Seeing & “Seeing” – Parashat Sh’lach Lecha 5775 (2015)

What does it really mean to see? Parashat Sh’lach Lecha, the Torah’s famous story of twelve spies dispatched by Moses to scout the Land of Israel, invites us into a deep inquiry regarding the spiritual and ethical meaning of seeing. Is sight simply a physical experience, or does seeing signify and suggest something more?

Directives to see frame this week’s Parasha, beginning with Moses’s opening instruction to the scouts – “Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is…” U’r’item et ha’aretz mah hi – literally, “And see the land, what it is.” The task of the scouts is to see the land promised to the people with clarity and with depth.

Our parasha concludes with a statement of ritual law, a command to attach tzitzit – fringes – to the corners of garments, an expression of attachment and connection to God. The Torah explains the hoped for inner workings of the tzitzit with a trio of verbs – “That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them.” A Talmudic teaching connects the dots. “Seeing leads to remembering, remembering leads to doing.”

The scouts fail to see the possibilities of the Land. Their fear and trepidation blind and paralyze them, effectively breaking the nexus that ties seeing to remembering to doing. What’s missing from their seeing? A passage at the center of the parasha helps to answer that question. “… as I live and as the Lord’s Presence fills the whole world, none of the men who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed Me, shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers; none of those who spurn Me shall see it.”

Real awareness of Divine Presence is the necessary prerequisite for deep and searching seeing. Ten of the twelve scouts lack that awareness, as do the majority of the people. Calev embodies that real awareness, possessing a “different spirit” – ruach acheret. Without that ruach, visibility is dramatically limited. With it, all things are possible.

Shabbat Shalom.

Moving Away from Sinai – Parashat Behaalot’kha 5775 (2015)

Two weeks ago, on Shavuot, we stood together at Sinai, to receive Torah. It was a moment of great spiritual intensity and intimacy with God. Such peak experiences don’t, indeed can’t, last forever. Now, Shavuot is a memory, a signpost in our collective memory, a reminder of the possibility of deep connection and closeness with God. As soon as that moment ended, the distancing began.

Sefer Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers, tells the story of distancing from God, a tale of recurring rebellion that begins this week in Parashat Behaalot’kha. Famously, Behaalot’kha introduces the great theme of Israelite complaining. Kvetching is an old Jewish character trait; perhaps our oldest organized activity. A close reading of the parasha, however, suggests a prior act of distancing on the part of our ancestors, a step that sets Bemidbar’s long pattern of rebellion in motion.

Here’s the essential verse – “They marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days.” [Numbers 10:33] Beginning with the Talmudic rabbis, careful readers have read that verse to describe a stepping back from the experience and existential commitments of Sinai rather than as a travelogue detail.

Rabbi Hama ben Rabbi Hanina’s statement (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 116a) speaks volumes in just three words: she’saru mei’acharei Adonai – they turned aside from following God. A related Midrash compares the people to “a child who runs away from school” out of a desire to hear and receive no further commands. God wants too much, they say in essence; enough is enough. The rabbis describe a flight from responsibility. Obligation is just too hard.

Encountering the rebellions of Bemidbar invites consideration of our essential attachments. Do we continue to embrace the legacy of Sinai, even if the thrill is gone? And can the intensity of that moment be recovered, recreated, reclaimed? Staying in school is hard, but the long term benefits, I suggest, greatly outweigh the costs.

Shabbat Shalom.