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Taking Turns Holding Hope: Shlach 5783

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This week’s parsha, Shlach, holds the story of the scouts. God tells Moses to send scouts to explore the land of promise, one from each tribe. Twelve are chosen. When they reach the land, they find grapes so big that they require two men and a carrying-frame. Upon returning, ten of the scouts say: there are giants there. We felt like grasshoppers. We can’t do this.. 

Joshua and Caleb argue otherwise. They plead, “don’t be afraid!” (Num. 14:9) But the ten who’ve lost faith carry the day. And their loss of faith is contagious. “If only we had died in Egypt!” the people shout. “Or if only we might die in this wilderness!” The children of Israel don’t have hope that anything will ever become better than they’ve known it to be so far. 

And God says, “fine, you know what: if you don’t trust in Me even after everything you’ve just seen, the Exodus, the signs and wonders, you can stay here in the desert for forty more years. When this generation is gone, then I’ll lead the children of Israel into the land of promise. But you are clearly too scarred by the traumas you’ve endured. You don’t get to make it there.”

This year I’m feeling empathy for the minyan of ten who didn’t think they could do it, the ones who said, “I don’t have it in me, and I can’t believe that I ever will. This is too big. I’ve spent my whole life slaving to meet Pharaoh’s demands, or to try to feed my family in traumatic circumstances. All I can see ahead is more grind, and I’ve lost heart for the struggle.”

I suspect we’ve all felt that way. I don’t have it in me, and I can’t believe that I ever will. All I can see ahead is more grind, and I’ve lost heart. Loss can put us in that place. Or depression. Or grief, or overwhelm, or illness, or disappointment – you don’t need me to count the ways. The scouts get a bad rap for losing faith, but I suspect we can all relate to them.

There’s nothing wrong with fear or doubt. “Spirituality” that pretends we never have those feelings is at best incomplete. I don’t think any life is entirely devoid of those – not if we’re paying attention and being real. The place where the scouts got themselves into trouble, I think, was giving in to despair. As Reb Nachman of Breslov teaches, “it is forbidden to despair.” 

It’s forbidden because despair means giving up on God’s capacity to lift us out of life’s narrow places. If the “G-word” doesn’t work for you, try: despair is giving up on the possibility of change, the possibility of hope, the possibility of anything ever being better than this. It’s noteworthy that Reb Nachman was depressive. Was he giving the advice he himself most needed to hear? 

Enter Caleb and Joshua: the scouts who say, “wait, we can do this.” Sometimes we need to hear that the future can be more than whatever limitations are currently constraining our hearts. When we’re in the narrow place of not being able to see a way out, we need someone to remind us that change is possible and that the future can be sweeter than we can currently see.

These roles – the person who despairs; the person who offers hope for better – aren’t innate. We take turns. Sometimes I'm the one with the reminder that life can be better than we fear, and sometimes I’m the one who needs to be reminded. All of us are the weary souls too demoralized to imagine better, and all of us are the dreamers who can see a better world.

When we despair we need someone to walk with us, to feel with us, and to remind us that when we feel most stuck, change can be waiting in the wings – even (or especially) if we can’t see it. I think about how Isaac might have felt during the akedah: bound, immobile, his father’s knife raised over him – not yet knowing there was a ram waiting just outside the frame.

To be clear: the loved one who is ill may not be cured. The grief that comes with loss can’t be short-circuited. Sometimes what’s broken can’t be repaired. But change is always possible, even if that change is “only” internal. Honestly, internal change can be… everything. Maybe not what is, but how we feel about what is. How we experience what is, and how we respond.

The scouts represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Our mystics associate the tribes with different qualities, weaknesses, and strengths. The cleric, the judge, the scholar, the sufferer: each tribe is linked with a different archetype or journey. In today’s world, I don’t think these energies define us. I suspect we each resonate with different core qualities at different times. 

The tribe of Judah, Caleb’s ancestor, is associated with leadership and with gratitude (hoda’ah). And Joshua descends from Ephraim, who is associated with transformation and with thriving even in tight places. These same qualities can fuel us when we accompany each other into tough times, and when we hold on to hope for those who can’t feel it right now themselves. 

I’ve come to see God’s threat of a lifetime in the wilderness not as prescriptive but as descriptive. It’s not that our lack of faith is punished by a lifetime of suffering. Rather: when we’re mired in despair, that’s what our lived experience becomes. Our work is to transform the prospect of a lifetime of wilderness wandering into a sacred journey of becoming. 

And we can’t do that alone. We all have moments of feeling like grasshoppers faced with giants; we need each other. When we’re in this together the fact of the wilderness is the same, but the internal dynamics and lived experience can be different. And when we hold hope for each other, we keep open the door to possibility, and the promise of blessing, and change. 


This is the d'varling that I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)

Fifty truths


1. This place is where the Jewish story began. 

2. There are so many essays I want to write, but every sentence needs a page of footnotes.

3. Every time the kaleidoscope of my heart turns, the pieces of this place make a new pattern: breathtaking and intricate, complicated and real. 

4. My place in the chain of generations: twenty-five years ago I visited the Western Wall with my mother (may her memory be a blessing), and now I have done so with my son. 

5. In Tzfat, many doors are painted blue to offer mystical protection. Also walls, ceilings, headstones. Blue evokes tchelet, the heavens and the sea, the vision of sapphire floor beneath God's throne.

6. There are so many broken shards here, and so many hidden sparks to uplift. 

7. I do not believe that God has a physical address. God's presence goes with us everywhere, in our wholeness and in our exile. 

8. We've been directing our hearts and our prayers toward or through this place for thousands of years. That leaves a spiritual imprint both on the place and on us.

9. Those two truths might seem contradictory, but they're not. 

10. I had forgotten how powerful it can be to glimpse parts of our sacred story in the archeological record. To walk where our spiritual ancestors walked. To feel we are a part of their story.



11. To me this place is a miracle, a refracting lens for emotion and for spirit, a heartbreak. 

12. Jerusalem is the only city where I've ever lived on my own, rather than with my parents (now gone) or my spouse (now no longer my spouse) or my child.

13. The Romans slaughtered us for not bowing to Rome. The Crusaders slaughtered us for not converting. Hitler slaughtered us not because of our beliefs, but because he saw us as subhuman.

14. I love this place independent of that history, but the history is also always present. 

15. The stories in Tanakh (the Hebrew scriptures) land differently when one can see the topography of spring and desert, valley and hill.

16. Even the names used for places, neighborhoods, and structures here convey identity and politics. Settlement or neighborhood? Security fence or separation wall? 

17. To really describe this place of promise, maybe I would need God's voice: conveying all possible meanings and nuances at once.

18.  At the Great Mosque in Ramle one might sit on the floor, press palms to the lush carpet, and ask God for peace and wholeness for this place and its peoples. Of course, one might do that anywhere.

19. Everyone is on top of each other here. Different communities might be only a stone's throw apart. I've known that for years, but when I'm away I forget just how true it is.

20. In her poem "Jerusalem," the poet Naomi Shihab Nye travels from "I'm not interested in who suffered the most" to "it's late but everything comes next."



21. In the Pool of the Arches, an 8th century underground cistern, shafts of light pour down from skylights onto still waters plied by small rowboats.

22. The moniker the White City has nothing to do with the color of the buildings, though I still think it could. 

23. Foods to which many nations lay claim, a non-exhaustive list: falafel, hummus, that chopped salad of cucumbers and tomatoes. 

24. It's hard to stop wondering which different choices could have led the peoples of this place to a just and lasting peace. 

25. The name Tel Aviv simultaneously evokes both past (a tel is a manmade hill, created through thousands of years of human habitation) and future (aviv means spring). 

26. I thrill at the sight of bougainvillea and oleander, fig trees and date palms, pomegranate trees and grape vines, even the purple thistles that bring a spot of color to the desert scrub.

27. How good are your flavors of ice cream, O Jacob; your mint-lemonade with arak, O Israel!

28. Doris Haifawi, a Christian Arab Palestinian Israeli woman who claims all of those adjectives and who welcomes visitors into her home, wears the kind of fancy slip-on sandals my mother used to love.

29. During the First Rebellion against Rome, Yifat was reduced to rubble. Nearby Tzippori surrendered, which is how Judah ha-Nasi survived to write down the Mishna that became the heart of Talmud.

30. I never liked the story of the rebels at Masada who chose suicide over defeat, but now I realize they were at the end of a failed rebellion: they knew what had become of their fellow Jews. 



31. The black birds with orange streaks on their wings are a kind of grackle, and they like pretzels.

32. Every day that I am here in this place, I thank God that I am here. Every day that I am here in this place, I remember that there are people who yearn to be here and cannot be.

33. I love the fact that after centuries of being "only" a tongue of sacred text study, our holy language is again spoken in streets and marketplaces. 

34. So much water is diverted from the Jordan to sustain the peoples of this place that the river is now small, like the Rio Grande. At Qasr al-Yahud the water is cold even on a 110-degree day.

35. King Hezekiah's underground water tunnel, chiseled into bedrock in the late 8th century BCE, is a good place in which to pray Ps. 118:5: מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ  / "from the narrow place I called to You!" 

36. The many small cats at Kibbutz Degania Bet near the Kinneret are extremely friendly, but I wouldn't advise petting the street cats in the Old City of Jerusalem.

37. Riding an electric scooter along the bike path between Tel Aviv and Yafo at night is both terrifying and exhilarating.

38. There are parts of the Judaean desert that seem so barren and windswept, they evoke the way I imagine I might feel on the surface of Mars.

39. Things that call to me in the market, a non-exhaustive list: olives, apricots, fuzzy green almonds, whole fish on ice, burlap bags of spices and tea, round cakes of halvah sparkling with pistachios.

40. I love to hear the muezzin's call echoing from every minaret, the tolling of church bells, the happy songs of the Breslover Hasidim, Hebrew songs and prayer accompanied by acoustic guitar.



41. The ibexes at Ein Gedi are almost the same color as the land. Some of them climb trees.

42. Every single time I enter Jerusalem after being away, I weep.

43. Rosemary grows into bushy shrubs here. I want to crawl into one and make a home there.

44. 187 days of Arabic on Duolingo are not enough. 

45. On this trip, the only person who hassles me about wearing a kippah is an older lady with a Russian accent, loading purchases from a homegoods store into the trunk of her car.

46. I wish every breakfast of my life could include burekas, hummus with cucumbers, labneh and zaatar, and watermelon with feta. Some of these are easier to replicate at home than others.

47. I love seeing mezuzot on (almost) every door.

48. The first thing that breaks me at Yad Vashem is the Dan Pagis poem Written in pencil in the sealed freight car. The facts are too terrible: my heart shutters. But poetry slips in through the cracks.

49. The moment I take my pick to the soft earth in Tel Maresha, I find potsherds, fragments of charcoal, and bits of bone. Remnants of ordinary life from the time of the Maccabees, 2200 years ago. 

50. I fly home with the dust of the land under my fingernails.