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Friday, June 15, 2012

Parshat Shelah-Lekha - How to Make Ourselves a Holy Community

In this week's parashah/portion, Shelah-Lekha (Bemidbar/Numbers 13:1-15:41), Moses, at God's command, chooses one leader from each of the twelve tribes to serve as spies. Their mission is to enter the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, and bring back a report about the land to the people. "See what kind of country it is.....investigate its cities, people, soil, and forests, and bring back some of the fruit of the land,” they are told. When they return, they do bring back huge bunches of grapes and other fruits, but ten of the twelve spies also bring back a report that, though the land is flowing "with milk and honey," it is filled with large fortified cities, "giants" so huge that they made the 10 spies feel “like grasshoppers.” Only two of the spies, Yehoshua/Joshua and Calev/ Caleb, bring back a positive report and remind the people that God is with them, and so they can overcome any obstacle or enemy.

Unfortunately, the people are carried away by the negative report of the negative majority and wonder if Moses brought them this far out of Egypt only to die in the desert. As punishment for following the negative report of the ten spies, God declares that the Israelites will wander in the desert for forty years until this generation of adults dies. Joshua and Caleb will be the only ones of that generation allowed to enter the land.

I would like to think that, at first glance, most of us would be incredulous when reading this story. For how could the people have listened to the negative reports? After all God had done for them, why couldn't they trust God? However, I believe that most of us could in some way relate to the 10 spies' reaction and the response of the people. For they are very human. There is a tendency within many, if not most, of us to expect – or believe – the very worst when in a difficult or unknown situation. In spite of all the miracles that God provided us the people were still unwilling to accept the positive assessment of Joshua and Caleb, but more than willing to accept the words of the 10 spies, what the text calls an eidah ra’ah, or evil community.

The use of this phrase to describe the spies has always fascinated me. The Torah doesn't merely call them a group of bad or misguided people, but an evil community! For they were not merely 10 individuals acting alone, but they were ten who banded together as one to mislead the people. In fact, the Talmud uses this phrase and this story as the main proof text for needing ten people for a minyan (a community of prayer). For just as it took 10 acting in concert to create an evil community, so too it takes ten to create a holy community. The number 10 represents the power of community to create or destroy, to bring holiness or chaos into our world.

But, what exactly made the spies actions so “evil?” Couldn't they just have been so overwhelmed that they blurted out what they saw out of fear? The Gerer Rebbe, a great hassidic teacher, taught that the evil wasn't the thoughts of the 10 spies, but their actions. It was the fact that they delivered the bad report even after they had time to calm down and think it through. Even after they told of all the good things in the land. In this reading their actions were quite intentional. Nehama Leibowitz, a 20th century Israeli scholar and teacher, expands this by teaching that the spies knew exactly what they were doing. They drew the people in by telling them of all the bounty in the land. Only then did they hit them over the head with the negative fear-mongering report. And using such hyperbolic words as “grasshoppers” and “giants,” they did indeed instill fear in the community.

For me, what made the group an evil community was the moment they said to the people, “we felt like grasshoppers ourselves, and so we must have appeared to them (the giants in the land).”

For they didn’t simply say “we must have looked like grasshoppers to the giants of the land.” The primary focus of their comment is their self-perception and lack of self-confidence. And if they, as tribal leaders, felt this way, then who were the people to disagree? And so, if this was intentional, as the commentators say, this was the verse that clinched it.

It seems that even after all the miracles that God did for the people, the main stumbling block was a slave mentality that caused the people, to still view themselves as inferior and powerless. Feelings that may have lurked beneath the surface, but when their leaders gave them the report they emerged into the light. It didn’t matter that God was on their side. What mattered was that they did not believe that were up to the task

So many times in our life we are faced with a dilemma similar to that of the people. Do we trust in God, in some Higher Power, in the force for goodness in the Universe (whatever you choose to call it) or do we give in to our natural human fears? Do we take a step forward into the unknown, afraid by still in faith, or do we stay where we are (or even go backwards)? Do we believe the evil fear-mongering and hatred that we hear or do we follow the voice in our heart?

If we look at those who fought against tyranny and oppression, even when they were outnumbered, we are looking at those who would have listened to Joshua and Caleb rather than to the other 10. We see this in someone like Rosa Parks or others who fought in the civil rights movements but were not Dr. King. Everyday people, who could have seen themselves as grasshoppers, but instead saw themselves as human beings with a soul and inalienable rights.

It may be true that Parks and those like her did have Dr. King and the other leaders pointing the way, but they also had elders in their community who were afraid to “rock the boat” for fear of violence and retaliation (and understandably so). This is true in every great revolution or fight for civil rights that has ever taken place. It is the partnership of visionary leaders and ordinary citizens with heart, soul and faith that make a change. The Israelites had two visionary leaders among the spies, but they did not have the heart, soul or faith to hear them. And so they listened to the others. And their punishment from God was that they would wander in the desert for 40 years until they all died, except for Joshua and Caleb. That way, it would be the next generation that would enter the Promised Land.

There are so many ways in which I could apply this to our world today. For there are so fear-mongering leaders trying to tell us that if we follow a certain path we will surely meet our demise. Leaders who believe that they, themselves are indeed giants and that they can make the people believe that they are grasshoppers. And that, as grasshoppers, they should be afraid of others who are trying to take away their rights or change their world for the worse.

We must not allow ourselves to listen to those voices. We must pay attention. We must be mindful. We must listen to the voice of our soul. If we do that, we will find the Joshuas and Calebs in our world, and within us, and we shall listen to them.

These are indeed frightening and difficult times. But listening to the hatred and fear-mongering, whether in the guise of political discourse or religious dogma – will only lead to us becoming part of an evil community and not a holy community.

Today especially, we must remember what happened to our ancestors and try to follow in the footsteps of Joshua and Caleb in forming our communities and in working towards changing our world, rather than wandering through it aimlessly. We must remember that anything is possible if we use the power within us that comes from the Divine. In fact it is our duty to make God’s presence manifest in this world by doing mitzvot/ commandments (or good deeds), by healing the world, and by fighting injustice and lies masquerading as truth. Only then can we be like Joshua and Caleb, and so many others.

Our ancestors were unable – or unwilling to do this – but hopefully we are. This is an important message for us to remember as we face the difficulties, and the possibilities, of life one moment, one day at a time.

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