On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Sh'lach L'cha: Facing the Future

When faced with anxiety about the future, how can one persevere as a strong leader? How have we pushed people to the edges of our Jewish communities, and how do we gather them back? Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, explores Parashat Sh'lach L'cha.

Four ways to listen:

[URJ Intro:] Welcome to episode 23 of “On the Other Hand: Then Minutes of Torah,” which is a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes with modern-day commentary on the weekly Torah portion.

But of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah. And we really do want to hear what you think. Talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ. Like us at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, talks about Parashat Sh'lach L'cha and asks, when faced with anxiety about the future, how can you persevere as a strong leader? He goes on to ask, how have we pushed people to the edges of our Jewish communities and how do we gather them back up?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Sh'lach L'cha. Literally, it means “send forth.” It's a parashah that opens by asking the Israelites to send forth scouts, or spies, to take a look at the land of Israel, take a look at what the Jewish people are marching towards. And it comes at a point in the journey when people are really getting skeptical. Is there really a promised land? Is there really going to be a better future?

12 scouts are sent forward. And they come back. They traversed the land from north to south. They see the incredible beauty. And they also see the giants who live in the land of Israel. And they come back to report. And 10 of those spies say, it is, in fact, a beautiful land flowing with milk and honey. But it is just too formidable. We can't go. We should not go. Two leaders, Joshua and Caleb, on the same journey-- they go on the same trip-- they come back, and they report the very same things.

But their takeaway is, in Hebrew, Alo Na'aleh. It is for us to go and to have this future, to seize it with our imagination and with our hands and with our vision. And the Jewish people were at a crossroads. And it became clear that these two leaders, Caleb and Joshua, were the ones who could actually reach that promised land.

I think of leaders in particular at this moment in Jewish history. When we want to get a glimpse of the future-- we'd love to know, what's it really going to be like? And we have all these different commentators in Jewish life telling us all these scary, potentially overwhelming challenges. And people say, oh, my gosh. Jewish life is just in a downward spiral.  How in the world are we going to make a bright Jewish future?

But then we think about Joshua and Caleb. They're looking at the challenges. It's not like they don't understand. It's not as if they don't see. They see very clearly. But even with the challenges, they see possibility.

And we today need to find ourselves as disciples of Joshua and Caleb. Eyes wide open, hearts and heads wide open, seeing the challenges, the latest demographic survey, or the latest institutional challenge, but saying, in our own way, Alo Na'aleh. We can actually find our way forward by being bold, by being imaginative, by being smart.

Later in Parashat Sh'lach L'cha, there's a teaching about the fringes that we're to put on the four corners of our garments. And I always think, when I put on my tallit in the morning and I think of those four fringes, not just symbolizing the four corners of the earth but symbolizing those in our community on the fringes.

And what do we do when we put on that tallit, just before we say the Sh'ma? There's a tradition to take the four fringes into our hand and put them over our heart. I think about the way the Jewish community actually has created fringes. We've actually pushed people to the edges.

And when we pray and when we lead and when we imagine our Jewish future, we're not going to be strong unless we eliminate those fringes. Or better yet, like the ritual act of gathering up those fringes, what if we gathered all those on the margins, all those on the fringes? Let's think about that.

Interfaith families. Jews of Color. LGBTQ Jews. Jews with disabilities. Millennials who are looking for a place in the Jewish community. Those who once were part of Jewish life but have stepped away. What if we gathered all of them and held them over our hearts?

What if we held what they bring to us, the uniqueness of their experience, of their commitments, and instead of seeing fringes as those on the outskirts, we take those fringes and we hold them over our hearts, and we proclaim Sh'ma Yisrael. That not only is God one, the Holy One is one. The universe is one. And our people can also be one.

So how are we going to see this bright future, Joshua and Caleb? Where are those Joshua and Calebs in our world? They're here. And they're taking their rightful place. And they are being not naively hopeful, but smartly imaginative. And one of the ways that we will get to that better future, that promised land of possibility, is by gathering the fringes.

So please join me in not only studying Parashat Sh'lach L'cha-- we get to have a glimpse of that future. And we're not supposed to just wait for that future. We're supposed to shape it. Let's shape it together.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah.” If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah” is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!