Compassion and fear (Radical Torah repost)
September 15, 2009
Here's another out-of-season d'var Torah, this one written for parashat Shlakh-Lekha in 2007 and originally published at the now-defunct Radical Torah.
In this week's parsha, Shlakh-Lekha, we read about the spies sent to investigate the land of Canaan. They go forth and scout the land, and what they find there distresses them. Enemies abound; the people are powerful, the cities are large and fortified. Even the grapes they cut down are enormous: so large they have to be carried on a frame, by two grown men, as one might carry a deer. They say, "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have seemed to them."
Hearing this report, the people quail in fear, and rail (again) at their leaders for having brought them out of Egypt. They threaten to pelt Moses and Aaron with stones. In the midst of this wailing, God too becomes incensed, and contemplates disowning the children of Israel -- but Moses argues on the Israelites' behalf, and instead of striking them down, God decrees that none of this generation will live to see the land which they have been promised. None, that is, save Joshua and Caleb, who returned from the scouting trip with full faith in God.
The Israelites have experienced two great miracles -- the parting of the Sea of Reeds, and the revelation of Torah at Sinai -- but, faced with the prospect of moving into a strange place where they may have to struggle for survival, they panic. They're clearly not ready to take the leap of entering the land. And how does God respond to their fear? By threatening to wipe them off the face of the earth! Only when Moses argues, with great kavanah, that God should be merciful does God relent (with that beautiful phrase, selachti kidvarecha, "I pardon, as you have asked," which we recite each year during Yom Kippur)...but the punishment is still harsh: the entire generation will die before the Israelites can reach the culmination of their wandering. Doesn't that seem like a little much?
Well, yes. But this year, as I re-read, I have more compassion both for the Israelites at this moment in their story, and for God. This generation came of age enslaved to human masters. In recent memory they have gone from the literal servitude of working for Pharaoh to being in covenant with God -- but being a servant of Hashem is wildly different from being a servant of any temporal power, and the Israelites are still struggling to understand that shift in their lives. They feel adrift and unmoored.
The messengers they send into the land of Canaan are already afraid. This is a community of refugees, and even those among them who are stoutest of heart are anxious about what the future may hold. They feel small and powerless; they wear their insignificance like a cloak, like a pair of glasses they can't remember how to remove. They understand themselves to be puny, so that's the reality they encounter. Everything feels insurmountable. Even the grapes are too big.
As my niece recently taught me, in the d'var Torah she offered upon becoming bat mitzvah, this is a universal human feeling. We have all had moments of feeling that the world we inhabit is too big, too complicated -- that the task at hand is too overwhelming to face. The Israelites are like children, facing a challenge that's more than they can bear.
And oh, God is disappointed. God was ready to send us off to school, to new learning and new adventures, but after one glance into the tiled halls with their echoing lockers we went running back and begged to be allowed to stay home where we felt safe. (Beyond that -- if we read the parting of the sea as a kind of breaking of the waters, our emergence from the Narrow Place of Mitzrayim as a kind of birth, the Israelites wanted to return to the womb!) Poor God -- learning the hard way that children can't be forced to develop according to any pre-established timetable. God wanted us to mature, to grow into the future God had imagined for us, but we aren't there yet.
So God grouses to Moses, blowing off a little steam -- as any mother might do -- and then relents. God forgives our lack of faith in ourselves, and even our lack of faith in God, because that is what God does. (Moses' gentle reminder -- Adonai, Adonai, el rachum v'chanun; God, God, merciful and compassionate! -- reminds God of who God really is, deep down. The anger is passing; the mercy is everlasting.) And then God says, look, okay, fine -- if you're not ready to move on, don't move on. Stay here, that's fine. I wanted you to graduate, but you're developing slowly. Nu, we can do this slowly. You stay here, and learn in the school of wandering; maybe your children will be emotionally and psychologically ready to get somewhere.
I love that we reread this story every year: the exodus, the construction of portable sacred space, the revelation at Sinai, and then the part where we aren't ready to move on as fast as God thought we might be. This is a journey we all take, and re-take, throughout our lives. Each of us bumps up against fears and limitations sometimes, and sometimes those fears hold us back from becoming the people we yearn to be. That's okay. Sometimes we can live up to the example set by Joshua and Caleb, too. Torah doesn't tell us they didn't feel fear; but it does tell us that their faith outshined their fear. That they wanted to push on, despite their fear, because they believed better things lay ahead.
Fear of the unknown is human. (Frustration with our children's inability to grow up, and to welcome the opportunities for growth and learning that new experiences offer, is also human -- which shows again how we understand God through lenses and metaphors that make sense to us, where we are.) This is a story about being where we are: owning and inhabiting our fear, and maybe getting stuck there for a while. And this is a story about knowing that eventually, some part of us will be able to move on -- to take the leap of entering a new adventure, not without fear but through it.
This Torah portion calls us to have compassion for fear: our own, and that of those around us. How often have I felt exasperated that someone in my life hesitated at the cusp of transformation, held back from taking a leap into growth and maturity? But this portion reminds me that what seems an insignificant risk to me may be overwhelming to someone else -- and that, like God, I am called to respond compassionately, and to relate to people where they already are, not where I imagine they ought to be.