January 19, 2020

Parashat Sh’lach: Curiosity over assumptions

was one of about 400 people in attendance last week at the NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change iftar at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

An iftar is the delicious, joyous evening meal eaten during Ramadan, when for a month each year Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, encouraging one another to focus even more on God, prayer, good deeds, study, charity, family and community. And NewGround is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based organization that holds yearlong training sessions for Jewish and Muslim high school students and millennials, bringing them together to build real relationships.

NewGround’s iftar not only was a tasty meal together, but an evening of learning about NewGround’s approach to relationship building. Among NewGround’s stated values is “Curiosity Over Assumptions.” 

While listening to the Muslim and Jewish NewGround fellows, I couldn’t help but think what the history of our religions might have been, or anyway what Judaism might have become, if the story told in Parashat Shelach Lecha had gone a different way.  

“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” (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” (Numbers 13:32-14:1).  

What if those scouts, or the community they reported to, had taken a page from NewGround’s playbook and put “curiosity over assumptions”? Suppose they’d attempted to meet the people instead of 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. In one midrash, God says to the doubtful scouts, “I can forgive you seeing yourselves as grasshoppers, but did you know how I made you look to them? Who can say that you did not appear in their sight as angels? What have you brought upon yourselves?” (Numbers Rabbah 16:11).

Indeed, they bring great harm upon themselves. While in last week’s Torah portion, day after day of “nothing but this manna to eat” had some Israelites reminiscing (misremembering?) the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic they ate in Egypt (Numbers 11:5), now the report of the 10 pessimistic scouts has some saying, “It would be better for us to go back to Egypt … ” (Numbers 14:3). Infuriated by their fear of the future and their longing for a mostly imagined past, God kills 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” (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 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 dubious scouts went wrong.

They liked the wilderness too much; they treasured God’s nearness there and didn’t want to leave that place. But, according to Rabbi Sacks, Rebbe Schneerson teaches: “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 … ”

No wonder the 10 scouts balked at the challenging future they imagined.

Of course, God doesn’t promise it will be easy, nor does Rebbe Schneerson, nor does NewGround.

Lest we find ourselves like our ancestors — crying 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 — perhaps we’d all do well to search for new ground, to find within ourselves ruach acheret, the “different spirit,” the angel that God plants within faithful, optimistic hearts and souls.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards is senior rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), an inclusive Los Angeles congregation founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue.