Rabbi Safman's Weekly Message
Towards the end of this past school year each of the students at the Solomon Schechter Academy, my 8-year old son Yair among them, was presented with a large, sealed paper bag or box marked only with the child’s name. They were instructed not to open their parcels until they’d gotten home.
During the whole drive my son was a bundle of nerves: What could be in the package? Was it good news or bad? Would he like it? Had someone else gotten something better (or less good) than he? More than once on the fifteen minute drive him he requested that I pull over so that we could remove the bag from the rear of the car because the suspense was killing him, but I relentlessly drove onward.
Who amongst us faced with the chance to “fast forward” in time in order to know what the future held for us would pass up the opportunity? Particularly when posed with options that could lead to divergent outcomes, wouldn’t we all want to know with unerring certainty what each of the paths before us held in potential?
I personally would give my eye-teeth at the moment to be able to gaze into the future and know where my family and I might find ourselves a year from now as we move on from the life we have built in New London and where the congregation will go in its own path to self-definition. But alas, we are told that prophecy ended with the closing of the Biblical canon, and as this week’s Torah portion illustrates, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
In Parashat Shelakh Lekha the Israelites grow restless imagining the future that might lay before them as they seek to establish themselves in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). They decide to send a team of scouts before them to get a read on the opportunities and challenges ahead.
The men they select are among the most astute and respected leaders of their generation, but they, alas, also lack the power of prophecy. So, as they descend into the Land and behold its inhabitants, they view the conditions through the limited lens of their present circumstances and experience.
Former slaves, who have never mounted a campaign in their own defense or engaged in state-building, they cannot imagine themselves the equals of the challenge of laying claim to a land of their own. Instead, the scouts report to the masses, that the Israelites are but “grasshoppers” opposed by giants of superhuman strength.
Of course, when the time comes, a generation later, for the Israelites to indeed mount a campaign to retake Israel, they find that their adversaries, while formidable, are but mortal. The challenges that from a distant perspective had seemed insurmountable over time did give way to persistent effort.
It turns out what the Israelites needed, at the time that they sent out their advanced scouts, was an awareness that their perspectives – all of our perspectives or sense of our own abilities – are historically contingent. We see things based on the path that has taken us to the present moment, without regard to the additional skills and experience that we will have acquired by the time our imagined “future” ultimately materializes.
With this in mind, perhaps it is best that we don’t always have that crystal ball that tells us what challenges we will face at some later date, not because that future is so grim, but because we cannot yet comprehend – and thus draw reassurance from -- the resources we will then have to bring to bear on the day’s challenges.
Wishing everyone a Shabbat of inspiration and rejuvenation and for those leaving early for the Independence Day holiday, a safe and uncomplicated journey away and back.
-- Rabbi Rachel Safman