Shabbat Shelakh: Trust

Perhaps the undermining of the idea of trust began for many of us with the cultural saturation in the U.S. of the slogan “trust, but verify.” Or perhaps it is an internal result of the persecutions Jews have endured for many centuries. No matter the cause, the lack of ability to trust – to suspend suspicion and cynicism – is inimical to spiritual life. It is also directly destructive of Jewish community.

In our parashat hashavua we see the effect of anger, discomfort, and fear on the first Jewish community’s ability to trust. That is to say, they couldn’t. Poised on the edge of what they said they wanted, the Jewish people were unable to find within themselves what it took to take a step together, in trust that they would be all right in the uncertainty of the step. 

From that day to this, life keeps sending us the lesson that spiritual life demands trust. Yet so little in our daily life encourages it! Yet we are not the first to face such a challenge. One of the rewards of being part of a community is to learn about others who have struggled to learn trust – both in ourselves and our capacity, and, relatedly, in those who share our path with us.

To be unable to trust, our parashah shows us, is to remain in Egypt. It is to be a slave: to one’s fear, to one’s past patterns, to one’s isolation. 

The opposite of spiritual slavery is not safety; it is not making it “home.” It is knowing that one is not alone even when one is unsafe, wandering in uncertainty, afraid of tomorrow. The opposite of spiritual slavery is the kehillah kedoshah, the community that becomes holy because those who are part of it are able to trust each other with their lives and the meaning of their lives.

Without trust in ourselves and each other, we cannot sustain meaningful community.

Trust, correctly understood, is not about passively expecting a Divine presence to care for us. It is also not about assuming that the other with whom one disagrees is correct. It is about letting go of the mistaken idea that one can control the world – when, truly, all we can control is our response to it, as the Talmud teaches:

One who has enough to eat today and worries about tomorrow has no faith. 

– Talmud Bavli Sotah 48b

Bitakhon (“security” in modern Israeli Hebrew) is an important ethic in Judaism. Learning the power of trust in oneself and one’s capacity, when it leads to trusting others appropriately within one’s community, is also a source of strength.

This type of confidence was so important to Rabbi Yosef Yuzel Horowitz, the founder of the Novardak school of Mussar (19th-20th century, Lithuania), that he would give his students drastic challenges so they could grow in bitakhon

One student was afraid of the dark. Rabbi Yosef Yuzel instructed him to spend the night in the cemetery saying psalms. Another student was afraid of being humiliated. To him, the rabbi gave the challenge of going into a bakery and asking for nails and into a hardware store and asking for bread. 

The point of both these challenges was to condition the students to have bitakhon and realize that nothing harmful would happen to them if they faced their fears. The students of Novardak went on to found over 100 yeshivot throughout Eastern Europe, withstanding tremendous opposition and threats from Russian authorities. (Bitakhon)

Trust is not easily learned when one has been hurt. Thus community life is difficult, often marked by disappointment. Those who engage in community organizing and relationship development know that the unforgivable sin of this work is to undermine trust, because it is the most important connective tissue of all.

In the parashat hashavua our ancestors came 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. They remained slaves.

The spiritual path is not one of arrival, but of one day at a time. May we learn to wander not alone, not enslaved by our past fears, but together, with trust in each other. The wandering will still be uncertain, but the path will be so much more beautiful.

parashat hashavua: Shelakh-L’kha: They Might Be Giants

This week’s parashah teaches about the challenge of going forth into uncharted territory. This, of course, is what we face all the time; but many of us fear it, avoid it, and do a bad job of coping with it despite the experience we all have of change in our lives. 

High school seniors look at college freshman as giants; a new apprentice or trainee sees the seasoned workers around her in the same way. The new toy may be attractive, but the new reality creates anxiety and fear. So it was for our ancestors when they reached the edge of the Promised Land, as the Torah records this week in parashat Shelakh. 

Yes; this week. If only we had made the crossing here, the book of Numbers would end now. But we did not make the crossing. We peered in from a distance,and as a first step, we sent scouts to do reconnaissance. They reported:

And they showed them the fruit of the land. “We came unto the land to which you sent us, and surely it flows with milk and honey, but the people that dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are fortified, and very great; …. ‘We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.’ And they spread an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature.  And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.'”(Numbers 13.26-33, excerpted)

We seemed like grasshoppers to ourselves next to those giants; we can’t possibly go in there! Note that the Torah calls it “an evil report” – why? certainly the scouts are only being cautious, and pointing out the possible difficulties on the way. Isn’t it best to be conservative when dealing with the unknown?

The answer given by Torah commentators and interpreters is that it depends on the unknown; and in the final analysis, it depends on your faith. G-d had already assured the people of Israel that they would be able to enter the land, but when the scouts asserted that they could not, the Israelites, moved by their fear of the unknown, chose the fearful option, rather than the faithful one. They were not ready to take a leap of faith and trust G-d; they were not ready to be free people. They still had a slave mentality.

It’s still true that we are sometimes required to step into uncharted territory in our personal lives and in the life of our community. There are really only two choices about how to react to the unknown future into which we must move: either with fear, or with faith. In the case of this parashah, fear bought our ancestors thirty-eight more years of wandering, after which they came to the exact same place and were confronted with the exact same reality. The only thing that had changed in the meantime was them, and their ability, finally, to make that leap of faith.

They might be giants; but so will we be when we act with faith – with love, a willingness to learn, and most of all, to see ourselves as more than grasshoppers.