Friday, June 16, 2017

Parashat Shelach

Shabbat Shalom! As happens many times throughout the wandering in the Wilderness, Israelites once again give in to their fear in this week’s parasha and anger God with their lack of faith. The Israelites are at the foot of the boundary into the Holy Land when Moses sends twelve spies (the name of the parasha is “Shelach,” meaning sends), a representative from each tribe, into the land to investigate how goodly and conquerable the land is. Ten tribes come back and say that the land is full of giants and they do not think they can take it over. Only Joshua, who eventually becomes the leader to lead the people into the land several years on, and his friend Caleb have the courage to say that they have faith in their own ability to take on the giant Canaanites. They report that the land is full of grapes so large they needed five men to carry a custer. But the other ten are more persuasive to the Israelite community at large, and they don’t all charge into the promised land immediately. God declares at this point, “All these who have seen My glory and My signs which I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness and yet have tested me ten times now, and refused to listen to my voice - I swear that they shall not see the Land which I have sworn to their fathers.”
Perhaps in last week’s parasha and elsewhere in the Torah where commentators point to other behaviors as the real reason the generation from Egypt are not allowed into the Holy Land, it is akin to when a parent or a teacher has to make a threat of discipline several times and gives the child or student ample opportunity to correct themselves before the adult is comfortable following through on the threat. Eventually, though, enough is enough for everyone, and this is where we see the words direct from God, that the faithlessness of the people has gone too far.
I find that with students, they will often disregard early warnings. They continue doing what they’re doing that is disruptive to the classroom, or worse, sometimes even talk back, until enough is enough and I have to ask them to take some time to calm down. Then suddenly they want to behave. They ignore the instruction to take themselves away from the group and try to pretend as though they haven’t been doing anything wrong. At that point, I always feel torn. Because on the one hand, the student is now doing what I wanted all along, which is to refrain from distracting others. On the other hand, they are still not listening to directions, because the last direction was to step away from the situation. Their repentance becomes its own spectacle for the other students, and if they don’t follow the rule to step away and refresh themselves before returning to their seats, then it sends a message to the whole class that all warnings for behavioral consequences are empty.
God, it seems, has no concern for this dilemma. When God declares firmly that the people have gone too far with this latest indiscretion and will not be allowed into the holy land, they respond with an act of seeming teshuva. They admit that they have sinned and ask for God’s forgiveness, and then they begin a march toward the hilly entrance to the Promised Land - the very land they have just been told they may no longer enter. The Amalekites and the Canaanites that were dwelling in the land slaughter them in battle, because they are without God’s protection now. Modern-day commentator, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg explains that this act of teshuvah is not genuine and that by defying the order of God’s punishment, the “teshuvah itself has taken on a transgressive coloring.”
Zornberg compares the situation in this week’s parasha to the book of Job and cites the Talmud tractate Bava Batra where the ancient and medieval rabbis suggest that actually Moses wrote the book of Job in response to this scenario. In Parashat Shelach, Moses tries to intercede when God gets mad at the fearful spies by reminding God that the Israelites have chosen to have this special relationship with God, and if God destroys them, then what kind of Divinity is that? Is cruelty better than the lifeless idols that the other nations of the world worshipped then? The line of questioning that begins in the Torah is elaborated on in the Midrash, where Moses points out all the other populations God has wiped out (the generation of the Flood, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Egyptians, etc.) and that if God continues this trend with even those identified as The Chosen People, then God may as well be the she-demon Lilith, know for eating her own children. Moses’s willingness to very directly challenge Divine cruelty is very Job-like. However, where God’s response to Job was to bellow, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?!” and remind Job who’s boss around here, in response to Moses, God is a little more temperate. He agrees not to have earth open up and swallow thousands of people - for now - and merely decides they cannot enter the Holy Land. If they follow the rules set about for their own safety from here on out, they can live healthy long lives and die natural deaths, only, in the desert. This is where the children of Israel then decide to try to enter the land anyway, and end up dead.
Now, the educator analogy of course only works to some extent, because the Torah story goes to extremes and of course there’s no danger of death in my classroom and I would never allow for actual harm to fall upon a child, no matter how disruptive a student they were. But, taken with a grain of salt, the Moses-Job comparison and the difference in how God responds is worth noting. When Job is the target of God’s cruelty, he gets defensive and lashes out at God. Given the rest of the story and how unfair Job’s treatment is, this is not unreasonable, but it is still remarkably different from Moses’s conversation. Moses is not the target of God’s anger. Where Job is trying to save himself, Moses is trying to save others. If a disruptive student tries to argue their own way out of time-out or the letter home, I feel I must stand firm and remind the student that if they didn’t want the situation to come to this, they should have listened to earlier warnings. However, when other students try to take a share of the responsibility for the class disruptions, I am far more likely to let the situation slide, though I remind the one at the center of the commotion to be grateful for that camaraderie, because I think it’s a useful teaching moment for them all to learn collective responsibility, fair and equal treatment, and solidarity with each other. Moses understands the importance of these moral guidelines, but unfortunately his disruptive classmates don’t, and they continue to get themselves into trouble despite his best efforts to save them.
May we learn from this to seek in earnest the greater good for our whole communities, to share responsibilities and cares, and to work together to build a strong and faithful united community. Amen and Shabbat Shalom!

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