D’var Torah: Parashat Shelach



JULY 1, 2016

This weekend…this Shabbat… embraces both memory and future for Village Temple.

Like Americans throughout our country, this weekend celebrates the birth of our nation.  Technically, the Continental Congress declared Independence on July 2, 1776; however, the final wording that became memorialized as the official document wasn’t approved until July 4 –only 2 days of wordsmithing–and so for 240 years Americans have commemorated this auspicious date—with parades…BBQ…Fire Works…aren’t we glad that our nation’s birth occurred in July and not February?

Some communities celebrate July 4th with reenactments of the reading of the Declaration of Independence.  Several years ago, Carole and I attended such a reading at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA…and it amazed me as to how many people come year after year to touch that part of American history.

Each year the 4th of July stands as a vivid reminder of our nation’s embrace of freedom…our nationalistic DNA includes historical memory of struggle, passion, debate, vision, and determination.  The Musical, Hamilton, has created for our generation…a new connection to our nation’s founding fathers and mothers.

And for us at Village Temple, this Shabbat marks a new chapter as well.  Our historical heritage is only a quarter of that, of our country’s— nevertheless, for 68 years—Village Temple’s has been the spiritual home for individuals and families seeking a liberal Jewish connection…and for nearly thirty years…the doors of Village Temple have been open to fulfill the biblical command to care for the stranger and feed those who are in need.

For the next year we are embarking upon a journey that will create a new beginning in this congregation’s history. But, we can only arrive at that new beginning, by working together as a community—honoring the past, ensuring healing where needed, and visioning toward the future.  Sacred community is part of our spiritual DNA—for, the Jewish people, first and foremost, is a sacred community—Torah was given publicly, not privately—the formal name of the Village Temple is Kehila Kedosha B’nai Israel—it begins with the same two words that defines every synagogue: Kehilah Kedoshah–The sacred community of B’nai Israel.  Even the English name—the Village Temple is an attempt to identify the congregation in relationship to its geographic community.

There is much in this week’s Torah portion that can provide a blueprint for the way ‘community’ should and should not behave.  On the one hand, Parashat Shelach—is the second of five Torah portions that include some form of rebellion…individual and communal.  Last week’s portion concluded with Miriam being stricken with leprosy when she and Aaron rebelled against their brother, Moses’ leadership.  That portion contained the shortest prayer uttered in Torah—El Na Rafa Na La—God please, heal her please.

In this week’s Parasha, Shelach, the historical setting is stills in the second year…the second month of the year…since the Israelites departure from Egypt.  Barely a year has passed since the revelation on Mount Sinai.  And—It has been a year of grumbling and opportunity.

The portion begins… The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying, “Send emissaries to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.” The Hebrew phrase for send is, Shelach L’cha—Why doesn’t the text, usually preferring brevity of words, just say, Shelach—Send!  Why the phrase Shelach l’cha.  The medieval commentator Rashi, interprets this phrase as Send for yourself…according to your own judgment. According to Rashi, God doesn’t command Moses to send forth the 12 spies; rather it was at Moses’ discretion to do so. In looking at the phrase Shelach-L’cha,  I would like to suggest, as God called Abram to leave his native land with the words  Lech L’cha—Please Go—I  implore you to go—The simple command—Lech—did not suffice. So, too, in our portion, God knew that sending forth the spies was going to be seminal moment in both Moses’ and the Israelites journeys.  Perhaps God, considered to be ‘all-knowing’ in the biblical world, knew this biblical James Bond mission, was not to be an easy one and would have powerful consequences.

Indeed, the spies strategically go out and survey the land…12 in all, one chieftain from each tribe. Like Moses on Mt. Sinai, the spies spend 40 days surveying the land.  He instructed them:

You shall see what [kind of] land it is, and the people who inhabit it; are they strong or weak? Are there few or many? יחוּרְאִיתֶ֥ם אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ מַה־הִ֑וא וְאֶת־הָעָם֙ הַיּשֵׁ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ הֶֽחָזָ֥ק הוּא֙ הֲרָפֶ֔ה הַמְעַ֥ט ה֖וּא אִם־רָֽב:

19And what of the land they inhabit? Is it good or bad? And what of the cities in which they reside are they in camps or in fortresses? יטוּמָ֣ה הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־הוּא֙ ישֵׁ֣ב בָּ֔הּ הֲטוֹבָ֥ה הִ֖וא אִם־רָעָ֑ה וּמָ֣ה הֶֽעָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁר־הוּא֙ יוֹשֵׁ֣ב בָּהֵ֔נָּה הַֽבְּמַֽחֲנִ֖ים אִ֥ם בְּמִבְצָרִֽים:

20What is the soil like is it fat or lean? Are there any trees in it or not? You shall be courageous and take from the fruit of the land.”

After 40 days the spies returned….carrying on their shoulders a cluster of grapes.  As God promised them when they left Egypt—The Eternal One would bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey—and so it was.  God had told them the truth.  After affirming the goodness of the land, 10 of the spies reported that the land was occupied by people mightier than the Israelites—they instilled fear when they told in their attempt to conquer the land the Israelites would have to defeat the Moabites, Jebusites, Canaanites—all of whom would surround and defeat them if they engaged them in war.  The spies reported that they  saw the Annakites—the giant people of the Nephalim—who, according to Genesis, were descendants of the sons of God and daughters of men—the spies stated that they, the chieftains of their tribes, appeared to themselves like grasshoppers in comparison.  Despite Caleb’s attempt to assure the people that they would prevail, the people, despondent and untrusting in either Moses or God, woefully raised their voices in dread and rebellion.

God reached a Divine moment of outrage…and uttered a silent Dayeinu, surely the Israelites whom God and Moses had led through the wilderness could only find comfort in the past—despite the hardship they endured in Egypt.  They could not embrace the destiny their redemption from Egypt promised.  The consequence of their action—40 years of wandering—one year for each day the scouts surveyed the land. 40 years—sufficient time for all of the Israelites to die out—save Joshua and Caleb.  Yet despite, all of their bitter complaining—the Israelites, under Moses’ leadership trudge on for 38 more years…laying the foundation for a future only the next generation would secure.

Indeed, there are lessons to be learned from our ancient people’s wandering.  Perhaps, the single most beautiful part of Torah—is that it is so human.  It teaches us about the human response to change.  We catch glimpses and insights into human foibles and triumphs.  At times, we even see God waffling with emotion.  Parashat Shlach captures for us a moment in time when Israel’s wanderings through the wilderness pushed them backwards, rather than ahead.

During the Revolutionary War, there were moments of defeat for the fledging American nation.  The Battle of Charleston in 1780 forced Major General Benjamin Lincoln to unconditionally surrender to British Lt. General Sir Henry Clinton.  Despite a devastating defeat, the patriots’ vision for independence prevailed…and through the efforts of soldiers with moxie—using guerilla warfare tactics…through the efforts of Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter and Nathanael Greene—names not found in Hamilton, The Musical, the Continental Army, eventually pushed the British out of South Carolina—and the British finally surrendered to the American army at Yorktown, VA in 1781.

Two seminal moments in history—two distinct responses resulting in opposite outcomes—What were the driving factors that caused polar results?  How do they inform our Village Temple community as we move through a time of transition—without knowing the results that loom on the horizon? What role does each member play in ensuring a dynamic and spiritual future for this spiritual home?

There are five key emotional and strategic components that are needed to ensure Village Temple’s success in the months ahead.  They are:

• Trust

• Courage,

• Commitment

• Clear Vision

• Leadership.

Please remember, without the first four the fifth, leadership, is doomed to failure.

A critical element is trust.  The Israelites lacked trust in God, in Moses and in themselves.   Their fear of the future, and external factors, paralyzed them from believing in God’s promise that God would bring them into that Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.  For us, trust doesn’t mean there can’t be disagreement or questions…debate and respectful challenge can provide important checks and balances to any decision making process.  But ultimately, the vision of those in leadership—elected representatives—whether members of the board or, in time, the rabbinic search committee, must be honored and supported.  And that vision must not emerge ex nihilo—out of nothingness or in a vacuum.

In the coming weeks, each member of our congregation will have the opportunity to have his or her voice heard.  The community conversations scheduled throughout this summer and probably a few in September, will provide leadership with the core values of the congregation that will shape future vision. Your responses will inform leadership, what you consider to be the spiritual DNA of Village Temple. Indeed, there have been changes in the past year—and change is an event that happens—and how we respond to those changes—how we manage the emotional—what William Bridges calls, the human side of change…that is transition. The Israelites did not manage their change to freedom very effectively.  The coming year is about being change-‘able’—having the courage and fortitude to see the process through—holding fast to those unique qualities of Village Temple that differentiates it from neighboring congregations. The year will be about honoring the past, and having the courage to embrace a future that is not yet defined—the courage to try on new programs…new approaches…knowing that they are temporary solutions, and that transition can indeed be a time of opportunity as well—more about that on Rosh HaShanah.    For now, let us be content knowing that the future is totally dependent upon each member’s commitment to making Village Temple the best spiritual home possible.  Each person’s voice needs to be heard. Healing of feelings and relationships need to be part of that process as well—El na rafah na lana—God, please, heal us, please.  And hopefully in one year from today, this kehilah kedosha—this sacred congregation, united in vision, will welcome your next senior rabbi. Let us journey to that end together.

Keyn Yehi Ratzon.