Here’s a dilemma which I think a lot of modern liberal Jews have to face whenever we go to the Torah looking for wisdom: On the one hand, we find these beautiful, life-changing values of community, justice and faith in God that really speak to us on a fundamental level. On the other hand, we find these values situated within the framework of an ancient culture whose fundamental assumptions are often radically different from our own. In the best of times this can be challenging as we work to understand just what the text is saying in its own context, and what it could mean in our own. But sometimes it can be profoundly alienating, especially when those cultural assumptions run so profoundly counter to our own values that the message gets completely lost in translations.
I think most of us have some of these “sticking points” – themes or ideas in the Torah that profoundly unsettle us. They’re a natural consequence of living our lives in more than one civilization, or as philosopher Jeffrey Stout would put it, speaking more than one “moral language” fluently. Whenever we encounter one of these sticking points, it forces us to stop and wrestle mightily with the text. In this struggle we sometimes come out on top, emerging with some fresh insight to lead us on our way. Sometimes, however, it is all too much for us and we are forced to come to terms with the fact that even in our most sacred texts there are elements which simply defy our efforts to derive meaning from them.
I’m sure everyone’s sticking points are different, but for me one of the major ones comes up at the beginning of Parashat Shelach-Lecha, in which Moses sends out twelve spies to scout out the land and its people. There is certainly a lot to be learned from this story – lessons about courage, loyalty and the importance of not selling ourselves short. One of my favorite takes on the story, to be found in Midrash Rabah, imagines the spies in dialogue with God:
“And we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,” the spies say, recalling the gigantic stature of the inhabitants of the land. The Holy Blessed One said: [This point] I would concede to you, except that you then said, “And so we appeared to them!” Do you claim to know how I made you look in their sight? Who can say that I didn’t make you appear as angels to them? (Num. Rabah 16:11)
There is certainly much that is beautiful and true that we can learn from this teaching, but every time I come to read this passage I stumble over a single, unavoidable fact that often tends to be glossed over – that the fundamental purpose of the mission being carried out by Joshua and Caleb and the ten other men is to spy out the land in preparation for invading it and slaughtering its inhabitants, men, women and children.
This legacy of violence and ethnic conflict is often celebrated or simply taken for granted in the tradition, at least as long as it’s the Israelites who are inflicting the violence. As someone who grew up in a world haunted by the specter of ethnic violence – in Bosnia, in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Israel/Palestine and my own home, the United States – this aspect of the Torah’s worldview is a major sticking point for me, a stumbling block I just keep tripping over each time I return to the text.
While I was thinking about this, I happened to come across a teaching in Me’Or Einaim, a Torah commentary by Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl. In his discussion of this parsha, the Chernobyler Rebbe addresses the complicated relationship between knowledge and choice. God, whose knowledge of the universe is perfect and incontrovertible, is aware from before the beginning of creation what every decision and its outcome will be. And yet, as humans, we have the freedom to decide what to do and to choose between right and wrong. How can this be?
Drawing upon the tradition of Lurianic mysticism, the Rebbe tells a story of how before the creation of this world God created many worlds but destroyed them all, finding each one in turn to be unsatisfactory. But the shards of those rejected worlds didn’t simply vanish. They remained, mixed together with the stuff of this world. Thus, our world and everything in it is a mixture of good and evil, and our task as humans is to choose the good, sifting through the discarded shards of might-have-beens to find the sparks of divine light concealed within.
The sin of the spies, explains the Rebbe, was not that they observed something negative about the land God had promised to the Israelites. It was that , seeing the bad things mixed in with the good, they essentially washed their hands of the whole affair, rejecting it entirely, and forgetting that our critical task as Jews and as human beings is to sift through the bad in order to find the good.
Reading this, I found myself asking: If this is so for the ten spies, then why not also for me, the reader? Perhaps all these stumbling blocks and sticking points are there for a reason – because our task, as readers as in life, is to search through the shards of a broken world in search of meaning.