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)

Shelach Lecha

And Moses said to God…”Therefore, I pray, let my God’s forbearance be great, as You have declared, saying, ‘Adonai! slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children, upon the third and fourth generations. Pardon I beg of you the sin of this people according to the greatness of your lovingkindness, just as you forgave this people from Egypt until now”. And God said, “Salachti kidvarecha – I have forgiven as you have spoken” (Numbers 14)

          Moses has sent out twelve spies to bring back intelligence about the land of Canaan, prior, one assumes, to the children of Isarel going into battle to take it. After they return from scouting out the land, ten of them deliver a disheartening report on the seeming impossibility of the task, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers” (Numbers 13:32).  Only Caleb and Joshua present the minority report, that they should go up at once and possess the land, that they are well able to overcome the inhabitants.

God is angry and hurt, and threatens to destroy and disown the people, and begin a new covenant with Moses. But Moses successfully argues with God to continue the covenant with the Israelites, reminding God of the shared history, and in particular of the nature of God’s own attributes of kindness and forgiveness. And when he has done this, God responds to him –  “salachti kidvarecha”  “I have pardoned as you have asked.”

It is a phrase we should know well, for it has entered our liturgy for the high holy days, beginning with the selichot services, reminding us to work towards forgiveness and to approach God asking for help to do so, that God forgives if genuinely asked for forgiveness.

The book of Exodus recounts that when Moses was at Sinai, he asked to be able to see God, and God told him he could not see God and live, he could only see “after God”, so he was placed in the cleft in a rock and God passed by him, and the attributes of God are announced – thirteen in all – and God tells Moses that he should recount these attributes in times of distress. In this experience, Moses learns  that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6-7).

But here in Shelach Lecha, where Moses reminds a disappointed and angry God of the events at Sinai, he recounts the attributes as instructed, yet he does it rather differently. This time the text is edited and the attributes reordered.   God’s attributes become “slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Numbers 14:18). In this recounting of the list, Moses leaves out seven of God’s attributes, including compassion, graciousness, and forgiveness of sin.  It is counter-intuitive. The people have demonstrated their lack of faith in a future, their lack of faith in God – one would think invoking God’s compassion and grace would be the first thing for him to do. Yet it works. God forgives the people as Moses has said. But what did Moses say to effect this forgiveness?

            Taking the re-ordering of the text so that the very first thing Moses reminds God about here is the characteristic to be “slow to anger”, some commentators such as Rambam suggest that the forgiveness “according to his words” is precisely this – God views the lack of faith the people are demonstrating as an even greater sin than the building of the golden calf (the last time God was so angry that God suggested to Moses that the two of them should start a new covenant together). So to begin with,  and before forgiveness can begin to form, Moses must remind God not to be so angry and only then can he ask for kindness and forgiveness. So when God adds the word “kidvarecha” (according to your word), God is saying – I have pardoned in accordance with your plea for my anger to be slowed down and held back – not a complete erasure of the event, more a deep breath and time to consider.

Abraham ibn Ezra explains it in a similar way, saying that the word salachti does not mean that the sins are wiped out, but rather that God holds back the divine frustration, in order to make a complete Teshuvah (repentance/return to God) possible.

So Moses’ plea has the effect of buying time for the people, and limiting the extent of the anger of God at the lack of faith shown by them. Only the current generation will die in the wilderness as a result of their despair and their refusal to trust God enough to go up into Canaan, but the people of Israel as an entity would stay alive and would reach the land. The Jewish tradition of hope and trust would continue with the children, the generation of despair would die out without leaving a heritage of despair.

There is another way to look at this phrase “salachti kidvarecha”, focussing not so much on God’s response as on Moses. Moses appeals for a delay in the anger, but the word “salachti” is the past tense of the verb to pardon, showing that God had already pardoned the people even before Moses had spoken. So why add the word “kidvarecha”?  Because God was waiting for Moses to speak up for the people, waiting for the challenge and the demand that God do the right thing even if the people did not. In a sense this is a powerful reminder to us not to give up whatever the circumstances – Moses’ challenge to God shows how strong his faith is that it feeds his determination not to despair on behalf of his people, but to fight for them and their future.

A powerful lesson – the people reported having seen themselves as being worthless, small, like grasshoppers in the eyes of others. Such a perception led them to downgrade their self worth, to give up. But Moses does no such thing – he sees himself as strong even in the face of the anger of God, and, reminding God of their shared experiences, of the agreement at Sinai, of the promises God has already made, Moses speaks up. He even uses the chutzpadik argument that in the eyes of other people the worth of the Israelite divinity will be downgraded if it abandons its people in the wilderness rather than take them on to freedom in the promised land – a sort of elliptical resonance to what the people went through seeing themselves in the eyes of others, a test that they failed… From Moses’ sense of self he is able to challenge God and rework the future.

             It is a way of relating to God that I think we sometimes forget. And we are so often ourselves prey to a lowering self esteem, or anxious about how others might see us, or worried about how well we might perform at something that we spend our time as grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we no longer look around ourselves into the bigger context and see how close and concerned God really is.