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06/19/2020 11:40:18 AM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

Prove The Angels Wrong!

06/19/2020 11:47:20 AM

Rabbi Barry Gelman

I write these remarks today on  Juneteenth - an important and historic day in Texas and in the shadow of the tragic events that have occurred recently in the United States. 

We are at a critical moment here in the United States. Many people are hoping that terribly tragic events in the last few weeks will lead to a more equitable and safe society for all. I pray that that is true. 

At moments like these, it is critical to take stock and consider how to move forward. 

I am sure that many of us feel a sense of purpose, but perhaps feel that the task is too great.  

To that  I would remind us of what our tradition has to say:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה

It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it

There is work to be done, and we must find our place in it. 

We also may be feeling that we do not have the tools to make a difference; that our specific reality puts us in a disadvantaged position.  To that, I offer the following remarks framed in the context of an interesting question raised about Parshat Shelach.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson points out that the central and most important idea of each weekly portion is embedded in its name. As such, the main idea of our Parsha (Shlach) can be found in the name of the Parsha - Shlach - send, as in send the Meraglim (scouts) to check out the land of Israel.

But, Rabbi Schneerson notes, that this is not so simple. First he reminds us that the story of the Meraglim is just that, a story. Additionally, the story does not include any Mitzvot! Furthermore, he points out that after the story of the Meraglim is concluded, the Parsha does include a number of Mitzvot. In fact, the end of the Prsha includes the commandment of Tzizit which is supposed to remind us of all of the Mitzvot. 

וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְות יְהוָ֔ה וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָתֻ֜רוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם׃

That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the LORD and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. (Num. 15:39)

So, Rabbi Schneerson asks: “How is it possible that the episode of “Shlach” (sending the scouts), which is only a story, is considered more important than the Mitzvot in the Parsha, including the Mitzvah of Tzizit, a Mitzvah that encompasses all of the other Mitzvot. Furthermore, how do we explain that the central idea of the Parsha is embedded in the word “Shlach”.

In order to answer these questions, Rabbi Schneerson reimagines the meaning of the entire story, starting with a unique understanding of the sin of the Meraglim. 

At first glance it is hard to understand exactly what they did wrong. 

The answer may lie in this sentence.(Num. 13:28)

אֶ֚פֶס כִּֽי־עַ֣ז הָעָ֔ם הַיֹּשֵׁ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְהֶֽעָרִ֗ים בְּצֻר֤וֹת גְּדֹלֹת֙ מְאֹ֔ד וְגַם־יְלִדֵ֥י הָֽעֲנָ֖ק רָאִ֥ינוּ שָֽׁם׃

However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there.

Their mistake was in misunderstanding their mission. They were sent to discover what was the best way to conquer the land and from where they should launch the attack.  A careful reading of the mission text bears this out. (Num. 13: 18-19)

וּרְאִיתֶ֥ם אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ מַה־הִ֑וא וְאֶת־הָעָם֙ הַיֹּשֵׁ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ הֶחָזָ֥ק הוּא֙ הֲרָפֶ֔ה הַמְעַ֥ט ה֖וּא אִם־רָֽב׃

and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?

וּמָ֣ה הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־הוּא֙ יֹשֵׁ֣ב בָּ֔הּ הֲטוֹבָ֥ה הִ֖וא אִם־רָעָ֑ה וּמָ֣ה הֶֽעָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁר־הוּא֙ יוֹשֵׁ֣ב בָּהֵ֔נָּה הַבְּמַֽחֲנִ֖ים אִ֥ם בְּמִבְצָרִֽים׃

Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified?

By declaring that the land was unconquerable, the Meraglim made not just a local mistake, but uncovered a fatal flaw in their understanding of how God operates.  By insisting that the Land of Israel could not be taken, they were also saying that God asks His people to do the impossible. (See Bamidbar Rabbah 12:3)

This, explains, Rabbi Schneerson, is the main idea that we learn from the word Shlach - the name of our parsha. Before entering the Land of Israel, the step that will trigger the application of the full gamut of Mitzvot, Bnei Yisrael had to internalize that whatever it is that God asks of them, they could do. 

The negative report of the scouts highlighted to God that Bnei Yisrael did not believe that. This was their sin and this is why God got angry. 

While Rabbi Schneerson does not use the word shelichut - agency, in this regard, the mistake of the meraglim can be understood in this light. 

An idea popularized by Rabbi Soloveitchik is helpful here. Rabbi Soloveitchik insists that each and everyone of us is the agent of God, and as such, have the capacity to fulfill our mission. 

Rabbi Soloveitchik turns to a very evocative statement in the Talmud to make his point. 

ואינו יוצא משם עד שמשביעין 

And a fetus does not leave the womb until the angels administer an oath to it…

ומה היא השבועה שמשביעין אותו תהי צדיק ואל תהי רשע ואפילו כל העולם כולו אומרים לך צדיק אתה היה בעיניך כרשע והוי יודע שהקב"ה טהור ומשרתיו טהורים ונשמה שנתן בך טהורה היא אם אתה משמרה בטהרה מוטב ואם לאו הריני נוטלה ממך

And what is the oath that the angels administer to the fetus? Be righteous and do not be wicked. And even if the entire world says to you: You are righteous, consider yourself wicked. And know that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is pure, and His ministers are pure, and the soul that He gave you is pure. If you preserve it in a state of purity, all is well, but if you do not keep it pure, I, the angel, shall take it from you.

Rabbi Solovietchik teaches that vows are often used to solidify the relationship between the agent and the master. 

But Rabbi Soloveitchik takes it one step further, and this is the point that speaks to us at this moment. 

“The fact that someone was born at a specific time, during a certain epoch and in a particular place...can only be understood if one accepts the notion of agency. Providence knows how an individual with their weaknesses and abilities can fulfill their mission. The creator of the world works within the framework that states that it is impossible to task an agent with a mission that is beyond their ability...Such a relationship is empty of all meaning...Therefore every person was created at a specific time and place to allow them to carry out their shelichit (mission).” (Yimei Zikaron. Pg. 11)

This remarkable passage challenges us to live an exceptional life - to consider the timing of our life to be so specifically and perfectly timed by God. 

When I reread it this week, I was stunned. This paragraph demands that we realize that the fact that we find ourselves in this moment in time, is an indication that we have something to contribute. It is within our grasp to make a difference.

We are here because it is meant to be - it was ordained by God. We must believe that we have the tools to be successful. 

It is interesting that the word Malach (angel) and Shaliach (agent) are sometimes used interchangeably in the Torah. Sometimes human agents are referred to as Malachim and sometimes as as Shlichim.  The only difference between a human agent and an angel is that a human being has free choice, while an angel does not.

Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch made the following very provocative statement. “God is the greatest believer, as it was only on the strength of faith that enabled Him to create the world.” ( Mesilot Bilvavam pg. 7).

He goes on to explain that only God, the ultimate example of a being with free will, could trust human beings and their ability to express free will. 

God is the most trusting of all. So, to say there is “nothing I can do”, is to betray  that trust and to deny our Shelichut.

We have what to offer, we just have to exercise our free will.

Before thinking about what we can do, here is what we mustn't do. We must not get defensive. It is hard for some to hear about “white privilege” and “systemic racism”. Maybe those terms feel accusatory. Many, and rightfully so, feel that they are not responsible for the inequities in the current reality. 

On the other hand, there is a community in pain, and community in need of allies. As human beings, we owe them our best, even if it means engaging with ideas that challenge us and are hard for us to hear. 

Here is what we can do.

Educate ourselves on issues of race in the United States. This Tues. UOS will host a program with Rev. Harvey Clemons Jr. , Pastor of the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church.  He and I will share how our faith traditions speak to us on matters of faith. We will hear from members of his church about their experiences in racism . This is an important step  - to put a real, relatable human face to race issue in the United States. 

But, really, we must educate ourselves. (hereherehere, and here (I am reading this book now and while not a book on racism, it provides powerful reasons why Jews must work to create a just community. I highly recommend it.) are a few good places to start. While you may not agree with all of the points made, there is much to be gleaned from these resources )

We also must build coalitions with people of color. I hope that our program with Rev. Clemons will lead to such an outcome and help us find a meaningful way to work towards racial justice. I will also work with Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston in this regard. 

I will close with this powerful Midrash:(Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38b)

When the Holy One, blessed be He, came to create man, He created a group of ministering angels and asked them, “Do you agree that we should make man in our image?”

They replied, “Sovereign of the Universe, what will be his deeds?”

God showed them the history of mankind.

The angels replied, “What is man that You are mindful of him?” [Let man not be created].

God destroyed the angels.

He created a second group, and asked them the same question, and they gave the same answer.

God destroyed them.

He created a third group of angels, and they replied, “Sovereign of the Universe, the first and second group of angels told You not to create man, and it did not avail them. You did not listen. What then can we say but this: The universe is Yours. Do with it as You wish.”

And God created man.

But when it came to the generation of the Flood, and then to the generation of those who built the Tower of Babel, the angels said to God, “Were not the first angels right? See how great is the corruption of mankind.”

And God replied (Isaiah 46:4), “Even to old age I will not change, and even to grey hair, I will still be patient.” [Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38b]

This midrash is both terrifying and inspiring. It questions humanities’ ability to meet the standards set by God, and yet, at the same time, confirms God’s faith in us. 

I do not believe that I have ever felt a moment where I feel that society is being called by God to prove him right more than right now. 

Let’s do it!

Shabbat Shalom.

Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781