It is hard for me to believe that 30 years ago today I celebrated my bar mitzvah at Congregation Ohev Shalom in Orlando, Florida. Looking back, it was one of the proudest days of my life. How could it not be (despite my/my parents’ horrific 1982 fashion sense combined with a voice that was four octaves higher than it is now)? I led the Friday night and Saturday morning Shabbat services, was the center of attention, and no matter what, my parents and others beamed with pride at every moment. Talk about a confidence-booster! For me, this was just one more step in my Jewish journey, while too many see their bar/bat mitzvah as the penultimate and end to their Jewish experiences.
I fondly recall my Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, which will be read this Shabbat. This is the Torah portion where the Jewish people are introduced to the mitzvah (commandment) of wearing tzitzit (the long knotted fringes on the tallit (prayer shawl). At my bar mitzvah I was presented by my parents with my first tallit, which I still have to this day. When a Jew puts on a tallit to pray, he or she recites a blessing that acknowledges the commandment “to wrap oneself in tzitzit.” Metaphorically, we wrap ourselves in the mitzvot that will guide us in our lives and we reflect on our inner self and our outer actions.
The main story of the Torah portion is that Moses is leading the Israelites through the desert on his way to the promised land. Before entering the land of Canaan, Moses decides to send twelve spies to check out the inhabitants. The spies returned and reported that the land was indeed “flowing with milk and honey,” but ten of the spies said the Canaanites were giants. The report from the ten spies spread fear among the Israelites, yet in reality the Canaanites were terrified of them. Only Caleb and Joshua believed that they could enter the land and conquer it.
The spies’ report did not say nearly as much about the military capacity of the enemy as it did about the emotional state of each side in relation to the other. Those who are confident are presumed to prevail and those who are fearful are presumed to fail. In the end, the Israelites lacked faith in their own abilities.
Think about it…the Israelites had been wandering in the desert (and after this episode would spend another 40 years). They did not mind. They did not have to work…God provided food and sustenance for them…and they were well taken care of. In a way we may not understand, wandering in the desert was comfortable. Entering a new land, however, would require hard work… new thinking…and would create new challenges. For the ten spies and the Israelites status quo was the best option.
Fear is a natural response. That is why we are programmed instinctively to fear things that are strange to us, including new ideas and new ways. This becomes a leadership challenge. And at the heart of Judaism there are three beliefs about leadership: We are free. We are responsible. And together we can change the world.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England, wrote this week about Shelach Lecha, “Most of the commentators assume the spies were guilty of a failure of nerve, or faith, or both. However, in the Chasidic literature, an entirely different line of interpretation emerged -- the spies were well-intentioned. They did not doubt that Israel could win its battles with the inhabitants of the land. They did not fear failure; they feared success.”
Ultimately, the spies feared freedom and its responsibilities. In some ways, I was scared at my bar mitzvah because the rabbi and others spoke over and over again about my new responsibilities as a “Jewish man.” I do believe that through Jewish education, identity-building experiences, and community involvement we are creating a cadre of leaders who are instilling Jewish values and ideals as part of everyday life. As Rabbi Sacks states, “The Jewish task is not to fear the real world but to enter and transform it.” We all have that opportunity and obligation to do just that.
The choice is ours – be like the spies who were afraid of “what could be” or boldly step forward to create the community we want with a renewed sense of purpose and mission. Thirty years after my bar mitzvah, I understand that fearing new ideas or ways to do things will not enhance our future -- moving people, organizations, and our community to unprecedented thinking can and will.
Shabbat shalom, happy Father’s Day (Dad, I love you), and now that school is out, best wishes to everyone for a fantastic start to the summer.
PS – I am excited to tell you that a local documentary filmmaker, Ken Klein, is creating a film about Jewish identity in Portland. It sounds like a wonderful project and he is looking for people willing to participate in his film. If you are interested, please email Ken at firstname.lastname@example.org