Thursday, June 11, 2015

3 Takes on Jewish Mission / Parshat Shelach-Lecha 2015-5775

Hearing the phrase “a mission from God” conjures the image of the “Blues Brothers,” Elwood and Jake (AKA Dan Akroyd and John Belushi) who, in the 1980 movie were on a self-proclaimed “mission from God” to “put the band back together” in order to raise $5,000 to save the orphanage in which they grew up. No easy task, this one—along the way they are relentlessly pursued by the police, and run into a hoard of strange characters, including neo-Nazis and a woman who attempts to kill them with a rocket launcher and a bomb.

How many missions of divine or cosmic proportion are easy? The mission of the twelve spies described in this week’s parashah, Shelach Lecha, turns out to be far more complicated than Moses ever imagines and far less comical than the Blues Brothers. At God’s behest, Moses sends twelve tribal leaders to reconnoiter the land of Canaan in preparation for the Israelites’ incursion:

When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, “Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” (Numbers 13:17-20)

Despite an initially favorable report filed by Joshua and Caleb, things soon go sour and catastrophe ensues. The other ten scouts dissent, protesting, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we” (Numbers 13:31). The effect of their words is instantaneous. The Israelites are terrified. The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept all night (Numbers 14:1). The “mission from God” is scuttled and the Israelites are consigned to spend 38 more years wandering the Wilderness.

The very claim of having a “mission” implies a connection between the individual, the community, and the larger world. It raises many questions. While we have always rejected the notion of being a missionary or proselytizing religion, we have in the past embraced the self-understanding that we are a nation with a mission—a purpose as a people in covenant with God.

I want to share three diverse understandings of the notion of mission with you. The first is that of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, writing in the latter half of the 19th century in Germany—a time and place in history not made famous by statements of humility—and Hirsch’s formulation of the Jewish mission is no exception. Commenting on Leviticus 16:5, Hirsch tells us:

What the priest should be to the nation, the nation should be to the rest of humanity: a ‘lead ram,’ so to speak, striding steadily forward and upward at the head of all humanity, the flock of God, leading the way to the fulfillment of all that is noble and good.

For Hirsch, God brought the Jewish people into being to lead humanity, or perhaps seduce humanity, into what is “noble and good” in God’s eyes, which he understands to be the opposite of the wanton materialism Hirsch observes around him. He goes so far as to suggest that God intentionally made the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs challenging—even painful—because had their lives been easy:

…then this nation would never have become “the people of God,” the people who are to reveal God in the quality of Adonai. Then this people, too, like all the other nations, would have been rooted solely in the world of material things that can be seen and touched; like them, they would have had only physical foundations and would have understood their greatness and might only in terms of physical size and strength, aspiring to spiritual and moral attainments only as long as these would have been compatible with, and beneficial to, their material ambitions. (Commentary on Exodus 6:3)

Our purpose as a people, according to Hirsch, is to share with the world the moral and spiritual values that we learn from Torah and are supposed to practice in our family and communal lives.

Standing now at the beginning of the 21st century, at a time in our history when the stench of the crematoria still assaults our sensibilities, and we are keenly aware that the last of the survivors of the Holocaust will die within the next few years, in the minds of many “Jewish survival” has become our reason d’être. How much Jewish fundraising, albeit for wonderful causes, has referenced anti-Semitism and not-so-subtly suggested that we face threats ultimately as ominous as those of the Holocaust and therefore must contribute our resources to ventures that will insure “Jewish survival”? Indeed, when was the last time you saw fundraising that did not, in some way or another, push that alarm bell? In this context, I find value in Hirsch’s approach, if not in the particulars, of how he believed we ought to fulfill our mission. Hirsch’s rigid (indeed, reactionary) view of Jewish law and practice stemmed from a dire fear of secularism and deep distrust of modern science, particularly Darwinism, which he likened to worship of the idol at Ba’al Pe’or:

…a god of shamelessness, who was worshipped by giving brazen prominence to the most bestial aspects of human life… a manifestation of the kind of Darwinism that revels in the concept of humanity sinking to the level of animals and divesting itself of its divine nobility, learning to consider itself merely a higher class of animal. (Commentary on Numbers 25:3)

I do not share Hirsch’s fear of secularism; it is not a yawning moral chasm. I embrace the truths of science and the concomitant intellectual standards of rationalism and empiricism by which it operates. But I appreciate Hirsch’s assertion that Judaism has something positive and enormously valuable to contribute to the larger world.

The second formulation of Jewish mission I want to share with you, by contrast, is that of Leonard Fein, whose activism and writing on behalf of Jewish social justice concerns is legendary.  In 2010 he addressed a large segment of the liberal Jewish community that had made its conception of tikkun olam not only the core of their Judaism, but Judaism’s very reason d’être—in other words, its mission. Fein begins his famous essay by asserting that, in adopting the term tikkun olam to bespeak the Jewish mission, we have opened the term so broadly to anything and anyone who contributes to society that it has become “vague” and lacks the specificity necessary to be genuinely meaningful. As an example, Fein notes that these days “under the heading of healers we can place the neurosurgeon and the novelist, the community organizer and the honest broker and the devoted teacher, the benefactor of the arts and the heritage farmer, the caring bartender and the FBI agent”—in other words, virtually everyone. Acknowledging that talking about a “Jewish mission” opens the door to the dangerous and oft-misunderstood theology of “election,” Fein offers us this formulation of the Jewish mission:

The Jews are the quintessential witness. By virtue of our longevity, by virtue of our classic marginality, by virtue of the need for self-preservation, we have been precocious observers of our typically multiple worlds, witnesses to grandeur, to folly, to evil, to redemption. Our task is to speak out, to tell what we have seen, to say what we know.

He warns that this role will not garner us the admiration of others; indeed, it will breed resentment. Nor is it a reflection of our virtue. Rather it is about what have come to know through our experience, “by living in the interstices and learning there to keep our balance.” Fein was correct when he said that we have a vantage point that can inform conversations around the globe about justice and human rights, but I wonder if that alone constitutes a mission. How many others have suffered attempted genocide? The Armenians, the Rwandans, Darfur, the Bosnians, and the Rohingyans jump immediately to mind—all occurred within the past century. We are not alone in experiencing exile; consider the Poles after the partitioning, the Crimean Tartars in 1944, and the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala. Nor are we alone in cherishing a set of social values that include justice, compassion, human dignity, and human rights.

What, then, do we bring to the table that is unique? Perhaps the fact that that we have endured persecution, exile, and genocide repeatedly, for so long and in so many locations around the globe is a factor, but I think it must be far more. The ethical and spiritual values that have sustained us and continue to inspire and motivate us, are the very values the world needs—particularly in the face of the harsh reality of the capacity of humanity for cruelty and depravity. That we maintain a fervent believe in the capacity of humanity for, and its obligation to, justice and compassion; the premium we uncompromisingly place on human dignity and human rights; our willingness to engage in deep self-reflection and self-criticism in the commitment to live by our highest values; and the clear, unwavering goal of redemption for all humanity that we hold out as our guiding banner—these are the attributes that define our mission.

The third view of Jewish mission that I want to share with you this week bespeaks a hasidic perspective, at once deeply spiritual and universal. To appreciate this third perspective, let us return to the Torah’s account of the spies’ “mission from God.” Upon returning from their venture, Joshua and Caleb bring a positive assessment of the Israelites’ ability to fulfill the mission God has given them. The other ten spies issue an unfavorable report that terrifies the Israelites and convinces them to reject the mission to enter the land. Acknowledging that the land does, indeed, flow with milk and honey, the ten spies also note that its people are powerful giants living in fortified cities. As the people tremble and cower at this description, Caleb nonetheless asserts that despite all that has been said, the Israelites are capable of taking possession of the land. Yet the ten spies persist and warn that it is אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא A land that devours those who dwell in it (Numbers 13:32). As a result, Torah tell us that The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night (Numbers 14:1). The people shrink from their mission, and tradition holds that the Israelites’ cringing and recoiling from their mission is the reason they spent another 38 years in the Wilderness: the time it would take for the generation born into slavery and unable to adapt to freedom and the responsibility it entails, to die off. Maimonides generously tells us that:

One cannot be expected to leave the state of slavery, toiling in bricks and straw, and go to fight with giants. It was therefore part of the divine wisdom to make them wander through the Wilderness until they had become schooled in courage, until a new generation grew up who had never known humiliation and bondage.

For Rambam, the Israelites were lacking in courage, not faith. Given their lives in Egypt, we should not wonder that the idea of attacking the Anakites, Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites was daunting.

This brings us to the third perspective on mission I want to share with you. The hasidic master, Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch (18th century, Poland-Lithuania) focuses on Numbers 13:32, אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא A land that devours those who dwell in it. The Maggid hears the verse not only in the context of the story about the spies, but also lifts its meaning from off the page and raises it to a level of universal truth. It is not the spies, alone, who are sent into the land, but metaphorically, all of us, as well. The spies are not alone in becoming entangled and lost in the the concerns of physical life and thought, but we do, as well. Just as the spies were frightened away from their mission of finding a way to conquer the land so, too, are we often distracted from our true mission in life. (We’re going to dive into the pool of Kabbalah here, but please keep treading water; an explanation will follow.) The Maggid tells us:

Everything contains the ten qualities. That is what is meant when we say that the entire Torah is God’s delight: even its narratives speak of some quality [such as] love or awe, and this is the cloak of the Holy Blessed One. One must take care to raise up each and every thought. If it is a matter of love, raise it up to the attribute/quality of love. Similarly with fear. But don’t sit in it immobilized—because that would be enormously foolish. For example, a person travels to a city to conduct business but [rather than conducting his business] then just sits there, having left a family behind. Is there any greater foolishness than this? In the same way, the Holy One Blessed be God sends you to a thought in order that you should raise it up, but if you sit with it and do not restore it to the Holy One Blessed be God, is there anything more foolish than this? This is “eretz” (“land”), the corporeal realm, that consumes those who just dwell in it immobilized. (Or Torah)

The Maggid tells us that the lesson of the ten spies is a hint that everything contains the ten divine attributes conveyed by the ten sefirot (see Sefirotic tree below). The attributes with which God brought the universe, even existence itself, into being, depicted in the Kabbalistic tree, are implicit in everything—every material object, every act, every thought we have. All of creation contains at least the implicit potential for love, awe, wisdom, splendor, etc. This suggests that the full range of spiritual possibilities lies in every aspect of the universe, every facet of our lives, every object with which we interact, every thought that enters our heads. All the spiritual potential of God’s divine attributes is present, available, and, if we can focus our minds and energies to find it and realize it in our lives, accessible. Our job—our mission—is to elevate these qualities to a spiritual level. The man who traveled to do business is each of us every day: we are always traveling through the world engaged in the business of life. If we become immobilized by the material essence of things—focused merely on physical reality without a thought to the potential and meaning in everything and everyone we behold—we sit immobilized, foolishly missing the opportunity to raise up the divine sparks in whatever object or thought is before us, sadly missing the opportunity to transform it into something of spiritual meaning and purpose. Like the ten spies, we are mired in the lowest level of reality, unable to see beyond. (There may be a connection here with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which those chained to the wall see only shadows.)

The Maggid interprets the idea of mission in a very personal, spiritual sense. Our job is to go through life seeing the “invisible value,” divine meaning, and cosmic connection of everything and everyone we encounter. We do not live in a “merely material world.” We live in a world of miracles, which is not to say abrogations of the laws of nature, but rather the world filled with such vast potential and purpose, meaning and magnificence, that in order to fulfill our own potential we must tap into it and see the world “through God’s eyes.” I would suspect that Dov Ber understood and intended that when we fulfill our personal, spiritual mission, each of us is better prepared to join with the community in a broader Jewish mission to the larger world, for the very idea of mission rests on a sense of connection: the individual to the community to the larger world.

Imagine that you could see beyond the physical reality of the elements of your life, or the immediacy of your thoughts, to a spiritual realm of potential and possibility, to the realm of holiness. That is the possibility—and reality—that the Maggid holds out for us by reminding us of the potential inherent in everything, and power of mindfulness to transform our lives. The possibilities do not end with us as individuals; they begin with us. Once we have begun to succeed as individuals, imagine how much we can accomplish as a community.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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