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torah from T'ruah

“Torah from T’ruah” is a weekly d’var Torah email. Each week, a different T’ruah Chaver/a connects themes of human rights and social justice to the weekly parashah.

Saying Yes When Others Say No

A d’var Torah for Parshat Sh’lach-Lecha by Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz

In February, I was invited to participate in civil disobedience with Make the Road New Jersey and Faith in New Jersey to amplify the need for a Clean Dream Act. I wondered how my action would be perceived by others. Would it make any difference?

Along with five others (we were two rabbis, two ministers and two activists), I entered the office of my Congressman, Leonard Lance, and sat down as I stood up for justice. The support from Dreamers, fellow clergy, rally participants and those who read the news filled my heart with love as I was grateful for the opportunity to put my faith into action.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Sh’lach-Lecha, Moses sends men from each of the 12 tribes to go and scout out the Land of Canaan. They are told to explore and determine what kind of country it is. Are the people living there strong or weak? Are there few or many people already there? They’re also instructed to bring something back – ancient souvenir — to show the fruit of the land.

What did they see there? An amazing cluster of grapes. So lush, so large that it had to be carried on a frame by two people. And they saw lots of people in the land. When they returned, the group went to Moses informing him that though the land did flow with milk and honey, and with wonderful fruit, the people there are powerful.

Caleb interrupted the report, quieting the people, to state “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” [Numbers 13:30] But 10 men who had gone with him responded, “We cannot go up [and attack] the people for they are stronger than us.”

Moreover, the people said, “We saw the Nephilim there, the Anakites are part of the Nephilim, and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” [Numbers 13:33]

What’s happening here? Twelve people came back from exploring the land and 10 gave a negative report. They saw the size of the people already in Canaan and felt it was too difficult a mission to try to take the Land.

But Caleb and Joshua both said the land is good and with God’s help we can do this; we can enter the land.

Which was the correct version of the story? The 10 spies or Caleb and Joshua’s?

When we speak with our family or friends about a challenging situation, what guides us to persevere or abandon? The 10 saw things and felt the reality was overwhelming. There was no possibility for the Israelites to conquer the Land/face this challenge.

Do the 10 men see with clear glasses vs. Joshua and Caleb’s rose-colored glasses? Or do Caleb and Joshua have the courage to say yes we can when others say no we can’t. Let’s look at their perception vs. reality.

The 10 spies said that “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so must we have looked to them.” [ Numbers 13:33] It seems that they were speaking honestly. Yet, the commentators criticize them for their comments. It’s one thing to think about how we appear to another. They recognized the people in the Land of Canaan were more powerful and intimidated them. But when they extrapolated to how they must have appeared to the people in the Land, they were giving up some of their own power.

In contrast to the majority report, Caleb responded: “Let us go up… for we shall surely overcome it.” (Numbers 13:30)

Joshua too spoke up, telling the people not to rebel against God and not to fear the people in the Land of Canaan.

The crowd responded by threatening to pelt them with stones. Yikes. Standing up for what we believe is right can be scary.

Rabbi Chaim Stern (1930-2001), a foremost liturgist of Reform Judaism, said:

Give me the good sense to be afraid when there is something to fear, so that I make ready, as well as I can, for whatever threatens. And give me courage to stand up with grace against the troubles I cannot keep from coming my way. And make me willing to learn from what hurts me instead of feeling sorry for myself.

I hope we can channel the faith and strength of Joshua and Caleb who said we can do this. They said yes when others said no. When it comes to justice, we need to say yes and stand up for justice—not passively, but actively raising our feet and voices for all.

Congressman Lance responded to our February Dreamers action and welcomed a meeting with my colleagues and me two weeks after the arrest. My colleagues and I urged him to stand up for Dreamers and be a leader. In early May he said yes to Dreamers while most of his Republican colleagues and the president continue to say no. He acted to bring forth legislation to the House floor to enable Dreamers to stay in America.

If my perception had been “what difference could one action possibly make?” I would not have been able to follow through on the courage of my convictions. But I felt God’s presence with me in the sit-in, wearing handcuffs, riding in the police wagon and preparing for court dates. Each of us can make a difference if we take that first step.

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