Sh'lach L'cha — 5778 | June 8, 2018 “How to Go On When You Know You're Not Going On to the Promised Land”
If you know anything about the Torah, you probably know that the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert on the way to the Promised Land.
And if you’ve spent any time around synagogues, you’ve probably heard the old joke about why they wandered for 40 years.
Because Moses, being a man, refused to ask for directions.
You can see why it’s a well-known joke. Pretty good stuff. But in Torah, it’s in this week’s parashah.
And it’s not so funny.
Moses sends out twelve spies, one from each tribe, to scout out the Promised Land. Their job? Gather information about the land and its inhabitants to prepare for what would have been the Israelites' big move into Canaan.
This all happens just a little more than two years after the Exodus.
So what’s the explanation for the extra 38 years? As I spoke about on the High Holidays, it’s a tragic tale of fear and self-doubt. Two of the twelve spies — Joshua and Caleb — return from their mission on a big high.
“The land is great, God is with us, and we are about to realize the deepest values of our people in the homeland promised us.”
But ten of the twelve spies return with a considerably less rosy report.
“The people in the land are giants, we’re not giants, and we’re gonna get creamed.”
Panic ensues, the people revolt, and Moses (again) has to talk God down from lashing out at the people in genocidal rage.
One thing is for sure. This generation isn’t going to any promised land. Not even Aaron or Miriam. Not even Moses. Only Joshua and Caleb, the faithful pioneers, will merit entry to Eretz Yisrael.
The dream of this book of Torah, BaMidbar, the dream of this desert journey, becomes a nightmare. BaMidbar ha-zeh, “in this desert,” yiplu figreichem. “Your carcasses will drop.”
And your children will wander. Arbaim Shanah. Forty years.
The people are left to wander and wonder what could have been.
This is not the ending we want. We want God to relent; we want an uplifting story of redemption. We want a happy ending.
Isn’t that, after all, the American way? The cinema hero swooping in, heaving and sweaty, to save the children at the last minute? The cowboy in a white hat, on a white horse, riding in to cut down the criminals?
But life isn’t a B-movie.
If anyone knows that, it’s us. Jews have had a long history, and not so many happy endings. While most people know that other great joke — that every Jewish holiday can be summed up by “they tried to kill us, we won, lets eat” — the truth is that there were long periods of suffering in between those “wins.”
My own family’s history is comprised of generations of Jews of Eastern Europe, living in the shadows of Cossacks — and sometimes more than the shadows — who never saw those Cossacks defeated, who never saw the Czar overthrown, who never had a promised land. Jews who prayed for a Messiah who never came.
Jews for whom there was no happy ending.
But their descendent is an American. I’m no different in wanting a happy ending.
I’ve spoken before about my college days at a tiny liberal arts college in Florida called New College. There’s a lot of self-directed learning at New College, including the opportunity to choose a month-long Independent Study Project every winter session. In the enthusiasm of youth (or in the foolishness of youth) I decided my first year to take on a simple, manageable topic.
Racism and Achievement in Black America.
Did I mention I was supposed to cover this topic in four weeks?
Only a white Jewish teenager in America could think he could find out the secret to such a problem — if only he read enough books.
It’s been almost 30 years, but I think I can safely say that I didn’t solve the scourge of racism.
And at the age of 46, I’m getting to the age that I’m beginning to realize that I may not see it solved in my lifetime.
Now if you’re passed middle age, this too might seem like the foolishness of youth. You might already feel fairly secure that world hunger will not be eradicated, that we will not find a cure for cancer, that some people will continue to have advantages over other people for the stupidest and most arbitrary of reasons.
But I don’t have to tell you we’re in difficult times these days. We get it in a flood of TV and news stories, Facebook statuses and tweets.
We wonder if it will get better. And when?
We want the happy ending. But it might not come. At least not for us to see it. And then we realize the uncomfortable truth.
We may not be the generation of the Promised Land. In all likelihood, we’re another generation in the desert.
So let me just stop and say that I know that, so far, I’m not bringing you the most uplifting of messages.
It makes you wonder. How did our ancestors do it? How do generations of Jews, from that moment of calamity in this week’s parasha, get the strength to continue this crazy project of sustaining Jewish life?
Well, it turns out that, in Hebrew, there’s a word for this. Netzach. It means “endurance.” You might know it from the Torah service. L’cha YHVH haGedulah v’haGevurah.
“To You YHVH is the Greatness and the Power.”
And the endurance. The eternity.
The song comes from an esoteric source. I Chronicles, one of the last books of the TaNaKh. It’s a public song sung by King David, as the Israelites collect material for the building of the Beit haMikdash, God’s Holy House, the Temple in Jerusalem.
Only one thing. David knows he won’t build the Temple. That will be up to his son, Solomon. David will die before it’s built.
How does he bless God? Why isn’t he depressed that he won’t get to see the Temple.
The world is depressing sometimes. It’s depressing for me too.
But when it gets to me, I try to think about the inspiration that’s around us. Even in a time like this.
I think of the teachers here who teach our Hebrew School kids, even when they aren’t sure of the world they’ll face as adults. I think of our people who show up to help feed the hungry, even though they know that there are millions more hungry people they’ll never see. I think of the Na’aseh crew, who look at the news and know it’s bad, but who keep showing up anyway to speak their truth, and smile in the eyes of their immigrant neighbors.
I think of my ancestors in Ukraine, who made Shabbos and learned the alef-beis and kept Jewish life alive, even though they would never live in true security as Jews.
I think of King David, celebrating the moment of community, the generosity of the Jews, the blessing of awareness, of knowing that — even if he never gets to see redemption — he’s still surrounded by miracles.
Maybe you’re not inspired by King David. If not, how about Mr. Rogers?
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” the famous children’s TV host said, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Despite all the reasons to give up and give in and think only of themselves, I continue to be inspired by this community. A community of helpers. A community of miracles.
A community that endures, because we endure together.
In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tarfon famously says, Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor. “It’s not on you to finish the work.
V’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena – but that doesn’t mean “you’re free to dispense with it.”
As with our work, so with our blessing.
It’s probably not going to be on us to see redemption. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend it’ll never come.
It doesn’t mean we can’t find any blessings in the wilderness.
It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act as if what we do, at this time, in this moment, might just be the act of love — the act of kindness — the act of justice — that will bring redemption.
Because if we act as if it is — who knows? — maybe we’ll transform this wilderness into a world of redemption.
And maybe, at that point, we won’t be able to tell the difference between the wilderness and the promised land.
And, of course, at that point, what will it even matter?