Thursday, September 08, 2011

Shelach 5771: Sink or Swim

Last week I was at the bat mitzvah of our our Rabbi's daughter. In her D'var Torah, the Bat Mitzvah asked a very good question relating to last weeks portion "Who tells you when you are ready?" The answers to that question apply not only to last week's portion, but to this week's which is my Bar Mitzvah portion from so many years ago.

This week Moses at God's command sends twelve spies, one from each tribe into the land to find out what it is like. Ten of the spies report back with good tiding, then deliver the bad news that the inhabitants appear unconquerable. On the other hand Caleb of the tribe of Judah and Joshua of Ephraim disagree and believe that if the people have confidence and they believe that God can help them in their quest, they cannot be defeated. This causes a riot, and Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb are threatened with being stoned to death. God intervenes and after first wanting to kill everybody, decides to just let every adult who left Egypt die out through forty years of wandering in the desert. At this, some of the people, grumble and complain. Some who were at first cowards enter the land to conquer it, only to be completely defeated. We then have some sacrificial rules, and the short story of a man executed for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, followed by the commandment to wear fringes on the corners of our garments.

But the question the Bat Mitzvah asked was sadly not answered by many. Many who tried did not even hear the question correctly. Many thought she said "When do you think you are ready?" But that was not the question, though they implicitly answered the actual question with "I am." and went off to tell when they thought they were ready for something. I have a different answer. I believe who tell us when we are ready is two fold: it is God and our own actions when placed in that situation by God. It has nothing to do with our personal opinion about being ready.

The people when told the bad report by the ten spies, say something interesting about being ready:

And they said one to another, Let us choose a chief, and let us return to Egypt.[Numbers 14]

Last week they described Egypt as:

We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic;[Numbers 11]

Next week we read:
12 And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab; which said, We will not come up; 13 Is it a small thing that you have brought us out of a land that flows with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you also make yourself a prince over us?[Numbers 16]

All of this points to Egypt as somewhere comfortable, somewhere safe. It was, of course nothing like that in reality. These were the same people a few years earlier crying out to God to save them from captivity, from the people who wholesale murdered their children. They fell into a comfort zone of the knowable versus the unknown. We never feel we are ready for the unknown. It takes faith like Joshua's and objectivity like Caleb's to even look at it fairly, and that is only two out of ten voices. There are the ten voices of Doubt uncertainty and fear that keep us still. The story of the spies was a test, and a test the people failed. God said "you are ready" and the people said they were far from ready. So God waited till they were ready. It is in the Haftarah we read how ready they were forty years later:

And they said to Joshua, Truly the Lord has delivered to our hands all the land; for all the inhabitants of the country faint because of us. [Joshua 2]

What really changed was belief. The people forty years earlier did not believe the same as those forty years later. They took the long journey and had to erode the comfort zone. I've done this. The bar Mitzvah boy from three decades ago was too scared of public speaking to give a D'var. Time has changed me, and I speak in front of hundreds easily today.

It is not alwys a good idea to charge into things though. If you go do something not totally believing you are ready, or that God is with you, you might get handed your corpse in a hand basket. The people do try to go up in to the land after God tells him they will not, and they fail miserably. It requires both our own confidence and God to go up into the land, to succeed in anything.

I said nothing about this question, and we left just after Kaddish and Aleinu. Neither Sweetie or I felt much like celebrating at the oneg afterwards. Four and a half months into mourning my mom, neither of us felt like partying. Seeing the Rabbi and her daughter and a reminder of a good mother daughter relationship didn't help much. But on the way home in the car, I had a thought: I am facing dozens of crises right now, mostly due to my mom's death. She would have taken care of many of these issues, from filing my tax return to paying for our honeymoon to keeping the family business on a the same path it has been for many years to being the best friend and counsel of both myself and Sweetie, her death changed everything. There is a lot of things my whole family needs to do, and are now challenged to realize they are ready for them.

God said to the people implicitly by sending the spies out: "You are ready." The spies then needed to come back and give all the strategic data to take the land, instead they cower underfoot from the same people terrified of them only forty years later. What they did was rely on themselves and their fears to say "we are not ready." They went and cried and whined so much, Midrash tells us that God uttered a rather infamous line "your'e crying for nothing! I'll give you some to cry about!" the day they cried was the 9th of Av and we have bee crying ever since.

We have a choice, like I have a choice now. We can spend our lives in paralysis saying "we are not ready" living in a illusion of a comfort zone, or take up the challenge and do what is necessary. "We are ready" we need to tell ourselves, "otherwise God would not put us here." I worry a lot about our future without my mom as a support. Yet, I see one way this changes things. We now need to be ready or we can fail and fall into a chaotic wilderness. God set this up, and while I'm still not very happy about being in this situation, there is only two things I can do. One is know that God is with me in the next few difficult months and years. And the second is go ahead and succeed, go ahed and get to my personal Promised Land.

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