Updated: Jul 20, 2020
Guest Post: Simon Fisher
Shabbat Shalom. Thank you all for coming and zooming today. I am so grateful to have family and friends zooming in from all over the world -- from California, Colorado, Kentucky, Scotland, Australia and even as far as New Jersey. Its truly a global affair and I’m so happy to be all together.
Have you ever tried to convince someone of something you know is right or has anyone tried to convince you? In my Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, G-d has to convince the Israelites to go into the land of Canaan and settle there so they can have a place to call home after being enslaved for so long...
First G-d sends spies into the land to scout it out and to see if the land is inhabitable. When I read this, I wondered why did G-d send those spies? Why couldn’t G-d just say: go in the land knowing that they would be fine? I think this is because G-d wanted to see that the Israelites trusted G-d. It was important to G-d that the people believed in G-d. So G-d tells Moses to tell all the leaders of all the twelve tribes to go across the Jordan and scout out the land, and to return and tell the people what they saw on their journey.
So these leaders go into Canaan, an unknown land, not knowing what to expect. They find grapes and pomegranates as well as figs. All the things you would want in a land that you are told to inhabit. The only thing standing in their way was the city of Hebron. In Hebron were three men who were descendents of giants and the scouts were like “no way jose” and they left the area. After the forty days of scouting the rest of the land, they came back to the Israelites. They gave Moses the rundown, and I quote “We came to the land to which you sent us, and it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant.” Then some of the spies went on to say that the Israelites wouldn’t stand a chance of defeating the people and giants of Hebron.
Caleb and Joshua, two of the scouts, disagreed, saying: “Surely we can defeat them and benefit from all the good things in the land.”
But the majority of the scouts kept on about how the Hebronites and the giants are stronger than the Israelites and that we could never defeat them. They spread an “evil” report scaring the Israelites.
The people heard these reports and cried and wailed “If only we died in Egypt” they said and they began to distrust Moses who led them to this place. A plot was hatched to elect a new leader and go back to Egypt.
G-d was disgusted. Caleb and Joshua continued to try to convince the people that they could thrive in the land, but it was no use.
G-d had reached the end of G-d’s rope. So G-d went to Moses and said “how long will my own people disrespect me and provoke me?”
What G-d proposed next really surprised me. G-d says G-d will kill all the Israelites and give Moses a new people that believes in G-d and themselves. Crazy right? We will talk on this later.
But for now, let me just tell you what happens next: Moses works to save his people. He tells G-d that any new people wouldn’t know G-d nor would they remember that G-d led the people out of Egypt and gave them manna in the desert.
To save his people, Moses proposes to G-d that all men over 20 be punished. In other words, the generation that lived in slavery -- those who were old enough to be influenced by slavery—those who were “adults” and might not be able to really trust in G-d and in the future -- those would be the ones punished. And the punishment would be that rather than entering Israel now, those people would spend 40 more years in the desert and would die, before the rest of the Israelites would enter Israel.
G-d and Moses agree that the Israelites will have to travel until there is a new generation who isn’t as afraid and will be confident in their abilities, trust their G-d and be able to defeat the inhabitants of the land.
It’s a story from a long, long time ago—but I think I understand where the Israelites were coming from. These days, we have all been stuck in our homes (hopefully) - trying to avoid a terrible disease. Many of us are in isolation and are not able to go out into civilization. It’s pretty scary. We do everything we can do, to stay safe and healthy, and we don’t really know what will come next. The Israelites were in a similar position. They were living in fear of the unknown and had to literally walk across the desert for 40 years alone before getting to what they hoped would be civilization. Imagine if our isolation lasted 40 years. Stuck with our families, and no one else -- it is terrifying to even think about!
I am pretty sure we won’t be in our quarantine as long as the Israelites were in the Wilderness, but some of the feelings I have about leaving quarantine are similar -- and so is the confusion. The Israelites got differing reports from the different sets of spies. How could they know who to believe. We also get a lot of differing reports these days, Should we disinfect our groceries? Or not? Can I sit outside with my grandparents? Or not? Vitamin C? Vitamin D? Sunlight? There is so much conflicting information, and it’s hard to know what’s right. Just like it was for the Israelites. But we also know something else -- that someone famous told us - “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Letting fear get in the way of moving forward will leave us wandering in the desert - or maybe stuck in our homes - for 40 more years. Gathering facts, understanding risks, and then electing leaders that we can trust and believe in to make the right choices will help us move on from the past and allow us to grow, thrive and build new lives.
So, that is the Israelites. But there is another major character in this story, namely, G-d.
Even though I understand where the Israelites were coming from now, I am still challenged by G-d threatening to kill all the Israelites after they refused to enter the Promised Land. . G-d made an irrational proposal to Moses -- to kill all the Israelites -- when G-d felt they were not obedient enough. I find that very interesting, because it forces the question: how can the great G-d who we all love so much have such a HUMAN reaction? I’ve had a couple of teachers who got mighty angry when I was disobedient --- but I’m pretty sure none of them ever thought of killing me but, at least not that I know of.
Is it possible that G-d mirrors human ways and emotions and is not as perfect as we all thought? -- or could it be that G-d’s actions are being interpreted in ways that human beings will understand? Maybe -- but let’s also remember, G-d didn’t act on G-d’s emotions, instead he took advice from Moses. Moses who was only human. G-d changed -- which is something many humans struggle with once a decision gets made. So if Moses seems to have better judgement then a higher being, then what does that make G-d?
-- I genuinely do not know!
--Does it make G-d more like human beings? Does that mean that human beings created G-d--or maybe humans created the stories we tell about G-d? Perhaps for us to understand G-d’s actions we need Moses as our human translator—Giving G-d human emotions, and human decisions. Otherwise, G-d would so different from us that we wouldn’t be able to learn from G-d.
Maybe there is another lesson here, namely, that even when you are all powerful, you shouldn’t just rely on your own opinion. Even when you are so sure you are right, you should listen to others. Taking advice from other points of view, from experts or even just people with a different life story from you is really important. Even if you are “great” and they are “small”.
We’ve learned this lesson throughout American history. Historians called Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet a “team of rivals” because they so often disagreed with each other. Surrounding himself with these diverse viewpoints -- and actually listening to them - is part of what made Abraham Lincoln one of our best Presidents. He compromised and got others in his cabinet to compromise which is why he accomplished so much. G-d had to compromise with Moses and Moses had to compromise with G-d. No one ended up with exactly what they wanted—but everyone got something
Today we seem to have a government where no one is able to compromise. We have government leaders who surround themselves with people who only agree with them - they fire anyone who disagrees or doubts them. I hope that as we look for our leaders of the future we can take some of the lessons I learned from studying this Torah portion.
Fear isn’t a good basis for sound decision making
We must have leaders we trust and we must work with them to build a better future.
A good leader surrounds themselves with dissenting voices, knows when and how to compromise and listens to others, especially those with less power.
SAME SEEMS TRUE FOR US AS INDIVIDUALS
To conclude I would like to thank some people, I would like to thank Alan Palmer for helping me with well, everything the haftorah the torah portion the torah service ect ect, and thanks for all the tea that was the best part. I would also like to thank Rabbie Carter for helping and sparking ideas for my dvar torah. I would also like to thank Aileen who is responsible for most of my hebrew education and who has put up with all my hebrew school mischief. Most of all I would like to thank my family, Mom I love watching the great british baking show together and getting all stressed when something happens and dad I love playing ping pong with you as I write this I have won ⅚ times so after my bar mitzvah lets see if I can get a new streak going and micah while we don’t hang out that much anymore when we do it’s always fun (unless we start fighting) thank you for always putting up with me even when I am most annoying. I want to thank everyone for logging on to zoom today and being here for this special moment in my life.
Since I finished writing this we have witnessed the death of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor and we have taken to the streets to protest and there is a lot of pain and anger in the world right now. I just wanted to say this -- we are coming out of quarantine and isolation and we have the chance to rebuild and change our society as well as change ourselves. While we won’t - and we shouldn’t -- forget what came before, we can grow and learn from it and become better as individuals and as a nation. We have an opportunity to build something new, just as the Israelites did when they eventually entered the new land they had a chance to rebuild society -- and I hope you will all join in that work. For that reason I am donating a portion of my bar mitzvah gifts to charities affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement