Friday, June 13, 2014

Parashat Shelach-Lecha

            This week’s Torah Portion is Shelah-Lecha, the sending out of the spies. Moses sends out a scout from each of the twelve tribes to scope out the Promised Land and determine if it is inhabitable. The spies discover that it is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey (date honey, specifically, most likely), and that there is good fruit to eat there, including grapes so large it takes two people to carry the bunch! But they also discover that the land is already inhabited, and they view the inhabitants as large and scary, and they report back to Moses that they should not try to conquer the land. All but Caleb and Joshua prepare to elect new leadership and head back to Egypt. The work was hard and the pay poor (read: non-existent), but at least there were no giants! They even cry out, “Oh! It would be better to die here in the Wilderness than to die by the sword in the land!” So, G-d declares that that is precisely what will happen. In case you thought the Israelites wandered for forty years because Moses’s fragile male ego didn’t allow him to ask for directions, this parasha confirms otherwise (take that, gender stereotyping!). G-d commands that the Israelites should wander for forty years to allow for all the unfaithful to die out, as they claim would be better than trying to enter the land. Then, all the children who did not try to overthrow Moses’s leadership will be able to enter the Promised Land.
            Often, I disagree with the accepted view of our tradition’s so-called “villains”. I think Esau was misunderstood, Korah gets a bad rep, and even sneaky Laban who treated his children like his cattle was really only playing by the rules of his day and giving Jacob his comeuppance. However, I have to concede to our tradition that the ten spies and the people who sided with the them, are cowards and stupid. G-d has already performed great miracles for them, leading them out of Egypt, parting the Sea, raining down manna and quails so they have enough to eat in the wilderness, and making G-d’s constant presence known through the pillar of smoke by day and fire by night. How could these people still be afraid that the land G-d promised them will be somehow inaccessible to them? That they will all die by the sword fighting for this land? Did NO ONE even consider, that maybe there wouldn’t even be any fighting? I mean, I know I mentioned last week that there are parts of the Bible where G-d commands the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites, but I’m pretty sure that hasn’t happened yet when the spies are sent. Maybe there’s enough land for everyone and no one needs to fight over it!    Of course, we know, as wise Torah scholars, that they do need to fight over it, and probably the scouts knew that too, even before being told. Sadly, that’s the way society worked back then, and even more sadly, it is too often still the way things work. People conquer new lands, and push out the old inhabitants. I’m not advocating for this; I’m just acknowledging that it happens, and that these spies had every indication that their venture would be successful, in spite of the big scary giants that already lived in the land.
            Most of us probably have not seen any great miracles like the parting of the Sea or manna from heaven, and even if we are spiritual people that feel we can have conversations with G-d, probably have never really seen or heard G-d’s presence in such a direct way as the Israelites have, with their guiding pillars of smoke and fire, and their revelations on Mount Sinai. So, when faced with a difficult task, it’s far more reasonable for any of you to feel frightened or inadequate than it was for these spies. But if you know, deep down, that it is the right thing for you to do, then that it the same as G-d commanding you to do it. And even if it is daunting, do not shy away from your calling, or you will squander your life in the wilderness.

            I have encountered some difficult moments throughout the decade I’ve been on my journey toward becoming a rabbi, times when I was unsure I was doing the right thing or that I would be good enough at it. But all along, there was a tug in my soul letting me know it was what G-d wanted of me and for me; the rabbinate is my Promised Land. There have also been really wonderful moments, where I didn't need a tug in my heart or soul, because such joy was already right in front of me, and a lot of those moments have been here at Temple Beth Emeth, and especially with the Hebrew school and Youth Group. I want to thank you for being an important part of my journey, and leave you with a wish that you all find your calling and that you run toward it, not away from it. May it bring you a heart flowing with metaphorical milk and honey: joy, peace, and fulfillment. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Parashat Be’ha’alotekha - Welcoming the Stranger

            This week’s Torah portion, Be’ha’alotekha, is a full one! The menorah lampposts are built in the Tabernacle, the Priests are further purified, their orders to serve Aaron the high priest in his service to G-d is further explained, silver trumpets are made in case there is ever need for a rallying call in time of war, and marching orders are determined. Then, of course, there’s the small and uninteresting parts where G-d makes it rain poultry, and strikes Miriam with white scales covering her skin.
            In all this mayhem, it may be easy to miss a very short scene, four verses long, between Moses and his father-in-law. Remember, Moses married a Midianite lady while he was in hiding after killing the Egyptian task master. The ancient rabbinic commentators claim that her father had “converted,” and began praying to Adonai even before Moses found his encampment, but in the Torah itself, we have no proof how much Tzipporah and her family blended in with Moses and his people. So when Moses asks his father-in-law to come with them to the Promised Land, it’s a strong statement about inclusivity for that time. The land of Israel in the Bible is promised to the Israelites, not to Midianites. There are even disturbing and problematic parts where G-d commands the Israelites to kill everyone already living there when they enter. So it is significant that Moses near begs the Midianite priest to join them. When he insists on needing to go home to Midian, Moses says, “Please do not leave us… if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that the Lord grants us” (10:31-32).
            It’s a little bit of the inverse of Ruth’s pledge, which was read just this past week for Shavuot. After the husband and sons of Naomi die, she tries to send away her now widowed daughters-in-law. One is quick to take Naomi’s advice and goes home to her family of birth, but Ruth sticks to Naomi’s side, saying, “Where you go, I will go; your people will be my people, and your G-d my G-d.” Ruth is often treated as Judaism’s first convert, and taught as a story about welcoming new people into our communities, but we see in this week’s Torah portion, she is hardly the first. She just might be the most important, since she is the great-grandmother of the great King David, who is thought to be the line from which the Messiah will eventually come. But since Reform Jews believe in creating our own Messianic Age through Tikkun Olam, that all seems unimportant.

            What’s important is that between the Megillah read this past week for Shavuot, and this week’s Torah portion, we see an ancient and living value of treating the “others” in our midst with respect. These acts of acceptance are small forms of Tikkun Olam, and contribute to our own building of the Messianic Age, so we won’t need Ruth’s great great great great great grandchild to come redeem us. We accept newcomers to our communities and families; we  love them; we revere the wisdom they have to teach us, and soon enough, forget that they were ever “others” in the first place. True acceptance means those who seek to be truly blended, as Ruth did, are indeed blended. And those that want to keep their individual and original identity, as Jethro/Reul did, are indeed accepted as friends and family, regardless of their Jewish/Israelite status. May you all find acceptance when you need it, and always be accepting to others in your community. Amen and Shabbat Shalom!