Recently, I sat with one of my congregants, a beautiful, smart, and funny 12-year-old girl who told me about the social challenges she is having in school. Likely because she is so beautiful, smart, and funny, some of the other "popular" girls in her class do not like her. They have taken to convincing the rest of the girls in her class to stop speaking to her. The Torah tells us that we have an obligation, a responsibility, to not stand by while others are threatened: "Lo ta-amod al dam rei-echa" (Leviticus 19:16). Interestingly, the word rei-echa means neighbor--not Jewish neighbor, but any neighbor. We have a responsibility to take care of any person we see in trouble. What strikes me as more disheartening than the two "mean girls" instigating this behavior (mean girls are everywhere) are the actions of the other girls who simply follow suit, like lemmings. It's a tall order to expect of ourselves and our children to speak out when we see injustice or to speak truth to power when the majority seems to feel otherwise. Yet, is this not our mandate as Jews, to be rodfei shalom, "pursuers of peace"?
I always ask my mother-in-law for suggestions on what book I should be reading. She is a prolific reader and, without realizing it, serves as a sifter between what's worthy of reading and what's not. I generally call her from the airport bookstore, suddenly aware that I am about to board a multi-hour flight without any children and panicked that I didn't think ahead to bring a book. Recently, she gave me The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. The Help is a story about black women serving as maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s, just 50 years ago. It's a story about black women and the white women they served. As I read about the segregation, the attitudes of whites toward blacks, the depraved lines of distinction that were drawn, and the brutality and cruelty that was so very socially acceptable, I had to remind myself that I was not reading a fictional take on a time 200 years ago. This was just 50 years ago, down the road from where I live in Nashville, Tennessee.
I am continually amazed/shocked/appalled/disgusted that human beings have the capability to be so cruel, so devoid of compassion, so un-God-like. I know this feeling. It's familiar. I've felt it before. I felt this way standing at the Birkenau concentration camp with my dearest childhood friend--who is not Jewish--who felt as angry and disillusioned as I did. I feel this way when Americans, in a post-9/11 world, mistakenly view all Muslims as Islamic fundamentalists, disparaging Islam and Muslims in any form, in what has become a type of acceptable discrimination.
And I ask myself: If I had lived in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, would I have bucked the system? Would I have been as angry? Would I have known that to discriminate based on race, religion, creed, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, color, age, or disability was simply wrong? What would you have done? I look to Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish leader and visionary who prayed with his feet by marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr., and I wonder, would I have been there too, walking beside them?
Parashat Sh'lach L'cha describes how twelve spies, each representing a tribe of Israel, scout the Land of Israel. After forty days they return. Ten of them report that the Land is fruitful, but its cities and countryside are filled with powerful warriors--giants. Two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, disagree: they urge the people to conquer the Land.
I wonder what courage it must have taken for Caleb and Joshua to stand alone in their convictions. After all, it's likely that Caleb and Joshua encountered the same landscape as did the other ten scouts. Yet ten scouts reported, "all the people that we saw . . . are of great size; . . . . we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them" (Numbers 13:33). The ten scouts also report that some of the Land is inhabited by the Amalakites (Numbers 13:29), enemies of the Israelites. Joshua and Caleb saw what all the scouts saw, but they reacted differently. Why? What about their character allowed them to respond in another way, to go against the popular grain, and stand for something bigger and more important?
Commentators tell us that the real sin of the ten scouts is that they try to convince the people that God is leading them not to a land of opportunity and plenty, but to disaster. They would have us believe that the true sin of the scouts was their rejection of the Land of Israel and their misleading of the people.1 Some suggest that the scouts, like Miriam, engage in the sin of slander. Instead of remembering Miriam's' punishment for publicly criticizing Moses, the scouts return from their journey, and immediately and publicly, speak slanderously about the Land of Israel.2 Let's shift focus from the ten scouts to the two who stood apart, Caleb and Joshua. Perhaps our focus should be less on the sin of the scouts and more on the courage and individuality of Caleb and Joshua, in their ability to take a stand and speak to what they believe, despite their
Like the behavior of the "mean girls" above, the sin of the ten scouts grows from their failure of self-love and self-respect. Their insecurity is written in the lines of Torah--they saw themselves "as grasshoppers" in the eyes of the inhabitants of the Land. Their lack of self-respect breeds self-contempt and fear of others. Following in the footsteps of Caleb and Joshua may not always be easy. We may stumble. But make no mistake--we are the inheritors of their teaching. We can balance firmly on the shoulders of their courage and bravado when we face standing up for what we know to be true and just.
1. Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as a Political Leader, noted in Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times (NY: UAHC Press, 1993), p. 39; also see Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in BaMidbar (Jerusalem: Haomanim Press, n.d.) p. 141
2. See B'midbar Rabbah on Numbers 13:2
The following are books recommended to address young kids on the topic of bullying and standing up for yourself and what you believe in:
1. Farmer Duck, by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
(Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 1991), for ages 3-8
The lazy farmer stays in bed all day reading his newspaper, watching TV, and eating chocolates. The farm's Duck cooks and cleans, takes care of the farm's animals, and plants the field. After watching all of this, day after day, the other animals decide, "Enough is enough!" Taking matters into their own, well . . . hooves, wings, and teeth, they "take care" of the lazy farmer, and then take care of Duck.
2. Llama Llama and the Bully Goat, written and Illustrated by Anna Dewdney (New York: Viking, 2013), for ages 3-8
An excellent addition to the Llama Llama series, here little Llama and friends meet a Gilmore Goat in preschool and must teach him how to behave in a nicer way. Bullying will not be tolerated by this crowd and they know what to do about it!
3. Say Something, by Peggy Moss, illustrated by Lea Lyon (Thomaston, ME: Tilbury House Publishers, 2004), for ages 5-10
A young girl sees several students who are picked on by others at school, but she says nothing. When the day arrives that she becomes the one being picked on, she decides to make some changes to her behavior.
4. Weird!, Tough!, and Dare! by Erin Frankel, Illustrated by Paula Heaphy (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Free Spirit Press, 2012), for ages 5-10
Here are three separate, yet connected, books each told from a different perspective. In Weird! we learn what it is like to be bullied. In Tough! we find out what it is like to be the bully. In Dare! we discover what it feels like to be an unwilling participant in these interactions. Accompanying discussion questions and activities bring each story closer to home and connect them to the reader's real life experiences.
Rabbi Laurie Rice is co-senior rabbi at Congregation Micah in Nashville, Tennessee, where she shares the pulpit with her husband, Rabbi Philip "Flip" Rice.