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 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?