Curiosity Over Assumptions
This Dvar Torah for Parashat Shelach Lecha was adapted from one by my colleague, Rabbi Lisa Edwards, senior rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim, an inclusive Los Angeles congregation founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue.
Imagine getting an email from the President of Israel inviting you to attend a gathering called Voice of the People Strategy Lab: The President's Initiative for a Worldwide Jewish Dialogue that would be the first step towards healing the rifts within the Jewish people.
Who could say no? Not me!
That’s why I found myself on Wednesday in the Greater Miami Jewish Federation board room with about 60 or 70 people in attendance, many of whom I did not know, to tackle this great challenge.
President Herzog is hoping to create a global council for Jewish dialogue, designed to be a collaborative, nonpartisan, and apolitical forum — a Jewish Davos, so to speak —that can accommodate and reflect the full and diverse range of Jewish voices.
As the team running these strategy labs travels around the world to hold them, I couldn’t help but notice that this week’s parsha addresses the issue of what happens when we don’t listen with curiosity and openness, rather than reacting with assumptions and fear.
“Shelach lecha,” God says to Moses at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. “Send, for yourself, men to scout out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people” (B’Midbar/Numbers 13:2).
Moses chooses 12 men — a leader from each tribe — and they return after 40 days with grapes so big it takes two men to carry a single cluster.
The scouts return bearing not only fruit but also tales of who and what they saw.
While Israel’s modern Ministry of Tourism logo uses the giant grapes as a symbol of the plentiful reasons to visit the Jewish state today, 10 of the scouts in our Torah story use them to illustrate a more ominous idea — the giant grapes fed giant people:
“All the people that we saw in it are men of great size … and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them. And the whole community broke into loud cries” (B’Midbar /Numbers 13:32-14:1).
What if those scouts, or the community they reported to, had taken a page from President Herzog’s playbook and put “curiosity over assumptions”?
Suppose they’d attempted to meet the people instead of only spying on them? Attempted to talk with them, rather than make assumptions about them?
And suppose they’d done the same with one another, encouraging one another, rather than belittling themselves…
Infuriated by their fear of the future and their longing for a mostly imagined past, God punishes the 10 scouts and condemns the entire first generation to die off before any may leave the wilderness:
“You shall bear your punishment for 40 years, corresponding to the number of days — 40 days — that you scouted the land” (B’Midbar/ Numbers 14:34).
God rewards only the two scouts Joshua and Caleb, imbued by God with ruach acheret, “a different spirit” (Numbers 14:24).
For attempting to encourage, rather than frighten the people, they will survive to enter the Promised Land with the next generations.
In a 2016 Dvar Torah on Shelach Lecha, the esteemed British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks passed along a teaching from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, about where the 10 scouts went wrong.
They liked the wilderness too much; they treasured God’s nearness there and didn’t want to leave that place.
Yet, according to Rabbi Sacks, the Luvaticher Rebbe taught:
“That is not what God wants from us. [God] wants us to engage with the world …
to heal the sick, feed the hungry, fight injustice with all the power of law, and combat ignorance with universal education. [God] wants us to show what it is to love the neighbour and the stranger …”
Of course, God doesn’t promise it will be easy, nor does Rabbi Schneerson, nor does President Herzog.
Let us take a lesson from our Torah not to emulate the 10 scouts and the majority of the Israelites who heard their report.
Let us not cry out loud in fear and anger, unable to hear, let alone listen, to one another, longing to return to a time and place that existed only in our imaginations.
Instead, we’d all do well to search for new ground, to find within ourselves ruach acheret, a “different spirit,” that God plants within faithful, optimistic hearts and souls.