On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Challenge Accepted - Parashat Sh'Lach L'cha

What’s your holy mission? In Parashah Sh'lach L'cha, we learn about the 12 scouts, or emissaries, sent by Moses to learn about the land of Canaan. Join Rabbi Rick Jacobs as he discusses the importance of representatives within Judaism and their obligations, and how each of us can be emissaries of kindness, respect, and justice.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Sh'lach L'cha. And he asks, what does it mean to be an emissary? And what holy work can you do?

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Sh'lach L'cha from the book of Numbers, has that dramatic story about the 12 spies or scouts who are sent by Moses to go ahead. People are camped out in the middle of the Sinai desert, and they're very anxious and nervous about what awaits them.

And so they send forth these scouts to take a look at the land. Is it what was promised? Is it a land flowing with milk and honey? Is it destined to be their new home?

And these 12 spies come back with varied reports. They all agree that the area is gorgeous, but 10 of the 12 are overwhelmed by the formidable inhabitants of the land and are panicked. And so panicked through the people, too, Joshua and Caleb come back and say, it's spectacularly beautiful. And there are a few challenges, but ah lo nah a lech. Let's go. It's going to be great.

It awakens for me the whole category in Jewish tradition of the Shaleigha, the one who is a representative. Now, the word Shaleigha is not used in Sh'lach L'cha, but the word "sh'lach" of Sh'lach L'cha is that very same root-- being sent forth, being sent on a mission, having a sacred mission to perform. And it's worthy of some reflection about the Jewish tradition that allows for a representative in many core functions.

I can remember vividly the day of our sons' bris'. And there we are, you know. It's a rather dramatic moment.

Can I say it's a little bit of an anxious moment? And the mohel says to an egalitarian family like ours, to mom and dad, do you appoint me to be your representative in this mitzvah of circumcising your son, or would you like to do it yourself? I've never been as enthusiastic about conveying my responsibility for performing a mitzvah to someone else as I was in those two moments. And you know, the mohel is obligated to be formally designated as the, in a sense, the Shaleigha.

There are other cases where it's also possible. In a divorce proceeding, it might be that the husband and wife do not want to actually physically be in the same room, and it is possible to have a representative, in a sense, carry forth and be the appointed one. For the selling of chameitz, if you think about the holiday of Passover where you can, in a sense, designate a rabbi to be your agent in selling all of the forbidden foodstuffs for Passover.

There are certain things, however, that you may not in a sense delegated to someone else, make a proxy. You can't appoint someone to put on tefillin for you or eat matzah for me. But it is one of those things where it's sometimes allowed, and sometimes it's not. Now I have to say, I just heard on Erev Shavuot an amazing talk by Nathan Englander, who spoke about his new book, "Kaddish.com."

And it does awaken-- there's a whole category of people who are designated to say Kaddish for someone. You know, I don't want to judge anybody and it's a big world and people can make their own decisions. It never makes sense to me.

How does someone say Kaddish for me? Go three times a day and to say it-- that's my obligation. And I think of so many different ways in which it's important to not delegate responsibility, particularly in religious spiritual acts, but to take them upon ourselves.

Now there is actually a  Shaleigha that isn't named, but in the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 24, there's an amazing moment where Abraham says to his servant Eliezer, I want you to go find a wife for my son Isaac. And the Shaleigha wants to get it right, you know?

Well, how will I know? And the instruction is, you'll know. There'll be a heavenly sign.

And so Eliezer goes, and he, of course, finds Rebecca. And you know the story. They bring her back. They fall in-- blah, blah, blah, blah.

So that's an example of a Shaleigha But I also know that in Jewish tradition, the person who leads a prayer service is oftentimes called the  Shaleigha- se- bor, the one who represents the se- bor the community, the public. And in Jewish tradition, you know, there are rules, as there are rules for everything in Judaism, about who can be a Shaleigha- se- bor.

It has to be somebody who is an upstanding member of the community, somebody who knows the liturgy, who's also a person of good reputation, someone who's humble. It's nice if they have a good voice, all those kinds of things. And again, in many traditional communities, people trade off that role. In more non-Orthodox communities, it's usually the rabbi or the cantor who has that role.

There's that amazing story. I think I might have shared it from Ta'anit 24, the Babylonian Talmud, of a great rabbi who's name is Rav who is the Shaleigha- se- bor who actually can't get the job done. They need, desperately, rain.

And then this no-nothing, seemingly no-name guy shows up. He's a teacher of young children. He leads the service and the rain falls and everything good happens. So there seems to be some connection between having some inner qualities with their performance of those mitzvot.

Perhaps the two most familiar categories is in the Chabad Lubavitch tradition, you are one of the shluchim, one of those who are sent on a holy mission by the rebbe. Once upon a time. And now, of course, you can be sent by the leaders of Chabad. And they are people who are sent to the four corners of the earth to bring a message, a message of Jewish inclusion and of Yiddishkeit.

And it's an amazing group of rabbis who carry that title in the Chabad community. I remember I had the privilege of going to the Kinus Hashluchim, which is a gathering of 5,000 of these emissaries of the rebbe who come back to Brooklyn once a year for this gathering. And I remember walking in, and there you are with 5,000 Chabad rabbis.

They all have a similar look, and I didn't. And I picked up my card, like you would at a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah or a wedding and, you know, what table it was that I was at. And I look at my card and I see the number. I figure, you know, I'm the Reform rabbi. I lead the Reform movement. I'm going to be sitting in the bleachers somewhere. So I'm walking around with my little card to find my spot. And it turns out I see Rabbi Krinsky, who leads Chabad. And I know I can't be sitting with Rabbi Krinsky.

And I look closer and, oh my god, that's my table. And then there are actually name places for each of the people. My place is next to Rabbi Krinsky. I think, oh my. This is quite something. Rabbi Krinsky was so gracious.

He not only introduced me to all the shluchim who came to say hello and pay their respects to Rabbi Krinsky-- he introduced me to every single one of them as, oh, you know my friend Rabbi Rick Jacobs. So here are these emissaries who carry the teaching of Chabad, but I have to say, in that moment, I felt the expression of a sacred inclusion and respect that Rabbi Krinsky extended to me. I would also just mention many people may be familiar that we have shlichim, who are representatives of the state of Israel from the Jewish agency that come every year.

Over 300 of them are currently about to land or landing and are working in our URJ summer camps, all 17 of them throughout North America. And they are emissaries of the Israeli people to bring the love of Israel to the four corners of the globe. And they are pretty remarkable people, I have to say.

Well, it wasn't that long ago that the head of the Jewish agency, Natan Sharansky, said, Rick, you should be more appreciative of this amazing thing, that we send you these emissaries, these shlichim. You should really thank us for it. I said, Natan Sharansky, I apologize.

If I have not been grateful enough, I will say it publicly every day. We are so grateful. And then I said, but Natan, you should really thank me. And he paused. He looked at me. He said, why would I thank you?

Well, you need to thank me because those shlichim, those Israeli leaders who come after the army and spend sometimes a summer, sometimes a year, sometimes a few years, bring their love of Israel to our communities. But what happens in almost every single case is that they actually discover what being Jewish is as a very positive part of their identity. So they bring a love of Israel, but we give them a love of Judaism. And they return with that. So the shlichim is someone who brings and who is sent on a mission. But oftentimes, I have to believe they are changed in a positive way by those missions that they carry out.

So here's my final thought. I actually think we're all shlichim. I think we're all on a sacred mission. I think we are all messengers of the most high.

Some of us carry that in a title. Some of us are very aware and conscious that we are on a sacred mission. And some of us, it hasn't yet been discovered within.

And I just love the idea that every single one of us has a sacred mission to bring about more healing, more wholeness, more understanding, more justice, more goodness, more kindness, all of those things. So you may be listening to the podcast thinking, hey, Rabbi Jacobs, I am not a shluchim. I'm just doing my part here quietly in some little corner of the world. But you never know, and Sh'lach L'cha reminds us of the 12 emissaries of the 12 tribes who came back and, well, two of them changed the course of Jewish history. I think of those who have been emissaries for others. I think of not only the Jewish agency emissaries, shlichim, and not only the Chabad shluchim, but I think of the holy work that you and I are called upon to do each and every day. So sh'lach l'cha, go forth on your journey of blessing and of discovery. And may you bring and receive awareness and holiness in a renewed consciousness every step along the way.

[URJ OUTRO] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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And until next week. L'hitraot!