January 27, 2020

Speak Up

I recently had the privilege of listening to Rabbi Arik Ascherman, an American-born Israeli rabbi who, often at great physical risk to himself, advocates for others through the organization Rabbis for Human Rights. Ascherman mentioned this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lecha, noting that some who advocate for human rights succumb too easily, as did most of the Israelites in this portion, to our own insecurities: “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,” say 10 of the 12 scouts who Moses sent into the Promised Land to see what lay ahead, “and so we must have looked to them” [Numbers 13:32-33]. Ascherman said some Jewish voices in Israel go unheard, or are not loud enough, because we lack confidence and feel as though we are grasshoppers up against giants.

Indeed, voices who advocate for an end to violence can be drowned out by the fearsome sounds of bulldozers, Qassam missile attacks, machine guns, engines idling in long checkpoint lines, suicide bombers, actions and reactions in the Knesset and at Hamas headquarters. Even the voice of President Obama in Cairo this month was, in some places in the Middle East, silenced — broadcast signals scrambled or deliberately mistranslated.

In Shelach-Lecha, the two faithful scouts, Caleb and Joshua, despite having God and Moses and Aaron on their side, held little sway against the 10 doubting ones. Thus, the Israelites lost hope, panicking along with the 10 scouts, doubting God, Moses, Aaron and themselves. God responded with fury, condemning the Israelites to wander 40 years in the wilderness, until this doubtful generation dies (Numbers 14).

A midrash has it that God was upset with the spies not for their self-perception of grasshopperishness, “that I can live with,” God said. “But I do object to your suggestion that they saw you as grasshoppers also, for how do you know how I made you look to them? Perhaps you looked to them as angels” (Numbers Rabbah 16:11).

The rabbis tell another story about this story. Noting that all Israelites over the age of 20 were condemned to die in the desert, they speculated that “even those who silently disagreed with the majority and favored Joshua and Caleb” were left to die in the wilderness. And why, they ask, did those silent ones — who favored God’s favorites — receive the same punishment as the dissenters? “Because,” the rabbis say, “they did not speak up” (Numbers Rabbah 16:23).

In his Cairo address, Obama gave voice to what many feel but seem afraid to say: “America will align our policies with those who pursue peace and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.”

Ascherman and others set a standard, for years putting their own lives on the line “to act on what everyone knows to be true.” Of course, there is nothing simple about entering new territory (some linguists claim a connection between “terror” and “territory”), even if you think God has promised it to you, especially if you feel small, tired, forced into it or otherwise not up to the task.

No one thinks that calling for freedom or peace or two states brings an immediate end to war. Speaking up does not solve all the problems; sometimes it starts new ones. Standing in front of a bulldozer or a tank — the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square massacre was this month — can result in death.

But perhaps we have reached a point — God willing — where fear of one another, whether of giants or of grasshoppers, will not rule. Perhaps we can do what Obama asks of us: “Too many tears have been shed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra … when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer.”

What would have happened, all those generations ago, had the scouts returned to the Israelites and said, “The people in that land are indeed large and numerous, but there is room for us all. Let us cross over with open hands and open hearts. Who knows? Perhaps we’ll look to them like angels. Or better, perhaps we’ll look to them, as they do to us, like human beings created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image.”