Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on 26th Sivan 5775, 13th June 2015
Today’s parsha is both a continuation of a theme that started in last week’s parsha and a pivotal point which changes the whole direction of the story. At the end of last week’s parsha we read that the people, especially the riffraff, complained about their meager food (the manna) and the sand and the miserable living conditions. They wanted back to Egypt, the land flowing with onions and slavery. Then the parsha ended with Aharon and Miriam complaining out loud that Moshe wasn’t so high and mighty. Didn’t God speak to them as well? And Miriam received her punishment immediately, leprosy.
This week the complaints continue but from an unexpected source. Moshe has sent 12 representatives, one from each tribe, each of them a leader, to scout the land of Canaan and report back what they saw. And the news they bring is of course ambiguous. The good news – the land is flowing and the fruits are luscious and large. But the bad news is that the people are too big, the cities too strong, the chances of defeating them nil.
Except, of course, for Kalev and Yehoshua, who say, God told us to go, so go we will and we will prevail. But as expected, people are more swayed by bad news than by good news and they shuffle off to cry in their tents.
The result is that God wants to snuff them out in the desert (not the first time this has been mentioned) and again Moshe saves their hides. But they will pay. They will wander the desert for 40 years, one year for each day the scouts spent in the country, and all of them will die off except for Kalev and Yehoshua.
What in essence was the big sin committed by the scouts? And they were scouts, not spies. They were sent to observe and report. Even their report about the strength of the cities and the size of the inhabitants would have been acceptable and perhaps even an intimation that they might have difficulty fighting them (if not for God’s help). But their really big mistake appears in one sentence: We saw ourselves as grasshoppers in their eyes, and that’s how they saw us too.
What’s the problem here? The problem is these leaders of the people, princes, top ranking officials – were more worried about how they looked than about what God had told them. They felt small, and they assumed the Canaanites also perceived them as grasshoppers. Some midrashim say that actually the Israelites were as large as the Canaanites They just did not have any self-respect or self-confidence.
This is similar to the story in the Book of Samuel where Shmuel berates Saul who has not killed Agag king of Amalek and has not slaughtered all the sheep and cattle. “I listened to the people instead of God,” he says. And Shmuel says, Even if you are small in your own eyes, you ARE the king of Israel. Respect your status! Be a leader! The same applies here. You are leaders, not bugs.
This echoed in my head when I sinned and read the morning newspaper with my cornflakes. It depresses me. I read that our president Ruby Rivlin, gave what he called a “wakeup call,” at the Herzlia convention in which he warned that how we perceive ourselves is not or will not be true for much longer. Here are the statistics. In 1990, 68% of the children in elementary school were in the mamlachti or mamlachti-dati system, 23% in the Arab schools and 9% in the haredi schools.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2018 (3 years from now), first graders in the state and state religious schools will account for only 53% of the children (not 68%). Arabs will account for 25% (close to the 23%) and the haredi children will account for 22% of first graders (instead of 9%). In other words, the president summed up, Arab and Haredi children will account for 47% of all the children in first grade. And their numbers will grow.
No, I am not Binyamin Netanyahu warning that the Arabs and haredim and storming the schools. What these numbers mean, as the president pointed out, is that almost half of the children starting school will belong to populations that do not sing Hatikva, do not swell with pride at the accomplishments of our state and don’t have any love for Zionism.
The president’s message is clear. We have to realize that our state is not what Herzl envisioned or what our founding fathers and mothers saw when they set down the priorities. We, meaning the Knesset and the parties and the people who vote for these parties, we all have to work to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to fit in and succeed, that all of them are accepted and that all of them are encouraged to do so, not in words, but in actions. More’s the pity – and the irony – that the president himself chose to discriminate against the conservative movement, later in the week.
But there’s another message that has to be internalized, and this too came from an article that killed my appetite for breakfast. Writing about kashrut in the Israeli army, an op-ed writer slammed anyone who insists on keeping kosher, if he does not live a totally religious lifestyle. The venom that dripped from the article nearly curdled the milk in my bowl. And he was not attacking the haredim but all those who live traditional lives, picking and choosing the mitzvoth they want to observe. Why kashrut, he asks. It is so primitive and unnecessary. And he is so intolerant.
Like the scouts looking at the land and complaining about what they saw, and like the riffraff and Aharon and Miriam and the people at large complaining about everything – we too are becoming more intolerant (including our president, with all his fine words), more aggressive, more hurtful to others. And it’s not only the summer heat that’s bringing it out.
These are the true enemies that threaten to defeat us, as they did in first and second temple days. Let us hope that we learn some tolerance and some humility – that what we (any group) think and do is not the only way to think and do, or we risk stepping too close to the precipice that we will encounter in the story of Korach next week. Let’s hope we don’t.