Updated: Jun 16
Parashat Shl'ach L'cha 5781
June 4, 2021
Had God and Moses not sent leaders from among the Israelites to scout the promised land, the entire community of Israel would have never crossed the Jordan. In this week's Torah portion, Sh'lach L'cha, God instructs Moses to instruct the heads of the tribes to go ahead of the community of wanderers, to scout the Land of Canaan, and to report back what they saw. They did so, and came back telling of a land that flowed with milk and honey. They did so, and came back telling of a land that was filled with giants and other threatening peoples. Many of the scouts were afraid, although they were also excited by the possibility of what this land had to offer. Opportunity and threat are the main headlines that emerge from the scout's reporting. The land yields tremendous fruit that would nourish a people. After wandering and eating only manah such thoughts must have made the Israelites' mouths water. And, hearing of giants and large cities worried them. In their report, they painted a picture about where they were heading, and what they would encounter when they got there. The Scouts were saying, "God redeemed us from Egypt. We have wandered through the desert for a generation. When we cross the Jordan, we will not be without our challenges. And, when we cross the Jordan, we come into tremendous opportunity."
In response, some said, "Let us go back to Egypt, that was the land that flowed with milk and honey." Caleb hushed those who would have retreated back, exchanging their redemption for Pharaoh's oppression. Caleb insisted, "Let us by all means go up... for we shall surely overcome it."
In the space between the majority of the scouts and Caleb rests a reality-based reporting on the possibility of the community's continued redemption: You can live in the land that flows with milk and honey. God has brought us this far. We cannot quit now. Nonetheless, we may still have to confront challenges. All of this is true.
While the traditional understanding of the Scout's experience is negative, that their doubt about being able to take the land evidenced their ongoing lack of faith that God would provide, I prefer an alternative, more optimistic read. The scouts held onto the complication that the expedition uncovered. Moreover, Joshua and Caleb model a spiritual leadership worth giving attention. God redeemed the Israelites from Egypt. Now, the Israelites would have to be active partners in the full experience of their redemption. Had the scouts never taken up the task of describing the fullness of the Promised Land, the Israelites would have never been able to get out of the wilderness. To get to the Promised Land, to taste the honey of redemption, we have a role to play. We can't just let go and let God. God wants us to be active in our own redemption.
This lesson, this model for our participation in our own transformation, is enduring.
In reading this week's Torah portion, by focusing on our people's possession of the land, we are forced into complication. This text bears the fruit of biblical claims to the Land of Israel, and recognizes other peoples have already built homes and established cities in that very place. We cannot read about the Israelites' possession of the Promised Land without entering into a conversation about ancient land rights and the interaction of peoples making such claims. This Torah portion brings up all of the complications around our claims to land and our relationship to the other nations who too lay claim to that same earth. One cannot read this week's Torah portion without hearing the future echos and pains of the current realities confronting Israel and the Middle East. If we are to talk about Israrel in any reality-based way, we are tacitly agreeing to holding onto complication.
Noticing the complexity that connects this week's Torah portion with today's map of Israel draws the conversation toward what has been going on over the last few weeks. The latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas, the fighting in Israeli cities between Jews and Arabs has weighed on me, as I imagine it has weighed on many of us. The fighting and loss of life saddens me. I am annoyed by the constant hammer Israel hawks throw saying we need to support Israel without critical conversations about the values behind our support. I am worried about the anti-Israel sentiment that has transformed into antisemitism that is allowed to live in progressive circles. I am bothered by the silence from our supposed allies that allows these forms of bias and hate to exist. Earlier today, I saw a bumper sticker that read "Free Palestine, Free the World." The way I read that: "Free Palestine, Rid the World of Jews." In so many ways, this is nothing new. In so many ways, for Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora, we sit in a fragile, tense moment. The situation in Israel presents a cascade of daunting challenges, and one might say, "This task is too great for us. Let us go back to a time where we were not free. Let us quit this enterprise toward redemption." But we cannot be those Israelites who would have gone back to Egypt. That is a simplistic, myopic viewpoint that does not answer the spiritual call that God gave our biblical forebears. I hold fast to the vision that God gave to the scouts: God desires our partnership in generating a redeemed world.
For that reason, had it not been for the latest round of violence, the reactions in Israel and around the world, a new coalition government would have never come to be. This week's forming of a new, fragile Israeli government, overcoming the political stalemate that prompted four elections in two years, speaks to a group of leaders who are fed up, pragmatic, and maybe even visionary. Israel cannot function when it chases one election after another. Not only can it not function, it cannot address injustice, strive for peace, and tap back into its collective vision of being a state committed to the first sparks of a redeemed world.
Part of the challenge of being in relationship to Israel today is embracing complexity. Being disatisfied with staying in the wilderness, while being scared of what's to come, and being excited by the prospects of what could be once you arrive to that Promised place is the formula for engagement in the redemptive process. One embraces opportunity while grounding him or herself in reality. That is visionary leadership. That is what Joshua and Caleb enjoined the scouts to do when they made their report. And, for all of us who love Israel, I believe Joshua's task is our's too. We need to embrace a vision of what Israel can be again, embrace what needs to be done to remove the barriers to that vision, and to strive, strive, strive toward it until we have reached the Promised Land. God wants partners in the process of redemption.
Such a call also strikes close to home.
Had we never wandering through this pandemic wilderness of the last sixty-seven weeks, we would have never reached this moment, this outdoor sanctuary, been a part of this sacred congregation at this very moment. All day long, I have been emotional. The decision to close was easy. And the want to be back together, that too was easy. However, for as smoothly as we pulled down the master power switch on all things in person at Hevreh, figuring out how to pull that switch back up took tremendous effort. In looking around at all of us tonight, I am so grateful to the Hevreh staff and to volunteers who did so much to get us to this point. The experience of constriction, being in a spot we would rather not be, has a lesson: it feels so good when you get to that place of release. The milk and honey we enjoy now is all that much sweeter because of the challenges and heartache endured. We took actions that kept one another healthy, that saved lives, and we have made it to this moment. Let us give thanks for the ability to be partners with God in this period of constriction, and give blessings for having arrived at this moment.
Because, friends, this is what it means to be redeemed. And this is what it means to be partners with God in redemption. This is why we are a part of a sacred community--to experience transformation from the mundane to the sacred. Had the Israelites never wandered, had they taken the straight path to the Land, it would have not been so sweet. Wandering has its challenges. Holding onto a vision of what can be while seeing what one needs to do to get there, that too has its challenges. The spiritual task when in such a situation, though, is to realize that we have been called, and that calling is a blessing, to be partners with God in a redeemed world.
Let us tonight, continue our commitment to pursuing redemption in all of its forms, for us, for our neighbors and friends, for Israel and her neighbors, for our world. Shabbat Shalom.