Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Sh’lach L’cha

A colleague recently reminded me of a text from Pirke Avot (3:7). "One who walks along a road and studies, and interrupts his studying to say, "How beautiful is this tree!", "How beautiful is this ploughed field!"—the Torah regards it as if he had forfeited his life." When I first learned this text, I hated it. It made no sense that one who appreciated the blessings of nature should be punished. I then thought about the subtlety of the text. Reading or studying the unfolding continuous story of creation and community building involves appreciating the beauty around us. The act of study includes hearing the cries of those in need and the cheers of those in celebration. The key word in the text is “Interrupt.” One who sees the beauty of nature as being separate from the ongoing study and appreciation of the blessings and miracles that abound around us … has blasphemed.
In studying this text, I had to remind myself that truth is found in the subtleties of any situation. We all see and hear the same messages, and yet, we internalize very different messages … each of us. We really do not pay attention to that which we observe. We react to stimulus but often do not think much before doing so, and even less afterwards. We have automatic responses that are often the depth of the attention given to any situation. How often do we pass by people and say, “Hello! How are you!” not caring to hear the answer? When confronted later, we have all sorts of excuses for not having listened … the excuses that only somehow seem to dig a deeper hole.
Welcome to this week’s Torah portion. This story is a classic case of what happens when we fail to pay attention the first time. Israel finds itself on the border of the “Promised Land: The Land of Milk and Honey!” Before entering the land, Moses wanted to know what was ahead. He assembled the princes from each of the twelve tribes and bade them to scout the land and report back. God had already told Moses to go on in, but not knowing what lay ahead, Moses wanted to ensure proper entry into the land. The scouts went in and got scared (or at least 10 of the 12 did). They found fruit larger and more luscious than any they had seen in the fleshpots of Egypt. While they saw no people, they assumed that giants must live there for fruit to be so big.
Afraid of the unknown, they returned imploring Moses to turn back. The people sided with the 10 who were afraid, and ignored Moses, Joshua, and Caleb who had faith to move forward. The truth? The people who lived their lives as slaves were not ready to inherit the blessings of this fruitful land. They were not bad people; they were just not ready. Forcing them in might have been painful and foreboding. God recognized that these folks were not yet ready and made them wait a generation before coming back. They were not deprived of their family, their community, or of the manna from heaven. They were to live out their days in the only world in which they could be free: the no frills wilderness.
Immediately after making this decision, God assured the people that they would return, and started preparing them with instructions of what life in the land would be like in the future. There was no punishment doled out there. I remember my Bar Mitzvah tutor got me Jewish books. It was “a waste of a gift” and they immediately found great use to help keep my stereo speakers off the ground. Many years later, after wandering through the wilderness putting an angry childhood behind me, I re-found those books. What I was not able to appreciate at 13, proved to be mind and attitude altering at 30. This week’s story simply reminds us that sometimes we are not yet ready to appreciate gifts; this does not mean that we are bad people, we just need more experience, more time for reflection and growth, more time to chase away the demons that hold us back from celebration.
Had Israel accepted this truth and understand that they were still to be cared for, the story would allow us to live happily ever after. They did not. Their reaction was knee jerk and rooted in a lack of faith and also in insecurity.  They stormed the borders to take Canaan by force and suffered huge defeats at the hands of a people that they otherwise would not have even confronted. The casualties were horrific, and rather than live out full lives with family and friends, in the wilderness, they perished in their own arrogance.
This is certainly a different take than most people give to this portion, but I struggle to see it otherwise. Not getting the prize up front is not a punishment. We hold heirlooms until children are able to appreciate them. We make sure that accidentally trashing it or losing it out of a youthful lack of concern for its valued status does not happen. This was the issue in this story. The gift was not taken from us; we were just not ready to appreciate it. This was all part of our organic life study.
Our response was the interruption. Asserting that we could change the rules of nature and force our will upon even God; this was the cause for Israel’s anguish. They lifted their eyes not to see living examples of the subject of their study, They lifted their eyes to prove God wrong. Symbolically speaking, this text makes it clear that the blessing of appreciation comes organically and not artificially.  This is the problem with so many interpersonal relationships. We are all guilty. We hear and react, we don’t hear and process what we hear as we do all other information. As a result, we live in conflict with each other; often for no other reason than that we fail to take a step back to process each other as part of our ongoing relationships. This is not a behavioral anomaly. It is, unfortunately the major obstacle that keeps us from living with each other in peace. Not every conversation is to be understood in the moment. Sometimes we are not prepared to appropriately hear what someone who deeply cares tells us … yet.
If we give it time, we all can grow. Where we choose to rush into the reaction we all fail in caring for the world. Shabbat Shalom.