The Scouting Challenge: Facing Race

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When the Yisrael-ites send out a scouting party from the wilderness (Numbers 13:1), disaster results. After escaping Mitzrayim, the narrow place and over two years in the wilderness, the People are moving ahead and now send out a scouting party — AKA “spies” — to explore their destination. The scouting attempt leads to (Num 14:29):

  • fear of what’s ahead,
  • a desire to go back,
  • an attempt to advance without divine guidance, and
  • finally, realization that an entire generation will die in the wilderness.

One obvious lesson here is that there is a lot to learn about

  • how we look ahead;
  • how we look at what’s behind us;
  • how our individual perspectives shape what we see; and
  • how we organize that information into expectations.

Viewing Peril

Ten of twelve scouts in this week’s Torah reading bring back a set of terrified reports about the destination where they’re supposed to be headed:

The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers…we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.
— Num 13:32-33

Commentary, beginning with the Talmud, notes the subjective nature of the report and the role of assumption:

The spies said: “And we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so were we in their eyes” (Numbers 13:33). Rav Mesharshiyya says: The spies were liars. Granted, to say: “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes,” is well, but to say: “And so were we in their eyes,” from where could they have known this?
— Babylonian Talmud Sotah 35a

Caleb and Joshua present dissenting views, describing favorable prospects ahead, and then mourn with Moses and Aaron when the People panic at the negative reports (Num 13:30, 14:6-9). Jay Stanton, now assistant clergy at Tzedek Chicago, noted the universal nature of this particular textual “snapshot”:

These words offer a snapshot into human nature. When hearing that a task is difficult, how often do we respond to a challenge by convincing ourselves we are inadequate to the task ahead? This portion plays on universal tendencies to underestimate ourselves and let our worries overtake our reason. It is all too easy to see the courage of Caleb, and yet to identify with the concerns of the ten scouts.

He adds–

The ten scouts are nervous, letting others define them; they have not yet trusted their own definitions for themselves. Caleb, in contrast, is strong and independent, letting no one else define him.
Fear Perception and Imagination: Grasshoppers in Whose Eyes?

Stanton’s 2008 essay focuses on challenges to Queer Jews. His words also describe this moment, as the U.S. tries to envision some sort of racial justice ahead. They also resonate with words on Jews and race from many years ago and from today.

Warnings: Old and New

In 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:

Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains?

As the nation passes from opposing extremist behavior to the deeper and more pervasive elements of equality, white America reaffirms its bonds to the status quo.
— “Where Are We?” in Where do We Go from Here?

MLK’s friend, Rabbi Abraham Joshus Heschel, wrote a few years before:

People are increasingly fearful of social tension and disturbance. However, so long as our society is more concerned to prevent racial strife than to prevent humiliation, the cause of strife, its moral status will be depressing, indeed.

There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.
“Race and Religion” speech, 1963

Earlier this week, a small group of DC Jews, including me, wrote:

Right now is a critical time when the public and decision makers are finally beginning to hear the transformative demands of Black organizers. White people have the opportunity to learn from the vision and work of Black organizers and make sure our actions center their visions, words, demands, and dreams. At the same time, many across our Jewish community are struggling right now to understand what it means to defund or abolish police. Our system of policing is specifically rooted in a history of anti-Black racism. Black people, both within and outside of our Jewish communities, are the experts on what it will take to stop police brutality and end white supremacy. White people in particular need to listen, especially when political messages or proposed policy changes seem new or unfamiliar.

But we must not get stuck in our need for more learning – lest we fail to actually confront police violence and other anti-Black systems and dismantle them. Jewish tradition teaches that we must use ongoing learning and reflection as a catalyst for commitment and action.
Call to Action

An important final note most, given the disaster that resulted from panicking and arguing in the wilderness:

We refuse to be pitted against each other and lose the chance for liberation that this moment offers.

We invite white members of DC Jewish communities (and any member of our community who feels this speaks to them) to commit to this call for action, co-signing the call, and taking at least one action above. Share this call at 615DefundMPD

Wherever You Live…

Some of the specifics, in the letter above, regarding testifying to particular budget hearings are no longer pertinent. The FY21 DC Budget is still under consideration, however, and there is plenty of time to lift more voices to support demands of Black organizers in DC, in- and outside Jewish communities, around new visions of “public safety.”

And, wherever you live, the time is now to take action locally and nationally.

Also, wherever you live, the story of the scouts is a good reminder that we must learn to look more carefully at our past, present, and future. In particular, white people — in- and outside the Jewish community — must learn to face race. To that end, here are some resources on Jews and Racial Justice (soon to be updated).

In closing, a few words from one of my favorite Torah commentaries of all time:

We wander the wilderness. Can we ever remember a time when
it was not so? Always a remnant recounts the story,

The promised land really exists, it really doesn’t, are we
there yet. Borders unspecified, we will know when we’ve
arrived. Profusely fertile, agriculturally a heartland;

An impossible place, let freedom ring in it. We’ve been to
the mountain. We’ve seen the land: A terrain of the
imagination, its hills skipping for joy. How long, we say,
we know our failure in advance, nobody alive will set foot in it
— Alicia Suskin Ostriker. The Nakedness of the Fathers. Rutgers University Press, 1994.




NOTES:
This week’s Torah reading is Shelach Lekha [send out for yourself], Numbers 13:1 – 15:41. Much has been written about this famous story, but I don’t have a particular recommendation. I just discovered, in a possibly related fact, that one of the few times I’ve written about the spies for this log was in a commentary on the next portion, Korach.

The Ostriker poem, quoted above, is part of an essay called “The Nursing Father,” focusing on an image that comes up in the previous portion.
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Be Not Afraid: Community and Challah

Two of the most iconically gendered concepts in Jewish prayer — that “tenth man” for a minyan, on the one hand, and taking challah, one of three “women’s commandments,” on the other — come from this week’s portion. But gender issues can, I think, distract from other prayer ideas suggested by these same verses.
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Shelach: Something to Notice

Bamidbar/Numbers 15:37-41 is found in most prayerbooks at the third paragraph of Torah study after the Shema:

…Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments through the ages; let them attach a chord of blue to the fringe at each corner….”

It is interesting to note that Mishkan T’filah [tent/sanctuary of prayer], the Reform movement’s new (2007) siddur, restores this passage, with the following explanation:

This text was omitted from many Reform prayer books when it was not customary for Reform Jews to don tallitot [prayer shawls, with fringes on the corners] for prayer. Now that many Reform Jews find meaning in this custom, Mishkan T’filah has restored the full paragraph as an optional recitation.

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Shelach: Great Source-2

The first Great Source(s) post for Shelach (Lecha) included a long, century-old poem and several academic references. For a different approach to this week’s — or any Torah portion, visit Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys.

Rabbi Gold notes that the Torah portion Shelach (Lekha) [“send out (for yourself)”] (Numbers 13:1 – 15:41) includes the story of spies sent to scout out the promised land and ends with the instruction to tie fringes [tzitzit] as a reminder of the commandments. Like the portion’s spies, we all experience odd moments that hint at “the infinite that is the source of our finite world,” she writes. She then explains that this portion is a challenge:

“to remember what I have glimpsed, to plant the glimpse, like a seed, in the soil of my life. And Shelach Lekha warns me that if I deny that glimpse – if I doubt its validity – then I will be denied entrance to the Land of Promise – the state of consciousness that witnesses Divine Presence filling the whole world. To plant the seed of that glimpse requires that I acknowledge and celebrate it, and that I nurture its growth with my loving attention.”

by Zachary Lynch, mixed media/sgraffito board

by Zachary Lynch, mixed media/sgraffito board

For me, this piece of art –“From Dirt to Life,” by Zachary Lynch — offers a powerful visual embodiment of this teaching. (This work — mixed media, sgraffito board — was created through the Washington Very Special Arts “Articulate Gallery,” which is sadly no more; the piece can now be found at Temple Micah).

 

The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

Shelach: A Path to Follow

The portion “Shelach” [“Send out”] — Bamidbar/Numbers 13:1 – 15:41 — contains the famous story of the spies sent out to scout the land of Israel and the aftermath, resulting in most Israelites doomed to death in the desert. It also includes the passage about wearing of fringes [tzitzit] (Bamidbar/Numbers 15:38), well-known as the final portion of the Shema reading in most prayerbooks.
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