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I met one of my favorite educators, Jodie Ferise, in undergrad. She taught classes about group dynamics, team building, micro-finance, entrepreneurship, and business law. In each of these classes she shared what she called “profound truths.” These profound truths were a collection of statements Jodie believed to be integral for successful leadership, and frankly for being a good human. In order to drill these lessons in, she offered one point of extra credit on our final for each profound truth we could remember. Twelve points of extra credit was a great incentive to memorize these lessons, and it really worked. Ten years later, I can still recite at least half of them from memory.
As I was reading this week’s parsha, Shalach, two of those profound truths popped into my head: surprised people behave badly, and insecure people behave badly. Between God and the Israelites, there is A LOT of bad behavior going on in this story.
It begins with Moses sending a group of spies into the land of Canaan to scout the territory. Moses instructed these spies to learn about the strength of the people, the structure of their towns, and the quality of soil for planting. After forty days, the spies returned to the Israelite community to report back. They shared fruits they had gathered and spoke about the land which flowed with milk and honey. Then they began to report that the people of Canaan were powerful and their cities were fortified and large. They found these cities all over the land, in the desert, the hills, along the Jordan river, and by the sea.
One of the spies, Caleb, got the attention of the people and proposed entering the land. He was sure they could overcome its inhabitants and gain possession of it. The rest of the spies, shocked by Caleb's assessment, responded by spreading disparaging reports about what they saw in the land. They claimed that the country was one which devoured settlers, and the people were giants, making the spies look as small as grasshoppers. The Israelite people were surprised by the conflicting reports they were receiving. Surprise, in many cases, can incite fear, and in this case, that is exactly what happened.
The community responded by breaking into loud cries that lasted through the night. They complained to Moses and Aaron saying it would have been better to die in Egypt, or while wandering the desert. They blamed God for putting them in this position, and for bringing them to this land. After all that God had done, providing for them, and performing miracles through Moses, these people…our ancestors…decided to head back to Egypt. Before they could make their move, Caleb, and another one of the spies, Joshua, got up in front of the Israelite people and rent their clothes to symbolize mourning the loss of what could have been. They exclaimed that the land was good, and that God would provide protection. As long as they did not rebel against God, they would have the support to overtake the land. They insisted that the Israelites should “have no fear,” and put their trust in God. But the people replied with threats of stoning the two men. Just as the people were about to become violent against their own, God appeared as a cloud before the people and spoke to Moses. God was infuriated with the Israelite people.
Now let's remember, in the book of Genesis, God creates and destroys humanity a few times, always trying to make perfect humans. In parshatNoach, God vows to never again destroy all living creatures. But throughout the Torah, we see stories of God becoming insecure about the imperfect creation of humanity and each time this insecurity arises, God suggests starting over. This story is no different. God responded to the Israelites bad behavior with more bad behavior, by threatening to strike them down and create a new and better nation.
Luckily, Moses was there to again offer a voice of reason to God. He reminded God of all the hard work that had been done to get the people to this point. Then Moses said, feeding into God’s ego, that the other nations would mock Adonai for being too powerless and failing at this task. He spoke of God’s kindness and ability to forgive transgression. Moses closed his speech to God with a prayer - that the people would be forgiven.
God responded with a compromise, that all those who were in the generation who left Egypt, and those over the age of twenty who had spoken out against God would not live to see the promised land. However, the generations which followed, those who were conceived and born along the journey would be allowed to enter. God also rewarded Caleb with praise and land for his leadership. Ultimately, the people listened to God and agreed to begin entry into the promised land.
So, like I said before, there is a lot of bad behavior going on in this story, and most of it is rooted in unclear communication, fear, and insecurity. When I say that surprised people behave badly, I am not referring to the kind of “surprise, I bought you a car for your birthday,” but more of the “surprise, the company is struggling financially and we can no longer employ you.”
When people are surprised by negative news, they often go into a fight-or-flight response. People who are entering an unknown, because they just lost their job, or because they are being told to “just trust God,” might feel a sense of fear that causes them to behave in ways that they would not describe as “typical behavior.” When fear occurs within a group like the Israelites in the desert, it can spread like wildfire, its damage can be irreversible. Had the spies taken the time to create a clear and agreed upon communication plan, maybe they could have avoided this entire episode.
Many of us have experienced surprises, likely in the past few months, which have sent our systems into overdrive outputting that fear response. Some have managed to work through these fears and used their extra energy in a positive way, but many have displayed what we could loosely call “bad behavior.” Myself included.
Each time I go out in public since the pandemic began, I have been surprised and afraid by others not wearing masks and invading my space. Just a few weeks ago, as I was returning home from one of these outings, completely dialed up from fear, I found myself in my alley fighting with a neighbor who left a car parked, blocking my way to get home. After it happened and I processed the situation I was ashamed of my lack of patience and understanding in that moment, but I understood that the interaction was totally driven by my fear. The next day, we saw each other on the sidewalk, apologized and had a nice conversation. I was lucky to experience such a positive outcome.
The outbreak of COVID-19, while predicted by scientists - came as a surprise to many of us. We were not warned, we were not prepared, and the fear this created caused the American people to respond with fight-or-flight. People fought over toilet paper and cleaning supplies. Some fought because they believed the quarantine was hinging on their freedoms. Some have fought to go to work, to go to pray, to go literally ANYWHERE. These responses are all pretty normal, but they definitely fall into the category of “bad behavior.”
Some of the bad behavior driven by fear in the past few weeks has been far more concerning than my spat with a neighbor or toilet paper on backorder. We have watched over the past several weeks, violence and intimidation by many police officers around the country, who were surprised by big crowds and feared their ability to keep things “under control,” Their fear in many cases led to non-lethal rounds and tear gas being launched into crowds, protestors pushed and thrown to the ground, ripped out of car’s and tased, handcuffed and detained.
This moment in history is begging for us to join our voices (if we haven't already) in this fight for justice. Many have come together to march alongside our black neighbors joining our voices with theirs to say that enough is enough. Some have donated to bail funds and movements like Black Lives Matter. We have listened to the stories of our black brothers and sisters as they have shared the constant state of fear that they are forced to live with in this country. These stories, while jarring, were not a surprise to us. We too have long been aware that racism is built into the framework of our society, and we have been complicit.
Now it is time for us to face our own insecurities about our part in racist structures. To look back at our lives and our actions and to ask ourselves how we might have perpetrated racism, and how we can learn to remove hurtful language and actions from our repertoire. It is up to us, not just to be non-racist, but to be anti-racist. It is up to us to call out injustice wherever we see it.
For the Israelites, it took Moses’s intervention to literally save the lives of our people from God’s destruction. Now it is on us to intervene, to save the lives of black people from our society's destruction.
And on that note - I would like to invite you all to join me tomorrow* to listen, learn, and take part in a conversation about how we as Jew’s can begin to do this hard work. We will focus on how Black Jew’s feel in our Jewish spaces, and homes, and how we can work to be a better, more loving, more welcoming, and more just community.
*The study session took place on Zoom with members of my student pulpit in Petoskey, MI.