Shelach Lecha: holding onto our values while the world looks in another direction: or How to combat populism

“And Joshua bin Nun and Caleb ben Jephunneh, who were of those who spied out the land, tore their clothes. And they spoke to all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceeding good land.  If the Eternal delight in us, then God will bring us into this land, and give it to us–a land which flows with milk and honey.  Only rebel not against the Eternal, do not fear the people of the land; for they are bread for us; their defence is removed from over them, and the Eternal is with us; fear them not.’  But all the congregation bade stone them with stones, when the glory of the Eternal appeared in the tent of meeting to all the children of Israel.” (Num 14:6-10)

Twelve men, representative from each tribe, have been sent to reconnoitre the land of Israel, and they come back with the same report but with two different conclusions. The land is very good and fertile, but the inhabitants are strong. Ten believe that it would be impossible to take the land and it is better not to try, two insist that trusting in God and refusal to be afraid will mean that they will indeed succeed.

What makes Joshua and Caleb so different from the others? Why are they able to hold onto their vision when the others are overcome with fear?  And why are they prepared to go against the popular narrative of the majority?

These are questions that have never lost their relevance. We are in a world of growing political populism where minorities and a supportive legal framework are both under attack as a large portion of the population are manipulated to support something that is not to their benefit.

To stand up against the narrative of a vocal and fearful majority requires one to be both principled and courageous.  To put ones hope in a better future, to take the risk and make the leap of faith, to not be seduced by an immediate gratification or intimidated by the actions of others requires a strength of mind and soul that may seem superhuman – except that history is littered with such examples. The survival of Judaism and of Jews is a direct result of generations of people holding onto their principles with courage, teaching their children to be Jews even in a frightening and dangerous world. I pay tribute to my father, Edgar Rothschild, whose faith and determination never wavered, even though as a refugee child separated from his beloved parents, his younger life was miserable and lonely. His activism in our local synagogue – itself with its share of people whose arms bore tattooed identification numbers – was extraordinary and life affirming, and his determination to pass on a warm and loving and practical Judaism was so powerful. I pay tribute to my brother, Rabbi Dr Walter Rothschild, whose work in post war Europe has been an uphill struggle to reintroduce authentic Reform Jewish life where none exists and some would prefer it to stay that way. I pay tribute to Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck who worked to create the rabbinic college in London that bears his name. I could list and list the people who held to their principles, who screwed up their courage and continued in the face of a majority who would rather have an easier life.

 

The dying Moses said to the people as well as to Joshua –“Chazak ve’Emat…lo tirah v’lo techat” “Be strong and of good courage…. do not be afraid, do not be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:7-8). It is hard to do, yet we have many examples before us. It is, I think, a quintessentially Jewish way to stand up and to be counted, to continue to hope in the face of despair, to knowingly take the risk of the leap of faith because we have a vision of something larger and more important than ourselves. Yet the bible story reminds us that it is also a human characteristic to avoid difficulty – for every Abraham there is a Jonah, for the two spies who were brave enough to stand up, there were ten who played to the fears of the crowd.

 

Progressive Judaism sees itself as a descendant of Prophetic Judaism – precisely the quality of courage and vision prepared to confront the comfortable views around. We are Jewish not simply as an accident of birth, but as an active choice in how we live in the world. In the words of Edmund Fleg: “I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind. I am a Jew because the faith of Israel asks every possible sacrifice of my soul. I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears and suffering the Jew weeps. I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes…I am a Jew because for Israel the world is not finished; people will complete it….I am a Jew because Israel places Humanity and his Unity above nations and above Israel itself. I am a Jew because above Humanity, image of the Divine Unity, Israel places the unity which is divine. (Pourquoi je suis juif.1928)

 

So as we read the story of the spies this week, let’s think of those who doggedly hold on to Jewish values while the world looks in the other direction. Let’s take on the mantle of holding onto the vision of a good land, while political leaders whip up racist and xenophobic mobs. Let’s stand up against a narrative that others people who are not like us – be it in the UK, in Europe, in the USA, in Israel, and remember that we must hold onto our courage and our good faith, not let fear or dismay overtake us, but hold on to hope. Joshua and Caleb were the only two of the whole population who eventually entered the land. Their hope and their faith in a better world kept them going. Let’s hope that our hope and faith in a better world will do the same for us.

 

(written for EUPJ parashat hashavua page 2018 and first published there)

Beha’alot’cha

There are some torah readings that just seem to be made for vegetarians, and Beha’alotecha is one of them.  The graphic image of the Israelites feeding upon the quail, stuffing the meat into themselves until it “came out of their nostrils” and then dying “with the meat still stuck between their teeth” is almost too repugnant to bear.  It speaks to us of overweening greed, of the desire for fleshly pleasure fulfilled to the extent of costing the life of the one who indulges too far.  It is both gross and pathetic, seedy and overwhelming. 

The people, often rather unattractive in their behaviour in the wilderness with their complaining and rebelling, their argumentative and sullen responses to Moses’ words to them, are here at their most revolting.  Their failure once again to understand what God is doing for them, their inability to comprehend ideas about freedom, communal responsibility, behavioural limits – leads them to what must be the most explicitly nauseating end in the whole of biblical narrative.

          Early on in the Exodus the newly freed slaves, terrified of what they had done in leaving the security of Egyptian society and worried about simple survival in a hostile wilderness, complained to Moses – “you saved us from slavery and brought us here to this desert to kill us all with starvation and famine?”.

God understood the narrow horizons of the people, the shrivelled imaginations and the visceral fear of a people who had forgotten how to be independent, how to have pride in themselves and the self-confidence necessary to go out and make a life. So that time God showered the Israelite refugees with quail and with the miraculous manna, the food which was said to have tasted like coriander or honey or rich cream – the food that tradition said tasted like whatever you wanted it to taste of. 

          But now, here in the book of Numbers after all the experiences of care and support by God here in the wilderness, this time the situation is different. “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish we ate for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons the leeks and onions and garlic. But now our soul is dried away, there is nothing at all except this manna to look at” (Num 11)

There are a number of problems in this complaint.  Are the people complaining that the diet isn’t varied enough? That manna – even tasting of different things, was still indisputably manna – and a bit boring for that? Are they desperate for something a little more solid? – they specify meat, food that tended to be eaten only on special occasions – and usually connected to the sacrificial system, when meat would be a by product of the worship of God?

Is it specifically Egypt they crave, with the system that may have been slavery but at least it was something they knew and could therefore cope with? Were they saying they didn’t want to break out into a more independent way of being?  Or is it the idea that the food in Egypt was so plentiful and all present that they could take it for free – without responsibility to its production, without obligation to others? 

The manna of course was also available to them for free, but somehow that didn’t count – there was no thought given to the deity who was providing their sustenance, no connection made in their heads between the availability of the miraculous manna and the Creator of the world who was making this every day miracle.

          Whatever the reason – and I imagine it was a combination of reasons, this time both God and Moses found the people’s complaining and self-absorption infuriating and intolerable. This time God gave them just what they said they wanted – in spades – and they died from it.

          When we first came across manna in the early part of the Exodus, we are told that God gave them it in order to test them. But what the test was is left to our imagination.  Rashi tells us the test is of obedience, that God wanted to see if the people would collect the manna in the way that God had commanded – just enough for each day, not keeping it overnight. Not going out to collect it on Shabbat but relying on what was collected before the Shabbat.  Each of these tests of course were failed – the people clearly did not trust that the manna would be there the next morning, that it could not be kept overnight in good condition, that the Shabbat would be somehow special in that no manna would be found but the manna retained would continue to be edible.  The people failed because they were frightened and because they were unimaginative – they had been in slavery too long and all they could construct was the practical concrete concepts around physical survival. 

          When Moses knew he was dying and would not continue with the people into the land he had been taking them to, he wrote a number of speeches explaining to them both the story and the meaning of their history, full of warnings and reminders. Of manna he said “Remember the path along which the eternal your God led you those forty years in the desert. God sent hardships to test you, to see what is in your heart, whether you would keep God’s commandments or not. God made life difficult for you, letting you go hungry and then feeding you manna. And manna was that which neither you nor your ancestors had ever before experienced. This was to teach you that it is not by bread alone that the human being lives, but by all that comes out of God’s mouth” (Deut 8:2-3). 

So Moses understood what the test was – it was not literally about the food, but it was about the people’s willingness to listen and to follow Gods commandments, to accept the limitations about what could and could not be done, and the food was simply the structure around which it would be seen whether or not the people were able to accept the restrictions that following God might place upon them.

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