By Harry Eskin, June 25, 2022
This week’s parasha depicts a significant national calamity. When the time approaches for the Israelites to enter the land of Canaan, Moses sends twelve leaders of the people to scout the land and bring back a report. When they return, ten of the scouts say: Yes, the land does flow with milk and honey, but the inhabitants are big and powerful and we don’t stand a chance against them. Despite the protestations of Caleb and Joshua, the two dissenting scouts, that the land is attainable, the community gives up hope, weeping and lamenting: לוּ־מַ֙תְנוּ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם א֛וֹ בַּמִּדְבָּ֥ר הַזֶּ֖ה לוּ־מָֽתְנוּ — “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we might die in this wilderness.” As punishment, God sentences the Israelites to forty years of wandering in the desert, leaving the adult generations to die without reaching the Promised Land. The people’s lament becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: וּפִגְרֵיכֶ֖ם אַתֶּ֑ם יִפְּל֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֥ר הַזֶּֽה — “But your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness.” The irony is striking: in their rebelliousness, the members of the generation of the Exodus, who had so recently been so near to holiness, miraculous redemption and Divine revelation, so drastically decline in their spiritual standing that in accordance with their own words they are condemned to perish while wandering in the desert.
Our Sages point out that the scope of this national calamity was not limited to the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness. According to the midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah: וְאָמַר לָהֶם הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אַתֶּם בְּכִיתֶם בְּכִיָּה שֶׁל חִנָּם לְפָנַי, אֲנִי אֶקְבַּע לָכֶם בְּכִיָּה לְדוֹרוֹת — “The Holy Blessed One said to them, ‘You have wept for nothing in front of Me; I shall establish this night for you as one of weeping for generations.’” That night, the midrash specifies, was Tish‘a b’Av, which was decreed to be the date of the destruction of the Temple and the onset of exile from the Land of Israel — the land the scouts had rejected — in addition to numerous other devastations throughout history traditionally understood to have fallen on that day.
Today, in this country, we find ourselves experiencing a prolonged succession of national calamities, one on top of another. Massacres of innocent people, of children, while legally the stage is set for vast expansion in the proliferation of weapons of mass murder; assaults on the civil rights, liberties and basic humanity of many of our most vulnerable: immigrants, transgender people, gay people, people policed by law enforcement and people who are incarcerated; measures that respond to the crisis of homelessness not by helping to house people or provide them with basic resources but by punishing people for being poor in public; and, most recently, the denial of reproductive autonomy, namely the right to have an abortion, which, if carried out, will result in an increase in hardship, suffering and death among pregnant people — a burden that will fall particularly hard on the poor and on communities of color.
More and more, it seems like the country around us resembles סְדֹם — Sodom, whose sin the Sages understand to have been cruelty to the needy and the vulnerable. This sentiment is not far removed from another midrash on this week’s parasha, describing God’s reaction to the people scorning God’s Promised Land: אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֲנִי הָיִיתִי סָבוּר שֶׁאַתֶּם נַעֲשִׂין כָּאָבוֹת: כַּעֲנָבִים בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְלֹא הָיִיתִי סָבוּר שֶׁאַתֶּם נַעֲשִׂין כִּסְדוֹם — “The Holy Blessed one said, ‘I had thought that you [the Israelites] would become like [your] ancestors [who are described in the book of Hosea] “as grapes in the desert”; I did not think that you would become like Sodom.’”
At a time like this, the plight of the generation of the Exodus can feel somewhat familiar. Many of us here have more or less recent memories of bearing witness, in years and decades past, to some of the greatest glories in our country’s history: to the long-overdue and hard-won expansion and codification of civil rights for marginalized communities, to the attainment of reproductive rights, to the moments when our country came closest to fully living up to its stated values of liberty and justice for all. And it is almost unbearably painful for those among us who witnessed these victories, and those among us who fought and sacrificed to achieve them, to see them broken and undone, or dangerously close to the verge of it. Losing or coming close to losing things so foundationally important to us, facing this magnitude of harm, confusion and grief, can feel like exile, like being cast off to wander or perish in a wilderness.
But as hopeless as this situation might seem, it is of paramount importance not to give up. We should not follow the example of the Israelites in this parasha, who responded to a discouraging report by crying out that death would be preferable. Rather, we ought to follow the example of Caleb and Joshua, who stood up to the majority despite the risk, and were rewarded with a share in the Promised Land after forty long years. We ought to follow the example of Moses, who, when God proposed to wipe out the Jewish people and make a new, bigger and better nation for Moses, said no, pleading with God to use God’s Attribute of Mercy and spare the people. Moses understood that his people, in spite of its rebelliousness and its fall from grace, was nonetheless God’s people and still worth saving. The generation of the Exodus might have been denied entry to the Promised Land due to their actions, but their children were still worthy of it. And we, too, must stand up for each other and do what God commands us to do in the way we treat our neighbors, in the way we care for the most vulnerable members of our communities, in the way we must build a society on justice and compassion, no matter how high the odds are against our succeeding in doing so. It is appropriate to take time to grieve, as Caleb and Joshua rent their garments, but if we give up altogether, we doom ourselves to die in the wilderness, forfeiting the inheritance that was promised us.
This is why the parasha that begins with the calamity of the scouts ends with the commandment of tzitzit, which we recite daily. וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כׇּל־מִצְוֺ֣ת ה’ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם — “and it shall be your fringe, and you shall look at it and remember all of God’s commandments and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and your eyes that you lust after.” וְלֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ — so that you do not follow, or search — a clear echo of the scouts at the beginning of the parasha who went לָת֖וּר — to scout the land of Canaan and were led astray by their fear and doubt. It is vital to continue defending our values and to not give in to the prevailing forces around us and even within us that act contrary to them. And in order to help us stay on this path, God gives us this commandment as something we can always look at, something to remind us constantly of who we are and who God wants us to be. לְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכְּר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֶת־כׇּל־מִצְוֺתָ֑י וִהְיִיתֶ֥ם קְדֹשִׁ֖ים לֵאלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם — “in order that you may remember, and observe all of My commandments, and be holy to your God.” Does our destiny lie in exile in the wilderness, or in the Promised Land? Will we live up to the full potential of our peoplehood, or will we acquiesce to the policies of Sodom? It is our choice to make. The task ahead of us, to stand up for righteousness and justice in the face of calamity and adversity, is daunting, but it is a necessary task, and a sacred one. Remember.