Facing Down Giants!

In this week's Torah portion, Sh’lach L'cha, the Israelites near the end of their 40 year journey through the wilderness. As they stand on the eastern banks of the Jordan river, wondering about the promised land that lies on the other side, God instructs Moses to send out twelve spies (one from each tribe) to scout out the land and bring back a report.

In this week's Torah portion, Sh’lach L'cha, the Israelites near the end of their 40 year journey through the wilderness. As they stand on the eastern banks of the Jordan river, wondering about the promised land that lies on the other side, God instructs Moses to send out twelve spies (one from each tribe) to scout out the land and bring back a report.

The report that the spies bring back begins in a seemingly factual way: "We came to the land you sent us to. It does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit."  But then, as the report continues, it draws attention to the strength of the group of people who dwell there, the large size and fortifications of the cities, and the fact that the individuals who live there are the "children of giants."  In focusing not on the possibilities for the future but on the huge obstacles to ever inhabiting it, this part of the spies' report understandably discourages the Israelites, even sowing seeds of panic among them.

The pinnacle of the spies' "no-can-do" attitude comes a few verses later in the story, in Numbers 13:33. At this point, ten of the spies (all but Caleb and Joshua) state, "We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so too we must have looked in their eyes."  The ten spies can see that they are facing down large enemies, and therefore conclude that the battle ahead is one that they can never win. But interestingly, their expression of despair has to do with their own self-perception: they no longer have faith in themselves and their own agency to make things happen. Caleb and Joshua clearly saw the same "facts on the ground"... but they assess the situation differently, with a "can-do" attitude. Perhaps they understand something the other spies do not: that huge challenges can't be tackled all at once. Rather, large obstacles must be broken down into a series of smaller ones, so that we can face them not as grasshoppers, but as human beings with agency.

Right now, it feels like we are up against a number of huge problems in our American society. Immigration, homelessness, racial justice, and perhaps, most of all, climate change are areas in which the challenges we face can feel insurmountable, and it would be easy to see ourselves as grasshoppers and opt out of trying to make a difference. However, our Jewish tradition teaches us, in the words of Pirke Avot: "lo alecha hamelacha ligmor," "It is not upon you to complete the work" -- that is, we don't have to be able to "solve" any of these problems in order for it to be worth tackling them; "v'lo atah ben chorin l'hibatel mimena," "neither are you free to desist from it" - even if we can only make a dent, still, we are obligated to jump in and give it our best shot.

In these cases, how can we take seemingly insurmountable challenges and break them down into bite-sized (“right-sized”) chunks?  What does it look like to believe in ourselves and our ability to make change?

At Kavana, there are so many answers to these questions. Here are but two examples of ways in which our community members are exercising courage and moral leadership:

  • We have been working on immigration and refugee issues for some time now, and also joining forces with other local Jewish communities to form the Jewish Coalition for Immigrant Justice - Northwest (JCIJ). Recently, Kavana partner Chuck Cowan answered a call from JCIJ, asking for folks to attend a Clemency and Pardons Board Hearing in Olympia on behalf of a Cambodian refugee. Chuck was one of about 50 people who showed up in support of this man’s case. Their presence made a huge difference, and he won! Click here to read Chuck's beautiful testimonial, which provides more background about Cambodian refugees and the legal processes in play here, and urges you to show up next time!
  • Speaking of immigration, new horrific details have emerged in recent weeks about the detention centers on the border. We have known about family separation (and have been speaking out against it) for some time, but now it's become clear the extent of the overcrowding, the lack of access to basics like soap and toothbrushes, and the fact that young children are having to care for even younger children who they've never met before. It’s hard to imagine the depths of the trauma! Kavana partner Stacy Lawson has stepped forward to organize a "Lights for Liberty" gathering for our community on Friday evening, July 12th, where we will light Shabbat candles and candles of protest, as we join together with others across the nation to protest the conditions in the human detention camps. This is a time to stand up courageously in the face of a huge problem; as Jews, we know the dangers of dehumanization and have a special obligation to oppose it vigorously! Please see below for more details and plan to be there if you can.

Please keep reading below for more examples of this approach: a Tiny House Work Party (to help build homes for some of Seattle’s most vulnerable), a Racial Justice Working Group (which is gathering to discuss a book), and the newly announced Climate Forum with State Senator Reuven Carlyle (an interfaith event, which Kavana is spearheading). Each of these events represents a small but concrete action you can take, to exercise your agency in facing down a much larger challenge.

There is no doubt that it feels daunting to live in these times, and to come face-to-face with the enormous challenges in our society. But, this week’s Torah portion reminds us that we cannot succumb to the sin of the spies, allowing these obstacles to loom so large that we see ourselves as grasshoppers in our own eyes. On the contrary, we must listen to the words of Caleb and Joshua, "al tira'um" - "do not be afraid.”  Here at Kavana, we find strength in being together in community, in drawing on the wisdom of our tradition, and in stepping forward to try. Taking action, with agency, is our sacred obligation as both Jews and humans.

Together, we can face down giants, and continue our journey towards the (ever-elusive) land flowing with milk and honey.