Thursday, June 14, 2012

Diving in with strings attached

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I don’t believe success vindicates a decision, nor does failure prove the decision was wrong. A wrong decision might lead to success because of dumb luck or grace, while a well considered attempt can go sour.

This is a reflection on the merit of engagement outside our comfort zone, especially with people of other faiths, and for me personally the Muslim-Jewish relationship is a priority. 

One example of the challenge is being confronted by what seemed to me to be a misrepresentation of my own beliefs by Muslims. Three times this week I came across the Muslim idea that Jews consider the son of Ezra to be the son of God. This morning by an Imam, who told me that both the Jews and Christians believe in a son of God, an idea I never heard off before this Tuesday. I found that confronting, yet I persevere because there is so much beauty I have already discovered that I know I need to keep at it.
This week we read the story of twelve spies who are sent to Canaan, most of whom come back with a terribly pessimistic report, which results in the people losing faith and being condemned to spend the rest of their lives in the desert[i].

The first risk is taken by God who unlike most of the Torah does not command Moses to either send or not send spies. Instead he tells him to send based on his own opinion[ii]. Moses feels pressured into it[iii] and rather than risk the people displeasure he caves in and worse still he is persuaded to send spies who will lead everyone to second guess G-d and the great next step the nation needed to take. At the end of his life Moses will reflect bitterly on how this played out, “all of you came close to me..[iv]”.

An interesting bit of context is the great fall of Moses’ own confidence[v] from when he uses variations of the word “Good” five times as he tries to persuade his father in law to come along to the land[vi], to his utter despair only a few verses later after the people demand meat to eat.

See the contrast;  
From: ... “We are travelling to the place about which the Lord said, I will give it to you. Come with us and we will be good to you, for the Lord has spoken of good fortune for Israel... And if you go with us, then it will be that good which God will do good for us, we will do good for you.

To;  Moses heard the people weeping... The Lord became very angry, and Moses considered it bad. Moses said to the Lord, "Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favour in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as the nursing mother carries the suckling,' to the Land You promised their forefathers[vii]?

Moses is advised to get other leaders well known to the people to help him, leaders who might be more in touch with where the people are at, a touch of democracy. It is plausible to suggest that his confidence is shaken, so that when the people insist on spies, he is open to being led by those he is meant to lead. Perhaps it is too hard.

One reason given for the spies not wishing to enter the land is that they thought leaving the desert and getting involved in the mundane reality of working the land would compromise the high degree of spirituality that the people were able to maintain in the desert[viii]. Another view is that they projected their own low opinion of themselves onto the Canaanites. “We were as grasshoppers in our eyes, and so were we in their eyes[ix]”. In either case, the stance is highly risk averse. The fact that this ends badly does not mean God made a mistake by giving Moses the choice. It is only by having the possibility to make poor choices that our noble choices have meaning.

The question of whether to play it safe can also be found in the discussion of the Nazirite who vows to abstain from wine for a period of time. When he (or she) completes the vow he must bring a Sin offering to “atone for sinning against his soul[x]” because he denied himself the enjoyment of one of the (permissible) pleasures God had provided[xi]. This view is hotly contested; with suggestions that the sin refers to coming into contact with the dead[xii], that avoiding wine is a good thing, the sin is avoiding non-alcoholic grape juice[xiii], or the sin is in the motive for the vow which is often anger[xiv].

The end of our reading contains the command to tie strings to the corners of one’s garments so that we do not stray[xv] after our eyes[xvi]. The strings remind us of the commandments. To me this suggests that we proactively seek to mitigate risk, but we don’t withdraw from being confronted.
Tonight, I spoke with another Imam who explained that he thought the son of Ezra thing could have been a marginal belief of a small obscure sect rather than a belief of all Jews. I also checked on a discussion on the Facebook page, Jihadi Jew with some very interesting posts by Ben Abramson that shed additional light on this. The sky has not fallen.

The bridge building work I have been involved with has had its share of successes, and there are still greater tasks that I don’t know if we will achieve. Some uncertainty can be managed and the rest is out of our hands. Regardless, engagement with eyes wide open is the right and ethical choice. I don’t intend to run from it.

“It is not the critic who counts...(but) the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat[xvii]”.
– Theodor Roosevelt

[i] Numbers 13-14
[ii] Talmud Sotah 34b
[iii] Yalkut Shimoni 742
[iv] Deuteronomy 1:23
[v] Rabbi Benny Lau,
[vi] Numbers 10:29-32
[vii] Numbers 11:10-12
[viii] The Lubavitcher Rebbe
[ix] Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk
[x] Numbers 6:11
[xi] Talmud Taanit 11a
[xii] In the Talmud itself
[xiii] Sifsei Chachamim
[xiv] Beer Basadeh
[xv] I find it interesting that the same word stem appears at both the beginning and end of our portion,
 first שְׁלַח לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן
Then וְלֹא תָתֻרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם
[xvi] Numbers 15:38-41

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