No. We can’t support this. There are too many scary people and bad characters out there. Let’s just keep our heads down and focus on what we were doing. Better yet…let’s just go back to the way things were.
I have heard variations of this theme from many in the Jewish community over the past 2 weeks. They have been concerned about the violence tied to some of the protests, lack of respect for law & order (a shield which many view as essential given heightened fears about terrorism and security), and the anti-Semitic/anti-Israel sentiments which have been associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.
And, as I was reviewing this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Shelach (for those in the Diaspora, last week for those in Israel), I was struck by how this theme was echoed in the story of the 12 spies.
Moses said to the spies: “Go up this way by the south, and go up into the high land and see the country, what is it and the people who dwell in it, whether they are strong or weak, few or many, and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it is good or bad, and what cities they dwell in, whether in tents or in strongholds, and what the land is, whether fat or lean, or whether there are trees in it or not. And be of good courage and bring of the fruit of the land.”
Ten spies came back and said that the land looked amazing, “but the people are strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are fortified and very great.” Further: “We are not able to go up against the people for they are stronger than we.” Essentially, according to the plain meaning of the text, the people over on the “other” side were different, foreign…and scary. The children of Israel didn’t want to face that challenge and instead wanted to return to where it was safe in Egypt and the way things were.
Two spies, Caleb and Joshua, came back with a different perspective, saying that the children of Israel could do this – that they needed to face these challenges head on and move forward despite their doubt and hesitation; after all, they had God on their side. However, the other ten spies “spread an evil report” and sowed fear among the children of Israel.
We know how this story ended: the Jews wandering in the desert for 40 years so that the generation at the time – with their prejudices, fears, and lack of courage – could die out before entering the Holy Land.
During the days of our quarantine, I have come to appreciate even more how the Torah is both timeless and timely. The parallels to today’s circumstances, from plagues to the challenges of maintaining unity, are sometimes uncanny. This story, describing how the spies reacted to finding circumstances on the other side not entirely to their liking and within their control, is a good example.
Fast forward to today: There are many among the Jewish people in the United States right now, like Caleb and Joshua, who are saying: While there may be some things we don’t like and circumstances we might find challenging about #BlackLivesMatter or the movement, standing with those protesting racism is an important place for us to be. God is on our side and we’ve got to cross over, move forward, and address these issues head on.
At the same time, there are others who are wary like the ten spies, who said this “is a land that eats up its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of a great stature.” In other words, there are dangerous people involved in these protests, with some who may be anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, and/or have other troubling ideas (leftist, socialist, anarchist, etc). While we condemn racism, we can’t stand together with these folks; let’s keep quiet. That would be safer and hopefully things will sort themselves out and go back to “normal”.
The takeaway from this analogy is clear: Even though there may be challenges ahead, including people and ideas that make us uncomfortable, the path is forward and we should make the leap and cross over.
All the concerns raised may well be true, and the fear and discomfort real – but so is the lesson of what happens if we don’t take that leap. We miss an opportunity to move forward and make progress. In this case, our voices won’t be heard on this very important issue, as well as potentially other issues, and we risk wandering in the desert for a long time to come.