Saturday, June 14, 2014

Glass Half Full - Open-minded Optimism in the face of Challenge - D'var Torah (Sh'lach L'cha) - June 13, 2014

   “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  All the people we saw in it are of great size…and as we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, so we must have looked to them.” 
   “The land that we traversed is an exceedingly good land.  If pleased with us, the Eternal will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey….The Eternal is with us. Have no fear of the people there!”
     One land, one scouting trip – two different reports. 
The first, from this week's Torah reading Sh'lach L'cha, is from the majority, ten scouts who returned from their journey seeing no possibility of success.  To assure that their mission would be a total failure, the text says that “they spread calumnies - false accounts - among the people.”   The Hebrew word for calumnies, DIBAH, means “whispering, defamation, or an evil report.”   Whether the majority of the scouts whispered or spread their perspective through the Israelite camp like demagogues, we don’t know.   We know that what they offered was the view of a glass mostly empty, supporting those people who would have preferred slavery back in Egypt to their newly found freedom.
     Then there was Caleb and Joshua.  The second report I recited came from Joshua in Chapter 14. In Chapter 13, Caleb simply said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” Caleb and Joshua amassed the same set of economic and military data as their companions.   However, they saw something more.  The Talmud claimed that Caleb went to visit the Tombs of the Patriarchs in Hebron like one of us would visit the graves of our ancestors.   There was a familiar and emotional tie that guided him to view the research results in a different way.  The Etz Hayim commentary explains, “Caleb alone was able to see the Land not only as it was at the moment but as what it had meant and would mean in terms of God’s promise to the patriarchs.  They went up to scout the land – they ascended, not only geographically but to a higher spiritual level.” 
     That higher spiritual level enabled Caleb and his fellow optimist, Joshua, to look at the data with hope and vision, with a sense that would enable the people to enter the land.   The Etz Hayim Commentary noted that “what the scouts reported was factually correct but was not the truth.  Truth is more than a summary of empirical facts.  It must include the response of the soul to those facts, and this is where the majority of the scouts failed in their duty.” 
    Rising to a higher level – going up – means looking at a situation not out of fear but with a lens that allows us to see potential.    Something that is possible has an equal chance of becoming real or remaining merely a dream.   The difference is us – our approach, our faith, our creativity, our energy, and our open-mindedness.    Sticking to the literal empirical data led the Israelites to wander for many more years in the wilderness.   The willingness of Caleb and Joshua to think out of the box and imagine their people meeting the challenges of a difficult land eventually gave them both positions of respect and leadership.   
    So when we as a congregation conceive of an idea for a new program and make it real, we are like Caleb and Joshua.  The Jewish Food and Folk Festival is a prime example of how we at Temple Beth-El can do just that.   
     When a family decides to move to a new home or a new community, there is always risk and uncertainty.  There is also the promise of new opportunities and a refreshed approach to life.   Often, the safe course of action is to stay put.   Reasons for moving may sometimes be economic, but people often move because they are looking for something more or different in their lives that a new setting can provide.  And there is that Jewish saying, “M’SHANEH MAKOM, M’SHANEH MAZAL,” change your place, change your stars,  or your destiny (mazal means planet)… or “luck"....translate it any way you want!  
     And what type of vision do we have for our nation and the world?  A “higher spiritual level,” in Judaism, carries with it bearing responsibility not just for ourselves but for everyone on the planet.  In a well-known Midrash, God told Adam and Eve, “The world is here for you.  BAL TASHCHIT – do not destroy it.”   We attempt to strike a balance between preserving the environment and finding existing and new sources of energy.   We utilize the world’s resources as many people seek ways to assure that they won’t run out.    We see inequality between people who are at various levels of socio-economic status and are reminded by Maimonides that the highest degree of tzedakah is to assure that all people are self-supporting, where, ideally, no one gets left behind.   We see inequality in the ways people treat each other and realize that while dignity comes from within, it also can be a gift from one person to another.   The Torah teaches us to respect our enemies even if we don’t like or love them.  It directs us to love our neighbor and the stranger as ourselves.    Those aspects of the vision embodied in Judaism can take us to a higher level from which we can look at data from any source and realize that facts do not have to tie our hands.   Facts can lead us to truths that we will make real with open hands, open minds, open hearts and with a generosity of spirit. 
     So this Torah reading challenges us to think broadly, to be open to the potential that is in front of our eyes, and to understand that we will reach whatever promised land we seek, even against insurmountable odds, when we turn our fear and despair into faith and hope.  So may we do – and let us say Amen.

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