In this week's Torah portion, Sh'lach, Moshe sends twelve scouts to check out the Land of Promise. Ten of them return terrified. The grapes are so big they require two men and a carrying frame. The people are giants. "We...
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Land of Promise: Teachings from Shlach for Right Now

 


In this week's Torah portion, Sh'lach, Moshe sends twelve scouts to check out the Land of Promise. Ten of them return terrified. The grapes are so big they require two men and a carrying frame. The people are giants. "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." (
Numbers 13:33) Caleb and Joshua promise that the land flows with milk and honey. But the other ten are afraid. The people revolt, crying out, "If only we had died in Egypt!"

God decides that the generation who knew slavery will not enter the Land of Promise. Their spirits are too crushed by hardship. Their self-doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Old fashioned map of the United States featuring Biblical place names

The European colonists who came to this place knew Torah's stories, of course. George Washington alluded to America as a Land of Promise in 1785. (And you don't have to travel far around here to find a Canaan, or a Goshen, or a Salem – all Biblical place-names.)

For the many tribes and nations who originally inhabited this land, the arrival of Europeans was catastrophic because of foreign germs, foreign worldviews, and policies like the Indian Removal Act. (Perhaps this is a good time to mention that our beloved synagogue is built on Mohican land -- and that the Mohican people are still around!)

Europeans coming to these shores was terrible news for Native Americans. We can hold that truth alongside the truth that many of our forebears emigrated to this nation seeking dignity and equality denied to Jews elsewhere.

My mother was one of them. She told me endlessly how fortunate she felt to have found refuge here. America was supposed to be a nation of equality, where it would be safe to be Jewish, where we could strive to better ourselves and our communities alongside everyone else.

And yet we know that America's promise of liberty and justice for all wasn't originally "for all" -- only for straight white property-owning men. The week now ending held Juneteenth, a reminder of how long it took for the promise of freedom to reach enslaved Black people in Texas. (Arguably we’re still working on fulfilling the promise of justice.) The enslaved were brought here by force. But even our forebears who came here willingly, came in search of a promise that is not yet complete.

Right now the promise of equal rights and justice may feel further-away than many of us have known it to be. The January 6th hearings reawaken the horror of watching an angry mob storm the United States Capitol... and now we live with the added horror of knowing that a large segment of the country doesn't believe that the insurrection was real, or that it was wrong.

The same voices denying the facts of the presidential election and subsequent insurrection are also denying gender-affirming health care to trans kids. Four states have banned that care, and fifteen others are considering following suit. Twenty-six states will ban abortion now that Roe has fallen -- some have already done so. And don’t even get me started on the news out of my state of origin this week.

None of this is consonant with Jewish teaching or practice. Rabbis and laypeople in every branch of Judaism (from Reform to Orthodox) support gender-affirming care, and teach that everyone across the spectrum of gender and orientation is made in the image of God. Judaism has also long held that life begins at first breath, not at the first merging of two cells.

But the Supreme Court has struck down Roe... and is also poised to decide on whether or not to gut the federal government's ability to mitigate climate change. Given what we know about the current makeup of the Court, that outcome isn't looking good either. I empathize with the scouts who looked at the challenges ahead and felt like grasshoppers.

So right on time, here come the scouts to remind us that despair is not a good option. Giving in to despair means giving up on hope. Last Rosh Hashanah I offered a teaching from Mariame Kaba who reminds us that hope is a discipline. Hope's not a feeling, it's a practice. It asks us to work. I didn’t realize how resonant that teaching would be this year -- or how necessary.

Earlier this morning we prayed these words from Michael Walzer: 

Standing on the parted shores of history
we still believe what we were taught 
before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt;
that there is a better place, a promised land;
that the winding way to that promise 
passes through the wilderness.

That there is no way to get from here to there
except by joining hands, marching 
together.
This moment may feel like wilderness. And it's easy to look at the forces arrayed against the environment, against the principles of human dignity and justice, against queer people and trans people, against Black and Indigenous people and people of color, against immigrants and refugees, against anyone with a uterus, against us as Jews, and feel like those forces are giants and we are grasshoppers.

But look again closely at that verse in this week's Torah portion. "We looked like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes." We saw ourselves as tiny, puny, unable to impact the world around us -- and so we became that way. But we can choose to see ourselves differently.

We might not get all the way "there." But that doesn't absolve us from trying. My b-mitzvah students may remember that famous line from Pirkei Avot, "It is not incumbent on us to complete the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it." I think of the Land of Promise as a direction, not a destination. Like moshiachtzeit, the messianic age.

The work is standing up for those more vulnerable than we -- in Torah's language, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. Standing up for immmigrants and refugees. For trans kids at risk of losing health care, and for their parents. For everyone with a uterus in states where forced birth is becoming law. For Black neighborhoods at higher risk of flooding, and people in drought-stricken areas at higher risk of fire. For Mother Earth herself -- so fragile and full of life.

MLK quote: the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice

Rev. Martin Luther King taught that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. I think we know now that the arc of the moral universe only bends toward justice if we push it and pull it and bend it with our own hands and hearts. It can bend toward justice; it has to bend toward justice. And it's aleinu -- it's on us -- to make that real. We need to see ourselves not as grasshoppers, but as a community that stands up for those who need us most. 

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires on Shabbat morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

     

Rhythm

 

 

The sea is good medicine after a heart attack. This is how you do it, heart. Listen to this unceasing rhythm.

Flowing in, pouring out. Pushing and pulling. Kissing the shore, then dancing away.

 

 

Like Shabbes

followed by week

followed by Shabbes

followed by week

forever and ever.

 

 

Slipper shells and pebbles of quartz and granite tumble against the shore.

Then pull away. Then return.

 

 

A distant seawall marks the horizon.

The tug and release pulls at my ankles, shifting the ground beneath my feet.

Months from now there will still be grains of sand in my car.

 

 

     

Lake

Bend low, dipping
until my fingers
skim the warm water
near the surface.

This syllable
means death in Hebrew
but let's prolong
hope's steady drip.

A tor rises
from the hillside:
aspiring only
to keep existing.

Listen to the trill
of cricket opera
as my little boat
glides on.

Not certain, but maybe
something trails behind,
a string dragging
lines across the lake.

And you, hovering
over the face
of the waters
like a mother bird.

 


The list of medications I am now taking is long, and their names can sound like a foreign language. Scanning my meds, I remembered a poetry technique from my time at Bennington -- "translating" words into English (seeking out homophones, more or less), and then using that somewhat random assemblage of words to spark a poem. This poem arose out of my list of meds in that way.

     

Heart





When I woke with chest tightness and pain and numbness down both arms, at first I thought I had slept funny and one arm had fallen asleep. But then I realized it was both arms, which didn't make sense. And also my chest felt really tight, as though compressed with a strong, thick, solid rubber band.

These are sensations I've come to know well over the last 18 months. Carrying in the groceries, or schlepping the laundry -- almost any exertion can bring this on. It always goes away within a few minutes if I sit and breathe. But it had never happened before during the night, while I was at rest.

I picked up my phone and googled "heart attack symptoms." Shortness of breath, chest tightness, numbness or discomfort in the arms: those have been my regular companions for a while now. Breaking a sweat for no reason: find me anyone peri-menopausal who doesn't experience that sometimes?

I thought about calling an ambulance. I imagined having to wake up my twelve year old, the ride to the hospital, the hours of tests, the likelihood that the doctors would say, "It's just anxiety," or "Nothing clinical here." Maybe it's nothing, I thought. I wanted it to be nothing. I went back to sleep.

In the morning, on urging from friends, I reluctantly called my doctor, who instructed me to go to the ED. There they diagnosed an NSTEMI: non-ST-elevation myocardial infarction. Eventually an ambulance took me to Baystate: riding backwards, strapped to a gurney, watching the green hills go by.

I arrived at the Davis Heart and Vascular Center late on Friday. Procedures like cardiac catheterization don't happen on weekends. Enter electrode stickers, an Intellivue MX40 wearable monitor, a heparin drip via IV. Every two hours a phlebotomist arrived to draw more blood, charting troponin levels. 

In the subsequent days, sometimes I could maintain equanimity. I could reach my gratitude practices, maintain perspective, feel how lucky I am that we caught this quickly. Other times I couldn't help leaking tears, swallowing around a painful lump in my throat: feeling shaken, vulnerable, afraid.

I discovered that when they draw blood, I make the same pained sounds my mother made. Also, when there are IV ports on my hands, they remind me of her hands once she fell ill. That's not how she would want to be remembered. She'd be pleased that people complimented my manicure, though. 

A fabulous nurse told me amazing stories about his ancestors buried in the North Adams cemetery. An ultrasound tech asked me what I do for a living as she slathered me with conductive gel. When I told her, she asked if I could explain to her what Jews believe about the apocalypse and the End Times. 

As a pastoral caregiver I know that both laughter and tears are normal in a hospital. (Not just in a hospital; always! But emotions are heightened at times like these.) Sometimes I could lift up and let the current carry me. Sometimes I sank to the bottom and crashed into the riverbed rocks. 

On erev Shavuot I joined, via Zoom, the festival service I had planned to co-lead. I sang Hallel very quietly. I may never forget singing לֹא הַמֵּתִים יְהַלְלוּ־יָהּ וְלֹ֗א כּל־יֹרְדֵי דוּמָה ("The dead do not praise You, nor all those who go down into silence," Ps. 115:16) attached to a heparin drip and cardiac monitors.

Now I am home, learning about MINOCA (myocardial infarction with non-obstructive coronary arteries), and preparing to seek out diagnosticians who might be able to weave my strokes 15 years ago, my shortness of breath, and this heart attack into a coherent narrative with a clear action plan.

After my strokes, I saw specialist after specialist in Boston. Eventually I leaned into not-knowing, into taking Mystery as a spiritual teacher. But now that I've added a heart attack to the mix, I'm hoping anew for a grand unifying theory. For now, I remain in the not-knowing, with gratitude to be alive.

 

Related:

 

 

     

Responsibility

Every time I see someone talking about rights lately, I find myself thinking about mitzvot (commandments), the core of Jewish life and practice. There are spiritual mitzvot and ethical mitzvot, mitzvot involving relationship between human beings and God and mitzvot involving relationship between human beings and each other. Taking on the mitzvot means accepting obligations: to each other, to the community, to God. The whole system is rooted in an ethic of obligation and responsibility.

Ruth Messenger wrote a lovely piece comparing the notion of rights with the Jewish notion of responsibilities or obligations. She observes -- correctly -- that they're not opposed to each other. There's no reason that being Jewish should be in tension with the notion of human rights. But in this moment, I am increasingly feeling that the American focus on rights and individual liberties is getting in the way of our capacity to recognize our responsibilities to each other and to our community.

I told a high school friend on Facebook recently that I can't understand resistance to gun safety measures. Wouldn't a responsible gun owner be willing to operate within greater constraints in order to ensure the safety of others, most especially our children?  In response, he told me simply that he's not willing to relinquish any of his constitutional rights, period. This sounds like I'm setting up a straw man, but this conversation really happened. Our worldviews just don't make sense to each other.

Intellectually I grasp where he's coming from, but spiritually it feels foreign to me. Part of being in community is balancing what I want with what others need. Living in community means we have obligations to each other. Living in community means giving up some individual control or benefit for the sake of the collective. For instance, most of us might not "want" to give up part of our earnings, but we pay taxes because that's how we ensure roads and schools and necessary services, right? 

I suspect I'm preaching to the choir. If you already agree with me, you're nodding. If you don't agree with me, I don't know that anything I say will change your mind. But staying silent feels like giving up. 27 school shootings so far this year, and it's only May. (Not to mention shootings everywhere else.) The ready availability of guns that liquefy tissue means that no one is safe. Not at school, not at shul or church or gurdwara, not at a nightclub, not at the grocery store. How are we living like this? 

Hillel teaches, "Don't separate yourself from the community." (Pirkei Avot 2:5) Torah tells us time and again that we're obligated to protect the vulnerable. Rambam teaches that it's our obligation to give tzedakah -- not "charity," rooted in the Latin caritas, but giving that's fueled by tzedek, justice. Even the poorest person, someone who needs tzedakah, is obligated to give -- because supporting others is fundamental to community. Obligation to others is fundamental to community. 

And yet in the wake of the Buffalo mass shooting, and the Laguna California mass shooting, and the Uvalde mass shooting, who's framing the gun safety conversation in terms of mutual obligation? I groused to a historian friend: had the Founding Fathers only been Jewish, we might have a very different social compact. To my surprise, she replied that the Founders thought about citizenship not just as a matter of rights, but also as a matter of responsibilities to one another and to the whole!

[T]he founders of this country did not believe in unlimited individual freedom.. . [They agreed that] the best form of government was one in which individuals gave up a portion of their total freedom in order to take care of the community. [Source]

I don't remember learning that in school. I wish everyone did. We give up a portion of our total freedom -- the freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want, no matter the consequences for others -- in order to live in community with other human beings.  We balance what each of us personally wants with some responsibility to the needs of others. That's part of what it means to be a member of a community -- a citizen, part of a bigger whole, responsible to that whole. 

I wish I believed that this framing would shift our nation's echo-chamber conversations about Constitutional rights. (Rights that initially belonged only to white men, though that's a different conversation.) What would our nation be if we focused less on our rights than on what we owe to each other? At minimum, we owe each other the space to live and breathe without fear of being gunned down. Why is anyone's desire to own an assault weapon more important than that?

 

 

Two poems that moved me recently: