Shalom Shir Tikvah Learning Community,
This Shabbat we read of a terrifying challenge to the Israelite community, and learn about the ultimate consequences of cynicism and despair. This parashah describes for us the very short distance between heaven and hell, between hope and its loss.
There is a disconcerting relevance in the parashat hashavua to the horrifying news from Reynolds High School in Troutdale this week, and to our need to face, once again, the short distance between joy and despair. Once again a school shooting; once again we are left to wonder why, and to share a sense of sad helplessness.
The Torah can speak to us here, now:
By this time in the Torah narrative, our ancestors the Israelites have spent a bit over a year since the great Exodus from Egypt camped at the foot of Mt Sinai. All is in readiness – the holy Mishkan is constructed, the priests trained, and the people mustered in readiness for any dangers. They begin to journey toward the Land of Promise, the place which stands as the answer to their hopes, and a home to end their wandering.
In this parashah, after not much time at all (take a look at a map of the Sinai wilderness – it’s not that big) the people reach the unsettled edge of the Land. They pause, and do what seems to be a wise thing: they send twelve scouts, one representing each tribe, to reconnoiter. Before too long the emissaries return with evidence of a fruitful land, truly a Land of Promise.
But there is a catch. Here is the scouts’ report:
“We came into the land and it does really flow with milk and honey – it is beautiful. But there are fortified cities there, and fierce people, giants! We can’t possibly overcome their resistance to us.” (Numbers 13.27-31. excerpted)
The people begin murmuring in fear. Did you hear that? they’re giants! And the scouts, responding to the effect of their words, continue:
“We saw Nefilim there, the legendary giants we’ve heard of; we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers next to them, and so we seemed to them.” (Numbers 13.33)
The people panic. From the crowd, voices emerge: we’re all going to die. Let’s go back to Egypt. Why did we ever follow these people? We cannot possibly prevail against the challenges before us.
The helplessness the Israelites express sounds a lot like the despair we might feel in these moments: the NRA, Congress’ cravenness, and the numbing frequency of these random acts of gun violence all seem like Nefilim, and we feel like grasshoppers in our own eyes when we consider the seemingly overwhelming parameters of the challenge.
But we can’t go back to Egypt, any more than the Israelites could turn around to escape their challenges; and we can only complain about our helplessness for so long. Our ancestors doomed themselves to a generation of wandering in these moments, because they proved to G-d that they could not overcome the slave mentality of learned helplessness that they had been born into.
Our challenge here may be similarly existential. If we continue to seem like grasshoppers in our own eyes, unable to address and change the gun culture of our beloved country, we may also be dooming ourselves to a generation of wandering in a terribly frightening, perplexingly violent, truly horrifying future.
Let us not repeat the scouts’ mistake: just because we may seem helpless in our own eyes does not mean we look that way to the giants we face. We must face them, and we must overcome them. Watch this space and others for your chance to add your voice; find a way to speak out, and to act, against those apparent giants. And stay together, and support each other in our daring to hope that we can prevail: that is what it ultimately means to have G-d in our midst as we act for the good.