed. His name joins too long a list of other young African American men killed at the hands of police. To say his name is to insist that we listen, and that we tell that story too, as many times as necessary until we finally discover the way from slavery to freedom for all.

In every generation we are commanded to consider that we ourselves are going out of Egypt. (BT Pesakhim 116b)

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other,

Shabbat shalom