This week’s Torah portion seems to have some uncanny parallels with what is happening today in our society. Most of us have been given so much in our lives: a healthy planet in which to live, relationships, community, opportunities to live as our very best selves. Most of us in our direct communities have done our best to take care of what we have been given, to not take it for granted. Unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone. Many do not value the Earth or see the importance of each and every human life. Many refuse to recognize the brokenness of so many pillars of our society, such as our health care system, law enforcement, immigration, and criminal justice systems, or that the best way to exist in this world is to live as though we are colorblind.
In Shelach L’cha, the Israelites are just 11 days shy of entering the land they had dreamed of and been traveling to for decades upon decades. Oddly enough, after all the promises of abundance God made to the Israelites, God tells Moses to send spies to “scout out the Land of Israel” to make ensure it is safe for them to live there. It is easy to see how this command by God could cause the Israelites to lose faith in God’s support, for them to think that they were totally on their own, and thus, inspire distrust in God’s promise of the Land. At the beginning of God’s relationship with Israel, God showed God’s love for the Israelites through open miracles on a silver platter, starting with the Exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and raining manna from heaven for them when they were hungry. All they needed to do was to stay the course. They had to put forth little to no effort in their relationship with God in this beginning stage of their relationship.
But now, at this next stage, the Israelites are ready to form their own land. They are ready to take responsibility for themselves and to walk on their own two feet. God is now testing their faith, their ability to judge properly and to see the best of what they have been given despite challenges. Twelve spies are sent to Canaan, one from each tribe. When the spies come back, only two of them, Joshua and Caleb, are convinced that they are strong enough to live there and make a society. All the rest are consumed with how small they looked in comparison to its “giant” inhabitants. In Numbers 13:32-33 we read, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size . . . and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” The Kotzker Rebbe (Menachem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotzk) writes that this was the greatest sin of the scouts: “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves….so we must have looked to them…” he writes, “What’s with this? What do you care how you appear to the eyes of others?” (Itturei Torah, vol. 5, p. 83).
The Rebbe goes on to say that the scouts could be forgiven for their low self-esteem or seeing themselves as grasshoppers. But, it was their preoccupation with how others see them which was their greatest sin, and therefore caused them to have a skewed, inaccurate view of the land, and therefore, forfeit the inheritance of it for their families for the next 40 years, which resulted in their wandering all over again. Only Joshua and Caleb’s family and ancestors were allowed to inhabit this land. We can draw uncanny parallels to today’s predicament of certain people refusing to wear masks and practice social distancing. Perhaps they too are worried about how others may see them, and being uncomfortable. How much more will we as a society have to “wander” and flounder around, with the virus continuing to rise as a result of this irresponsibility?
The complete and utter chaos we are living through now started because of one thing: fear. Sadly, many of us have learned nothing from our sacred scriptures. Racism or any other kind of “ism” exists because one person or group of people fear that their power, self-esteem, or money will be taken from them. Rather than trusting, as Joshua and Caleb did, that we are enough, we (not most of us, but society at large) have to resort to putting people down, bullying, oppressing, and torturing people who look, act, talk, or live differently than they do. In my opinion, white people are the biggest sinners in this department. Many are so afraid that their land, wealth, opportunity, and the way they appear will be altered. Many are afraid of being outnumbered, and that their status and way of life will not be maintained. So they put people down, they judge based on appearance, and they fight the will of God which is being put forth right before them, and in my opinion, that will of God is that all of us live together as One, as a society, that we care for one another, learn from one another, and simply figure it out. To heck with our outward appearances.
Moses raises his hands as a sign that our strength is all from God. It is only when the Israelites recognize this that will they be successful and prevail. We can only succeed when we truly surrender to God and totally trust God. Some may say to me, “well Cantor, I do not know if I believe in God”. As we are created B’etzelem Elohim, in God’s image, I would ask the question, where does God live? If we are truly created in God’s image, is it not true that we are all children of God, stronger than we might realize? Each of us has a voice inside us, as we hear in our Unetaneh Tokef Prayer on the High Holy Days, “ha kol d’mama d’akah”—the still small voice. If we listen to it and follow what it says, we can’t go wrong. This does not mean that things will be easy or even pleasant. How many of us like living the way we are right now? I for one am certainly sick to death of it. But I press on. I try to stay away from those I love, my extended family who I am dying to see. I press on, refraining from singing with my choir, gathering with them, and instead, help them to create music in the forum which is safe for us right now. I am forcing myself to have faith that all of this is breaking apart at the seams because it needs to. Our broken systems must collapse so that we can make them better, and rebuild them to support each and every being.
Spies weren’t sent to learn about the land. They were sent to learn about themselves. The entire name of Parshat is “Shelach l’cha”—meaning “send to you”. What is being sent to you right now? What are you learning about yourself during this time of great distress and upheaval in our world? I pray for your strength, healing, and that we will all keep breathing and trusting God during this unprecedented time.
Last year, Temple Jeremiah celebrated 60 years. I wrote this extension of our Aleinu prayer, with the English words taken from the left side of the page, to celebrate each and every one of us. “We must all work together, cause we are all the children of Adonai.” Here is a recording to help you connect with this idea. I wish you Shabbat Shalom.