Calling on past generations to see us through frightening times


By Rabbi Rachel Hersh

This week’s Torah portion is Shlach Lecha, Numbers 13:1 – 15:41.

“Send scouts for yourself . . .” (Numbers 13:2).

We encounter these innocent-sounding words and the arrival of a crisis in the biblical narrative. A painful, permanent rupture is about to take place between the children of Israel and God, and it begins with this simple affirmation of the natural human impulse to want reassurance. And how much more so in a season of instability.

Much has been said about this first generation of redeemed Hebrew slaves, about their inability to trust God, about their constant longing for their Egyptian “home,” since that was a known quantity, even if an oppressive one.

In the famous story of the scouts in this week’s parshah, that inability to have faith in the promise of the future causes damage in a way that turns their complaints into a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, they will wander and suffer for 40 years. Only their children will be allowed to venture forth into the promised land.

And what of the scouts themselves? As we know, all but two report that while the land is a good one, it is also inhabited by enemies and giants. Better, say most of the scouts, to hold off entering the land, even in spite of God’s commanding promise. Caleb and Joshua step forward with a different response, attempting to cajole the community with their larger vision of what is possible.

The text suggests that Joshua’s courage comes, at least in part, from Moses’ faith in him, in the pronouncement of his new name, no longer Hoshea, but now Yehoshua, bringing God more explicitly into his life by adding a syllable to his name.

But where does Caleb’s courage come from? In answer, a midrash finds its cue in Numbers 13:22: “And they ascended in the Negev and he came to Hebron.”

Note that the first verb is in the plural and the second in the singular. And why did Caleb come to Hebron? To visit the Cave of Machpelah, where the first family are buried. The midrash places a prayer in Caleb’s mouth: “My fathers, plead mercy for me, that I be protected from the counsel [the way of thinking, the fears] of the spies.”

He goes to the graves of the ancestors to pray for the faith to trust in the promised future and not surrender to the destructive fears that claim the vision of the other scouts.

This midrash is famous because it places one of our biblical heroes in a moment many of us have experienced in our own lives, a longing for the strength and wisdom of past generations to see us through challenging times and to give us the courage to envision a good future.

In another midrash, Abraham, chasing a baby goat in order to make a stew for the angelic visitors, runs after the kid into the Cave of Machpelah, discovering it to be the burial place of Adam and Eve. These midrashim call to us. With such an uncertain future before us, we also call on the strength of our ancestors to guide us forward.

And whose memory might we call up in our own time in search of this strength and vision for ourselves and our country? Perhaps Abraham Lincoln, who tackled the enormous problem and urgent need to dismantle official slavery? The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who also died in pursuit of a better America, freed from its racist core? Certainly both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, for the courage to fight for American values on the battlefield, to lead our country out of its darkest decade and for the commitment to basic human rights in the world.

Rabbi Hazzan Rachel Hersh serves Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda.

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