Shabbat Shelakh L’kha: Trust or Fail

In these days of many kinds of prayers, let us consider the nature of Jewish prayer. Jews pray in highly specific ways, teaching us by way of this mindfulness practice a Jewish ethics of existence.

The first kind of prayer we see demonstrated in our siddur, our makhzor and any other kind of prayer compilation is תהילה tehilah – praise. It is the expression of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called the “radical amazement” of being alive. The morning prayers, for example, remind us to be aware of and grateful for our body’s abilities, of just waking up alive.

The prayer of praise captures that moment when you stand on a mountain top and see the beauty of all that is, and know your place in it. That mountaintop is experienced in parenting, in friendship, in community, in love.

The second kind of prayer is בקשה, bakashah – seeking. It is to see the beauty from the mountaintop and seek the link to that beauty through the ethics and obligations of our days. The vision is wholeness, and the bridge we seek to build to it is the mitzvot of justice and kindness we are taught to fulfill.

Bridge-building is difficult and dangerous, marked by thankless effort, uncertainty and fear. This is true whether one lays bricks across a cavern or reaches out, step by step, to challenge injustice. The one unforgivable sin of this work is to undermine the most important building material of all: trust.

In the parashat hashavua our ancestors had come so close to their vision of wholeness. Before they entered, scouts were sent ahead into the uncertainty. When they returned, they reported much beauty and promise, but also challenges and obstacles to overcome.

The great sin happened here: the people refused to make the effort to trust that the path they were on was worthwhile, that it would indeed lead to the beauty of the vision they longed for. Rather than face the difficulty with trust, they gave in to fear, and lost the moment. They never got another chance; it would be many years of wandering before that bridge would finally be built.

Only three weeks ago on Shabbat we marked Shavuot, the moment when our people stood at a mountain and saw, for once clearly, the meaning of their lives. That moment was marked by fire, by lightning and thunder and the blast of the shofar. It was probably terrifying. Such moments of naked exposure to truth probably always are.

From that mountaintop we have been privileged in these days to see a vision of justice for the United States. Dr Martin Luther King Jr taught us that the road is long and there are no guarantees that any one of us will get there. Not unlike the wilderness generation, many of us have not been taught to trust, and it is terrifying to recognize the might of the evil unleashed among those of us who are Black and Brown. 

On this Juneteenth of 2020, we are privileged to experience the presence of G*d in history and event. The building of the bridge to a better world has made some progress, and that brings us to our third kind of prayer: הודאה, hoda’ah – gratitude.

Little by little, each in our own way, we carry forward our people’s memory of the vision we had on the mountaintop: of community, of justice, and of wholeness. May we be true to it, and trust it in the uncertainty and fear of our days. 

Shabbat shalom and Happy Juneteenth!

Rabbi Ariel

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.)

Shabbat Shelakh-L’kha: Why So Negative?

The parashat hashavua for this week is Shelakh-L’kha. It chronicles a significant debacle in the lives of our ancestors, the Generation of the Wilderness: it is during the events described in this parashah that they doom themselves to remaining the wanderers they’ve become. 

One year and some months after the Exodus from Egypt, with our new understanding of the divine and a new system for connecting with it constructed and up and running, we traveled across the Sinai wilderness (which is not that big) and arrived at the borders of the land that according to our people’s narrative was promised by G-d to our ancestors as their descendants’ home. 

And then the troubles began. While the rest of us waited, excited to be nearly there, at the border of the land, Moshe sent a representative from each tribe to scout it out. They returned with grapes so abundant and giant that they had to be carried between two. Just as the people were beginning to rejoice, the scouts added, 

“the land does flow with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. However,the people that dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are fortified, and very great; and we also saw giants there. The people of Amalek live in the South; the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the mountains; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and along by the side of the Jordan.’ (Numbers 13.27-29)

Upon hearing this, our ancestors panicked. After weeping and moaning all night, in the morning they determined, “Let us appoint a leader, and return to Egypt.” (Numbers 14.40).

It was at this point that G-d and Moshe realized a great truth: some people can’t be freed from their negativity. Worse, they will follow it even when it is only one of the possible perspectives. 

It was the negativity of the Generation of the Wilderness that doomed them. G-d saw that they could not trust, and therefore could not possibly survive as responsible agents in a new, free society that would depend upon patience, kindness, and the ability to assume the best of people. They were not ready to live as one people, committed to each other no matter what, in covenant with each other and with G-d.

In the mystical teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman haLevi Epstein, known as the Maor vaShemesh after the title of his most influential book, we are invited to go deeper into this insight. In his commentary on this parashah, he writes that 

“before the divine Presence was revealed to human beings, it was understandable that G-d had to be very patient with humanity, since mistakes were easy to make. But after the revelation of the divine Presence had been revealed, as indeed was the case with the Wilderness Generation, you would think that G-d would not be so patient with evil doers. And so this story comes to teach us that also, within revelation, there is patience and compassion.”  (Maor VaShemesh, Shelakh, 2:226)

It is said that our sins separate us from G-d. Certainly that is true of our experience of the divine Presence, which according to Jewish tradition is felt in our kehillah kedoshah, our holy community. If the divine Presence is known through patience, when we lose it, we lose the sense of the Presence as well.

We push our wholeness away every day; we pull back from the Presence when we distance ourselves from each other. Even though it has been revealed to us and we know better, we still commit lashon hara’ and listen to it; even when we have felt the joy of supportive community, we undermine ours with unkind words. 

Yes, it is good to have the teaching that there is always another chance to improve our behavior, and that we will not always be bereft of the sense of a holy presence in our lives because of the evil we do. But still, why so negative? why choose to remain in the wilderness, when it is within our ability to get over ourselves, and be in peace, and wholeness, with each other?