Parashat Shelach Lecha 5777

Rabbi Lea Mühlstein, 16 June 2017

The world is a complicated place. Far from living in the biblical Gan Eden, we don’t even have to look beyond the borders of our own country to see challenge looming. So it is indeed easy and understandable to see the glass half-empty. Yet, I think this week’s Torah portion has an important lesson to teach us about seeing the glass half-full – despite it all.

In Parashat Sh’lach L’cha, we read about twelve scouts who are sent by Moses into the Promised Land. Travelling in a group, they all see and experience the same things, yet two of them return with an account that is entirely different from that of the other ten. Only Joshua and Caleb return enchanted by the Promised Land, the other ten emissaries start their report with a positive statement about the land overflowing with milk and honey; but they quickly switch to the negatively coloured description of fortified cities and powerful people (Numbers 13:27-29). The Rabbis describe this as the way slanderers speak: “They begin with flattering and end with evil” (BT Sotah 35a).

In more modern terms, we might interpret the difference in reporting by looking at the different attitudes of pessimists and optimists. The pessimist observes a situation, generalises about the bad aspects, and interprets them as a permanent and constant feature. In contrast, the optimist observes the same situation and sees the bad aspects, but particularises them and interprets them as a temporary obstacle that can be overcome.

In his book The Courage to Create (1975), Rollo May writes, “We are called upon to do something new, to confront a no-man’s-land, to push into a forest where there are no well-worn paths and from which no one has returned to guide us. This is what existentialists call the anxiety of nothingness. … To live into the future means to leap into the unknown, and this requires a degree of courage for which there is no immediate precedent and which few people realise.

Ten of the twelve scouts sent by Moses were so pessimistic that they lacked the courage to leap into the unknown and as a result the Israelites are stuck wandering in the wilderness rather than creating something new.

But luckily for us, Liberal Judaism has truly internalised the lessons of our Torah portion. Our movement is neither afraid of creating new things nor of leaping into the unknown. We are energised by optimism!

This was so clearly exhibited at last Sunday’s LJ Day of Celebration, which we were privileged to host at NPLS. The excitement of 250 Liberal Jews from across our movement (including attendees from our member congregation in Denmark) was palpable in the air. It truly was a day of celebration of what it means to be a Liberal Jew.

And, of course, the organisers couldn’t have chosen a more suitable subject, posing the question: Is Liberal Judaism political Judaism? More than thirty talented presenters tackled various aspects raised by the question, without shying away from addressing the difficult realities we face as Liberal Jews today – including a focus on faith and politics in the UK and Israel, antisemitism, the challenges of an aging society, and addressing the global refugee crisis. And even though some pessimistic views were discussed, I am confident that the attendees were able to leave the Day of Celebration feeling confident and optimistic about our future and especially the future of Liberal Judaism. From our Torah portion we learn that it is this optimism, which will ensure that Liberal Judaism will continue to be a creative movement for many years to come.
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