This week's Torah portion, Shelach L'cha, opens with the story of twelve spies who are sent across the Jordan River, into the land, to bring back a scouting report about the land. Two come back with positive and optimistic reports; the other ten with pessimistic ones. It's not only the negative report of the ten scouts, though, but rather the response of the Israelite people that comes into focus in the text, eliciting God's ire and critique.
This week's Torah portion, Shelach L'cha, opens with the story of twelve spies who are sent across the Jordan River, into the land, to bring back a scouting report about the land. Two come back with positive and optimistic reports; the other ten with pessimistic ones. It's not only the negative report of the ten scouts, though, but rather the response of the Israelite people that comes into focus in the text, eliciting God's ire and critique. (The section that comes right after this, in fact, generates the core verses of our Yom Kippur liturgy... the clear implication is that the people as a whole have sinned and are in need of forgiveness.)
What exactly did the people do wrong, we might wonder? The text is explicit about this. Numbers 14:1-4 reports: "The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. 'If only we had died in the land of Egypt'... and they said to one another, 'Let us head back for Egypt.'" In other words, the Israelites' problem is that they listened to and assimilated the negative messages they were hearing and decided, as a result, to give up trying to move forward! They bought into the scouts' assertion that "we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them" (Num. 13:33); they accepted as axiomatic that they were powerless to shape their own future. They gave in to despair.
Over recent weeks, I've had conversations with many members of this community... over Zoom and phone, and (more and more) over coffee and walks too. Outwardly, it looks like our community is doing pretty well: we are basking in the sunshine of these longer days, getting out more, and beginning to reconnect with one another in the wake of vaccinations (hurray!). However, as these conversations have progressed, almost every single one has eventually pivoted to quieter confessions of profound fears and worries, of all shapes and sizes, that we are also holding right now. Some of us are concerned about what the post-pandemic world will look like and mean for us. (Have I forgotten how to socialize? Have my children been permanently scarred by this experience? Do I even want to return to the over-scheduled life from "before"?) A number of people have shared with me that they no longer want to talk about Israel/Palestine, because they've given up hope in the prospect of peace... thinking about it just feels too bleak. Some of us are harboring profound fears about being Jewishly identified at a time of rising antisemitism, and others have voiced similarly deep fears about whether American democracy will be strong enough to withstand the challenges like "the big lie" and voter suppression efforts currently underway in so many states.
These fears and doubts are real, and it's important to give them voice. However, our parasha implores us not to get so stuck in them that we can't move forward. To do so is deemed a sin, a squandering of the divine gift of life we've each been granted.
My colleague Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (who writes as the "Velveteen Rabbi") writes: "Spiritual life calls us to recognize our own fear. To notice what buttons are pushed when we think about expanding beyond whatever our limits have been. To breathe into the paralyzing fear of failure, of smallness, of taking on something we won't be able to handle. And spiritual life calls us to breathe through that fear, and to step into the unknown."
I don't mean to be polyannish, but I am here this week to remind anyone who needs to hear it this week that there will indeed be a future. We humans are plagued by all sorts of obstacles: the failure of imagination, an "end of history" illusion (a false belief that we've done all the growing and maturing we can do, and that future change isn't possible), a tendency to see ourselves inaccurately when we look in the mirror, and more.
The truth is that the future that lies on the other side of the river is not yet determined. It is ours to shape, but we can only do so if we really can convince ourselves that we are not, in fact, grasshoppers! Below are many opportunities to come together... for learning and reflection, prayer and celebration. Please join us, and bring your full selves -- including all the fears and doubts -- so that together we might acknowledge them and then choose a different path than our Israelite ancestors did. Let us decide that rather than turning around and heading back to Egypt, we will claim our collective power and choose to move forward together, into the unknown that lies across the river.
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum's Yom Kippur sermon is available as an audio recording, video recording, and also in writing.
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum's Rosh Hashanah sermon is available as an audio recording, video recording, and also in writing.
This week, as I've watched news unfold in Afghanistan -- a crisis on so many levels -- my mind keeps returning to the country's women and girls. I can't even begin to fathom what life will be like for them now that they are once again living under Taliban rule. Yesterday, I read one news report proclaiming that "there are no women in the streets" of Kabul, and another explaining that burqa prices have surged tenfold in recent days.