Believing is Seeing

Following a lecture this week in Jerusalem a question was raised by someone in the audience who had been deeply troubled by her group’s visit to Hebron the day before. It is doubtful that her seminar encountered 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa on what would be the last day of her life before being savagely murdered in her sleep later that night. The questioner’s problem was with the conduct of Jewish residents of the city. And while there is little to commend what is often deplorable misconduct on the part of the Jewish locals who fervently prioritize land (adama) over human beings (adam), the speaker, Donniel Hartman, offered a revealing response.  For the most part, he said, the residents of the disputed territories are remarkably law-abiding. Every one of them has a weapon. Every one of them has experienced serious threats. Every one of them has felt danger. Yet other than relatively rare despicable crimes that amount to abominations against Judaism, the residents of these communities more often demonstrate disciplined restraint. 

Often what we see says more about what’s in us than about what’s out there. In this week’s portion, the Torah makes this famously clear. Twelve spies scout the Land of Canaan with the majority seeking to turn back, rejecting God’s covenant, exclaiming to each other “let us head back for Egypt” (Num.14:4). When most of us look to the story of the spies’ failed expedition, we rightly see a low-point when God determined that their generation would wander to death for forty years unable to cross into the Promised Land. Yet, consider how the rabbinic sages elected to locate passages from this trying time. 

The liturgical high-point of Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidre service is found in the forgiving aftermath — which although punishing the wilderness generation, keeps faith with their children who will go forth to the Land. God statement (Num.14:19-20) “I will pardon according to your words” (salachti ki-d’varecha) signals the moment that launches our annual Day of Atonement. The response to sinful spies yields the recipe for future forgiveness. In another surprising turn, the rabbi’s selection of the opening Psalm with which we welcome Shabbat each Friday night, Psalm 95, ends with a direct allusion to the our Wilderness misconduct (Num.14:21-23). Verses that condemn the dismissal of God (m’natsuni) that evoke a Divine oath (nishbati), are revisited when we are reminded of how insincere (to-ai l’vav) and obstinate (al tak’shu l’vavchem) our ancestors were. Rabbi Shai Held once taught us that such a weekly reminder insists on sincerity and authenticity, that we should be greeting Shabbat by praying ‘like we mean it’. Five verses from the Torah’s most covenant-challenging incident are transformed into prayerful sentiments that ennoble us each Sabbath and on the Sabbath of Sabbaths.

As the rabbis saw spirit-replenishing opportunity in fraught chapters of our history, I am deeply moved by the spirit that I sense pervading Israeli life this week. Given relentless setbacks and agonizing losses — including the horrific suffering in the wake of terror in Turkey with whom Israel has restored relations – instead of being rattled by despair or cynicism, Israel’s spirit feels remarkably optimistic. Of course our beliefs must be tested by what we see. But may we never lose sight of how much we can bring to what we take from experiences.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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