Fear, faith and moral courage

Shelach Lecha is a turning point in the Israelites’ story. Only a year out of Egypt, the Israelites make their way from Mount Sinai and head toward the Promised Land. It’s not far — they could cover the miles in a few days. In fact, some of them do.

At God’s suggestion, Moses sends 12 scouts into the Promised Land: “See what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the land in which they dwell good or bad?” (Numbers 13:18-19).

After 40 days, they return, saying, “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey. … However, the people that dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are fortified and very large” (Numbers 13:27-28).

Although Caleb, one of the scouts, immediately said, “Let us by all means go up …” (Numbers 13:30), as soon as the people heard the dire report from 10 of the 12, they despaired, especially when the scouts added: “The country we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people are men of great size … we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:32-33).

Isn’t it amazing how spin can influence an audience? Especially when people listen in a crowd, influenced by those around them. Especially when the speaker builds on fear.

Last week, in the aftermath of the mass murder in Orlando, Fla., NRA supporters again argued that gun control laws won’t stop a madman. But what might have happened if the shooter had not been able to legally purchase a semi-automatic “assault” rifle?

And what would the shooter have thought about LGBT people if he hadn’t grown up hearing religious people condemn us, nor watched current lawmakers try to take away our rights? For although the shooting is the worst of recent attacks on LGBT people, the United States has seen a rash of anti-LGBT legislation and court rulings since the Supreme Court paved the way for marriage equality in June 2015.

And even in the wake of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, the Senate still couldn’t pass any of the four pieces of legislation offered it to limit gun ownership and sales.

In this week’s parsha, God — furious at the 10 scouts and at the people’s fear and lack of faith — condemns the 10 scouts to death and the Israelites to 40 years in the wilderness.  Only when the first generation dies off may they enter the land God promised.

And what of the two optimistic scouts, Joshua and Caleb? Even though they saw what the others saw, their report urges the people toward faith: “God is with us. Have no fear of them!” (Numbers 14:9). God approves of Caleb, calling him “imbued with a different spirit (ruach acheret)” (Numbers 14:24), and Joshua becomes successor to Moses. For their faith and their willingness to speak up, Caleb and Joshua — alone among their generation — survive the 40 years and enter the Promised Land.

The midrash ponders something else: Surely some of the people believed Joshua and Caleb, even if they did so silently. Why were those people also condemned to die in the wilderness? Its answer suggests God wanted them to speak up, not remain silent (B’midbar Rabbah 16:23). Thus, long ago and still today, Judaism teaches the imperative of speaking out when one disagrees, and the dangers of silence in the face of wrongdoing. Perhaps the ruach acheret that God imbued in Caleb is moral courage.

This weekend brings us the celebration of our nation’s independence. It also brings the anniversary of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), notable not only for its bloodiness (51,000 dead, wounded or missing), but also, of course, for Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered on that battlefield four months later.

The Orlando shooting, the stalemate in Congress, the story told in this week’s Torah portion and this strange 2016 presidential campaign all cast a new poignancy on Lincoln’s words: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.”

It’s never too late to take a lesson from the moral courage of Caleb and Joshua, who spoke out when all around them felt fearful and faint of heart. On this Independence Day 2016, it’s not too late to let Abraham Lincoln remind us where we came from, where we are now, and our vision of an America we have yet to reach.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards is senior rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim, today an inclusive L.A. congregation founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue. 

Goggles of Faith

I first saw night-vision goggles when I watched Harrison Ford in Tom Clancy’s “Patriot Games.”

The bad guys were prowling in a dark bedroom. Suddenly, a good guy switched on the room lights, practically blinding them.

The technology was featured again in “The Silence of the Lambs,” and then came the War in Iraq, showing us green-tinted footage unfolding amid the dark of night. All thanks to those night-vision goggles.

In this week’s Torah Portion, Shelach Lecha, Moshe Rabbeinu designates an advance party of 12 scouts to survey the Promised Land. The Jews are approaching their destination and the fulfillment of their destiny, and Moshe opts to have a team of prominent Jewish leaders, comprised of one delegate from each of the 12 tribes, investigate and report back.

Moshe asks the team to develop answers to several basic military questions. Is the enemy fortified, or is he so brazen in his self-assuredness that he lives in open camps? Is the enemy strong or weak? Few or numerous? He also asks them to report on the quality of the land, its fertility, its vegetation.

After 40 days of spying, the scouts return with their report, a frightful account of mighty giants in the land. Yes, the land is beautiful, flowing with milk and honey, resplendent with grapes so huge that they may become a registered national trademark one day. But the bad news is that we are not going to conquer it. The opposition is overwhelming — there are Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Emorites and Canaanites all over the place. Some are teeming along the Mediterranean coast on the west; others line the eastern border at the Jordan. Just impossible. The land eats its inhabitants. And then there are those giants: “In our own self-estimation, [as compared to their size and awesomeness,] we were like mere grasshoppers. And we were equally tiny and minuscule in their estimation, too.”

The nation hears the report. Many weep with hopelessness and despair, wishing only to return to the security of Egyptian slavery. Chaos ensues. Two spies emerge — Caleb of the tribe of Judah, and Joshua of Ephraim — and desperately try to overcome the mood.

“It is a beautiful land, flowing with milk and honey,” they assure. So what if there are five nations encamped all over the place? God has promised us the land, and He certainly will give it to us. If these other nations try to stop us, we will have no problem defeating them — “They are our bread.”

In the starkly diverging views of the majority report and the minority, we see the role played by insight, understanding and faith in the God of our ancestors. One can infer why 10 prominent Jewish leaders were so despondent. They looked at objective facts on the ground. They counted. They measured. They were responsible. They were practical. And they figured it’s impossible. The whole world is against us. No way.

Caleb and Joshua reported differently because they donned the night-vision goggles of faith. Embedded among the scouts, Caleb and Joshua somehow peered through the muddled night of faithlessness, and they saw clear as day: the Lord is our God. Those who defy His plan for us are our bread.

Caleb and Joshua saw so clearly through the horizon’s murkiness. They did not see themselves as grasshoppers, and they, therefore, did not imagine that others saw them as puny either. Rather, they saw bread that, like any bread, easily could be made into crumbs. They saw that the God who had smitten Egypt with 10 plagues; who had targeted and pinpoint-excised first-born males among families and houses replete with females and later-born kids; who had split the Sea of Reeds and revealed Himself before the eyes and ears of the nation of several million at Sinai — could deliver. They saw it so clearly. There is no doubt in their voices. “If Hashem, our God, wants to do so, He will bring us into this land and give to us this land flowing with milk and honey. So don’t rebel against God, and don’t fear the local denizens, because they are our bread, and their protective cloaks already have departed. God is with us. Don’t fear them.”

There is such strong, overpowering fear from one quarter; such equal certainty of success from another.

Their story is ours. Some look at the Torah and see nice children’s Bible stories. But they are not nice stories, and are not primarily for children. The Torah recounts passionate dramas that recur throughout our nation’s march to ultimate redemption. The practical, objective Jewish leaders see Amalekites and Hittites on the border, barbarians at the gates, and freeze with fear. They back away from our destiny.

And those who don the night-vision goggles view the challenges with perspicacity and understand that Jewish leadership is about vision and destiny.

Crumbs of bread. Kernels of rice. We are protected by the Guardian of Abraham.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, rabbi of Young Israel of Calabasas since its inception, will become rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine in August. He also is an adjunct professor of law and a member of the Rabbinical Council of California.


Kids Page

Puzzle Place

Life is a puzzle, don’t you think? It’s just not always that easy to put all the pieces together in order to see the big picture. But the more we practice, the better we get at it. So, here are a bunch of fun puzzles to get your juices going!

Torah Challenge

Can you answer these questions from this week’s portion, Shelach-Lecha?

How many spies did Moses send into Israel?

a. 10

b. 12

c. 40

The spies came back spreading lies about Israel. What did they say?

a. The land is bad for planting

b. The inhabitants are as big as giants

c. The country is covered in grasshoppers

Only two of the spies said the land was good. What were their names?

a. Reuven and Levi

b. Joshua and Caleb

c. Menashe and Efraim

Mathmagic Land

Start with the number of Dalmatians in the title of the Disney movie, minus the number of commandments on the tablets, minus the number that is the square of 3, plus the number of stars you need to see in the sky to know that Shabbat is over.

Or, in simple terms:

Dalmatians –


– square

of 3 + stars = ?

What number do you get?

Alphabet Soup

Unscramble the 16 letters below to make a common three-word phrase for a victorious contestant:


F __ __ __ __ P __ __ __ __ W __ __ __ __ __