In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach, Moshe sends twelve scouts to check out the Land of Promise. Ten of them return terrified. The grapes are so big they require two men and a carrying frame. The people are giants. “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:33) Caleb and Joshua promise that the land flows with milk and honey. But the other ten are afraid. The people revolt, crying out, “If only we had died in Egypt!”
God decides that the generation who knew slavery will not enter the Land of Promise. Their spirits are too crushed by hardship. Their self-doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The European colonists who came to this place knew Torah’s stories, of course. George Washington alluded to America as a Land of Promise in 1785. (And you don’t have to travel far around here to find a Canaan, or a Goshen, or a Salem – all Biblical place-names.)
For the many tribes and nations who originally inhabited this land, the arrival of Europeans was catastrophic because of foreign germs, foreign worldviews, and policies like the Indian Removal Act. (Perhaps this is a good time to mention that our beloved synagogue is built on Mohican land — and that the Mohican people are still around!)
Europeans coming to these shores was terrible news for Native Americans. We can hold that truth alongside the truth that many of our forebears emigrated to this nation seeking dignity and equality denied to Jews elsewhere.
My mother was one of them. She told me endlessly how fortunate she felt to have found refuge here. America was supposed to be a nation of equality, where it would be safe to be Jewish, where we could strive to better ourselves and our communities alongside everyone else.
And yet we know that America’s promise of liberty and justice for all wasn’t originally “for all” — only for straight white property-owning men. The week now ending held Juneteenth, a reminder of how long it took for the promise of freedom to reach enslaved Black people in Texas. (Arguably we’re still working on fulfilling the promise of justice.) The enslaved were brought here by force. But even our forebears who came here willingly, came in search of a promise that is not yet complete.
Right now the promise of equal rights and justice may feel further-away than many of us have known it to be. The January 6th hearings reawaken the horror of watching an angry mob storm the United States Capitol… and now we live with the added horror of knowing that a large segment of the country doesn’t believe that the insurrection was real, or that it was wrong.
The same voices denying the facts of the presidential election and subsequent insurrection are also denying gender-affirming health care to trans kids. Four states have banned that care, and fifteen others are considering following suit. Twenty-six states will ban abortion now that Roe has fallen — some have already done so. And don’t even get me started on the news out of my state of origin this week.
None of this is consonant with Jewish teaching or practice. Rabbis and laypeople in every branch of Judaism (from Reform to Orthodox) support gender-affirming care, and teach that everyone across the spectrum of gender and orientation is made in the image of God. Judaism has also long held that life begins at first breath, not at the first merging of two cells.
But the Supreme Court has struck down Roe… and is also poised to decide on whether or not to gut the federal government’s ability to mitigate climate change. Given what we know about the current makeup of the Court, that outcome isn’t looking good either. I empathize with the scouts who looked at the challenges ahead and felt like grasshoppers.
So right on time, here come the scouts to remind us that despair is not a good option. Giving in to despair means giving up on hope. Last Rosh Hashanah I offered a teaching from Mariame Kaba who reminds us that hope is a discipline. Hope’s not a feeling, it’s a practice. It asks us to work. I didn’t realize how resonant that teaching would be this year — or how necessary.
Earlier this morning we prayed these words from Michael Walzer:
This moment may feel like wilderness. And it’s easy to look at the forces arrayed against the environment, against the principles of human dignity and justice, against queer people and trans people, against Black and Indigenous people and people of color, against immigrants and refugees, against anyone with a uterus, against us as Jews, and feel like those forces are giants and we are grasshoppers.
But look again closely at that verse in this week’s Torah portion. “We looked like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes.” We saw ourselves as tiny, puny, unable to impact the world around us — and so we became that way. But we can choose to see ourselves differently.
We might not get all the way “there.” But that doesn’t absolve us from trying. My b-mitzvah students may remember that famous line from Pirkei Avot, “It is not incumbent on us to complete the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.” I think of the Land of Promise as a direction, not a destination. Like moshiachtzeit, the messianic age.
The work is standing up for those more vulnerable than we — in Torah’s language, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. Standing up for immmigrants and refugees. For trans kids at risk of losing health care, and for their parents. For everyone with a uterus in states where forced birth is becoming law. For Black neighborhoods at higher risk of flooding, and people in drought-stricken areas at higher risk of fire. For Mother Earth herself — so fragile and full of life.
Rev. Martin Luther King taught that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. I think we know now that the arc of the moral universe only bends toward justice if we push it and pull it and bend it with our own hands and hearts. It can bend toward justice; it has to bend toward justice. And it’s aleinu — it’s on us — to make that real. We need to see ourselves not as grasshoppers, but as a community that stands up for those who need us most.
This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires on Shabbat morning (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)