Empathy for the Outsider

This week’s Torah portion relates the story of the 12 scouts who are sent by Moses on a reconnaissance mission to determine if the land of Israel that God has promised they will inhabit is indeed all that it has been described to be.  In his orders to the scouts, he tells them:

“Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of a country it is.  Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?  Is the country in which they dwell good or bad?  Are the towns they live in open or fortified?  Is the soil rich or poor?  Is it wooded or not?  And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.”  (Numbers 13:17-20)

 While the premise of the story seems to be a scouting mission into the land, its deeper meaning and message may be that the struggle between God and Israel over matters of faith and fidelity to the covenant is a complex and turbulent one.  God demands that His people demonstrate faith that His promises will be fulfilled, yet the people’s doubts must be satisfied by seeing the land for themselves before they attempt to inhabit it.  At the end of the story, God becomes angry that ten of the scouts return from the mission with a discouraging report that says that the land cannot be conquered, and threatens once again to obliterate the people and start over again with Moses as leader.  If this type of interaction were experienced in the realm of human relationships, we might deem it a relationship in trouble and need of help.

Even more intriguing is the companion story to the Torah portion that is told in the Haftarah for Parashat Shelakh-Lekha.  Taken from the second chapter of the Book of Joshua, it tells the story of a scouting mission ordered by Joshua after he assumed the leadership role from Moses.  Joshua sends two scouts, not 12, to check out the city of Jericho, a key stronghold that will need to be conquered.  The scouts approach the city and come upon the home of a prostitute named Rahav, which is squeezed into the small space of the broad wall surrounding the city.  While she could turn them in to the authorities, she instead protects the two scouts, diverting the guards who come to capture them and hiding them in her house.  She does this because, as the text says, the people of her land are “filled with the dread of God.”  It’s likely that this story was written at a time of higher national confidence than the Torah story, or perhaps written as a statement of wishful thinking.

Rahab asks that she and her family be protected during a future invasion.  Assured that they’re safe and will be able to return to base with an accurate report, the scouts promise Rahab they’ll take care of her and tell her to place a sign outside of her house so the conquering Israelites will know to leave her alone.

Is there a significance to the story that Rahab is a prostitute?  Bible scholar Danna Nolan Fewell asserts that there is.  She writes:

“From Israel’s perspective Madame Rahab is the epitome of the outsider.  She is a woman, a prostitute and a foreigner.  As a prostitute, she is marginal even in her own culture, and her marginality is symbolized by her dwelling in the city wall, in the very boundary between the inside and the outside.  And it is Rahab who saves the lives of the feeble Israelite spies, who willing cavort with foreigners, indeed with a woman whom they would have eventually slaughtered in battle.”

Rahab is the quintessential outsider.  She is marginalized by being a prostitute, hardly the kind of work for which someone is honored at a testimonial dinner.  Because she is a woman, she is already marginalized by her society.  And according to the story, she is a foreigner who faces the additional stigma of being outcast.

Her status as an outsider makes her the perfect savior for Joshua’s two scouts, and by extension for the nation of Israel.  In the times in which the story was written, the Israelite nation was very much an outsider, enslaved, demeaned and brutalized by a powerful nation and facing the arduous task of establishing themselves in the world.  Across the centuries, the People of Israel has faced oppression, exile and torment.  There have been times we have had to navigate our way through social systems that denied our legitimacy, even our right to exist.  It could be said that we, the People of Israel, are also the quintessential “Outsider Nation,” marginalized, facing discrimination and rejection.  Who better to save the Israelites than Rahab, herself an outsider?

The Haftarah chanted this week can serve as a powerful reminder that we, the members of this “Outsider Nation” that has so often been compelled to seek acceptance, must practice acceptance and tolerance.  There are, distressingly, so many opportunities to do so.  All around us there are people who ostracized—refugees, immigrants, people who appear “different” and are thus unfairly perceived as a threat.  It is our obligation as Jews to end their ostracization and isolation, and to bring those who are forced to the fringe of society into its heart.

In that spirit, I encourage you to attend this year’s Pride Shabbat in celebration of LGTTQ+ individuals.  This year’s theme is “Hineni: Bearing Witness as a Response to Discrimination, Exclusion, Hatred and Violence.”  Join us for a Music Lover’s Shabbat Service at 7:45 PM, followed by a presentation by Les Skolnick of Keshet, an important organization devoted to the full inclusion and equality of LGBTQ people in Jewish life.  Les will speak about how we can create a culture of acceptance in our synagogue.

Shabbat Shalom!

Race, Nation or People?

Last night’s Annual Meeting of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey was a wonderful event.  Lifelong Oheb Shalom member Arthur Schechner received the first-ever President’s Bamberger Award for his wonderful accomplishments as a communal leader.  Leslie Rosenthal, longtime member and past president of Oheb Shalom, was deservedly honored on the conclusion of her 3-year term as Federation President.  The room was packed for these testimonials, as well as for the other meeting agenda items, including a report from Leslie and Federation CEO Dov Ben Shimon on this year’s Federation achievements on behalf of our community, our Israeli partners and Jewish communities around the world.

Each year, the Federation Annual Meeting is enriched with a presentation by a notable Jewish leader or scholar.  This year’s speaker was Avraham Infeld, President Emeritus of Hillel International and Consultant on Tikun Olam to the Reut Institute in Israel.  I had the privilege of sitting next to Dr. Infeld during the meeting, so I asked him what he intended to speak about.  He thought for a moment, then answered: “the Jewish people!”  At first, I thought his answer was tongue-in-cheek, as if he had said that he would speak about Judaism.  After hearing his remarks, passionately delivered, I see that he meant what he said.  In his speech he referred to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, read aloud by David Ben Gurion on May 14, 1948, which declares the establishment of “a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”  Infeld noted the peculiarity of the term “Jewish state.”  What does the phrase mean?  Can a state be Jewish?  Does it keep Shabbat?  Does it keep kosher?  Of course not, he confirmed.  Infeld went on to say that the key to understanding the notion of a “Jewish” state is to see being Jewish not solely as a matter of religious affiliation but as belonging to a people.

Religion can be divisive rather than unifying, and the Jewish religion is no exception.  We see animosity and conflict all around us caused by the way some understand and practice the Jewish religion.  Some Orthodox Jews reject outright those who are not Orthodox.  This is especially true in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox Jews with political power deny legitimacy and support to the Masorti and Reform Movements that are established there.

But peoplehood is an all-encompassing enterprise.  It is a wide umbrella that can include all those who are connected to the Jewish people.  Peoplehood offers not only religious life but cultural, intellectual and communal experiences.  This is an important framework for understanding the State of Israel, which is a state not only for people who want to practice the Jewish religion but for those who want to express their affiliation with the Jewish people through cultural and communal ways as well.  In this way, Israel is a “Jewish State.”  It is the land in which the Jewish people were born.  As the first line of Israel’s Declaration of Independence says, “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”

We can only hope that those Jews who believe that they possess the truth about what it means to be a Jew and how a Jew should live and behave, that those who believe they can and should use political power to coerce their fellow Jews into practicing the Jewish religion as they believe it should be practiced, should come to understand that throughout our history our source of strength has been the unifying notion of Jewish peoplehood.

In seeking to define Judaism, it’s not uncommon to ask this question:  Are Jews a religion, a nation, or a race?  It can be argued that even if we do not now share common racial traits, Jews once did.  Hitler certainly saw Jews as a race that had to be exterminated.  We are certainly a religion, as there are norms of religious practice that define Jewish life, even if they are interpreted and lived differently by Jews around the world.  And we are certainly a nation, as a connection to the land of Israel is fundamental to what it means to be a Jew.

But perhaps the best definition of what it means to be a Jew is that we all belong to a people, one that shares a common history and a destiny.  Our strength and our future lie in the simple adage that says “Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Ba-zeh…All members of the people of Israel are responsible for one another.”  Perhaps that simple phrase is the most profoundly important of all Jewish teachings.