Sunday, June 12, 2011

We learn what we live / Parshat Shelach Lekha

“Children Learn What They Live” hangs in kindergartens and pediatricians’ offices. Have you seen it (you can read it below)? In the 39 years since Dorothy Law Nolte penned this poem, it has come to be a classic parents’ primer.

The theme of parshat Shelach-Lekha is a riff on this poem: if people live with freedom, they learn to feel empowered. After all, we learn what we live. The Israelites, born and raised in slavery, socialized and acculturated in the tar pits of Egypt, find themselves suddenly and miraculously free. But not having lived freedom, they do not yet feel empowered. Inside they are still slaves at heart.

The ill-fated reconnaissance mission into Eretz Yisrael predictably falls flat on its face. Although the 12 spies bring back a promising report…
“We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit [referring to a cluster of grapes so enormous it took two men to carry it].” (Numbers 13:27)
they also report:
“However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negev region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhait the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the sea and along the Jordan.” (Numbers 13:28-29)
This latter intelligence spooks the people. Despite Caleb’s and Joshua’s assurances that Israel is fully capable of taking possession of the Land, the people panic. They break into terrified wailing and crying, imagining their quick demise at the hands of the gigantic and powerful inhabitants of the Land.

Torah tells us that God responds by angrily telling Moses,
“How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? I will strike them with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they!” (Numbers 14:11-12)
Where have we heard this before? When Israel built the Golden Calf, God became enraged and threatened to wipe out the nation and start anew with Moses (Exodus 32:9). Here, as there, Moses implores God to forgive the people, and God accedes, with a huge caveat:
And the Lord said, “I pardon, as you have asked. Nevertheless, as I live and as the Lord’s Presence fills the whole world, non 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; non of those who spurn Me shall see it…” (Numbers 14:20-23)
The generation born in Egypt is doomed to die in the wilderness. The next generation, born in freedom, will inherit the land of their ancestors. This generation will taste, breath, and live in freedom; they will be empowered. They will be what they live.

Why doesn’t God get this? Why does God insist it’s “all about him”: they’re spurning God, they’re disobeying God, they lack faith in God…? How about: they lack faith in themselves? I can already hear you saying: “You’re judging a book that is more than 2500 years old by 21st century sensibilities and values. Not fair.” And you are correct. But at the same time, I worry about the troubling and off-putting portrait of God Torah paints making it so difficult for so many Jews to take Torah seriously.

To the extent that God is viewed as a cosmic parent, God is taken as a model parent (Avinu Malkeinu). We must dissect our sacred text and separate our ancestors’ expression of their experience from what we know of human psychology, self-esteem, and morality. Moreover, it’s not just about children. As adults, we absorb and deliver to ourselves messages about our value, worth, and abilities all the time. Do we choose as friends and companions people who exhibit the traits we aspire to, allowing them to model for us what we seek in ourselves? Do we empower ourselves?

Let’s take a look at what the passage above says about our relationship with God and our role as parents and mentors:
  1. Israel has tried God: Of course they did. How else can they learn to feel empowered if they don’t challenge authority, flap their wings, and push the edges of the envelope? We should encourage our children to engage in safe experimentation. Our children’s ventures into novelty are not a rejection of us; they are affirmation that encourage and empower them to be thinkers and explorers. You owe it to yourself to do the same: try something new, see if it works, learn more about yourself. Within our tradition there is a nearly inexhaustible supply of opportunities and varieties for study, religious practice, and community. Break out and try something new.
  2. Israel has disobeyed God: Ditto on this one. The Torah’s emphasis on obedience is troubling because it paves the way for a practice of Judaism that is all about permitted/forbidden and devoid of spiritual exploration. What is more, it emphasizes the negative. All good parents know that it’s far smarter to praise what is good with a reason. In other words, rather than being alert to opportunities to punish, be vigilant for opportunities to mark what is right: “Thank you for helping your sister. Did you notice how happy you made her? You’re a big help to me.” Mitzvah goreret mitzvah. The goal of religion – and Judaism in particular – is to empower, enable, and encourage people to choose good, not slam them with guilt and ridicule for doing what we have decided is failure. Of course there are things that are unquestionably wrong (hurting others verbally or physically, stealing, cheating, deceiving and so on) but in the main, there are far more opportunities to affirm good choices. In Torah and among traditional commentators, the “sin” of the Israelites has far-reaching ramifications. Rav Kook even wrote in 1908 that the Jewish people suffered repeated exile and humiliation because of the horrendous sin of their ancestors.
  3. Israel has spurned God: Is there a parent who hasn’t heard the words, “I hate you!” Is there an adult who didn’t utter or mutter them long ago? The notion that God demands absolute affirmation is insulting to God. I often tell people who rail against God in the face of the loss of a loved one, “Go ahead, it’s perfectly alright to yell at God. God can take it and will still be here for you, a source of love, strength, and comfort. Your pain is God’s pain – go ahead and share it.” Our Rabbis understood this. In the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 69) they envision God saying: “Hate Me and revile Me, but do not ignore Me.” All relationships have their ups and downs. The important thing is to stay in relationship.
  4. Israel lacks faith in God: lo ya’aminu vi (Numbers 14:11) is customarily translated “they have no faith in Me.” I confess that I don’t understand the concept of faith if it means to believe in something I neither comprehend nor experience but, as the saying goes, “take on faith.” I do understand the concept of trust and confidence based on past experience and reason. Some people use the terms interchangeably, but I find there is value in making the distinction. Faith is absolute: either you have it or you lack it. Trust, however, must be earned. It is true that the Israelites have experienced God’s redemption (the plagues in Egypt, the parting of the Reed Sea, the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai), but this is all in the past three months. Perhaps they are wondering: where was God when we were enslaved for 400 years? Perhaps the real problem was that Israel lacked faith/confidence/trust in themselves.
Torah reflects our ancestors’ experience of God, their world, and themselves. It is not necessarily our experience. Sometimes there is wisdom to be gleaned from recognizing the values and insights of our time that distinguish us from them. But as always, Torah stimulates sacred conversation.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Children Learn What They Live
Dorothy Law Nolte, 1972
If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.


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