For We Shall Surely Overcome It

Though separated by over 2,000 years, we ask ourselves the same question as did the ancient Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lecha: “What awaits us in the future?”

The Israelites, disoriented and afraid as they wander through the unknown wilderness, send 13 spies to the land of Israel to scout out their ultimate destination:

“When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, ‘Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?’” (Numbers 13:17-20).

When I read these questions, I can hear Moses’ anxiety. Once we get to where we’re going, he wonders, will we be able to thrive? Will we be able to feed ourselves and our families? Will we get along with our neighbors? Will we even like living in the Holy Land?

Right now, our world is in its own kind of midbar, its own kind of wilderness. We are distant from one another, and distant from the existence that felt conventional and routine to us. We are living in limbo between our “old normal” and what will become our “new normal.” And many of us share that anxiety that Moses felt millenia ago: When we arrive at our destinations, will we like what we find? Will we be proud to live in our society? Will it be a place where we will feel happy raising our children? Will it be one where the promise of liberty and justice is truly fulfilled for all?

In the biblical story of the spies, 11 come back with negative reports: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey…However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we…The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size.. and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:27-33).

Only Joshua and Caleb, two of the spies, return with a message of hope: “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it” (Numbers 13:30).

Like the 11 Israelite spies, we know that we as a society face giant challenges, and will continue to face them when things are “normal” again: brutal policing; racial segregation in our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces; lack of access to adequate housing and healthcare for people of color; the list goes on and on.

It’s easy to feel like the 11 spies, who come back to the Israelites with a report of insurmountable obstacles that they will face in the Promised Land. I feel like a grasshopper in the face of these enormous problems, which have been part of the fabric of our country since before its founding. I understand why, after hearing this report, so many of the Israelites wailed and cried: “It would be better for us to go back to Egypt! Let us go back to Egypt!” (Numbers 14:3-4). It can be hard to face what’s ahead.

But there is no turning back for the Israelites, and there is no turning back for us. It is our job to muster the bravery of Caleb, who felt confident that the Israelites could overcome the challenges that faced them.

We do have an advantage over the Israelites: we can work to shape our future; we don’t have to journey forward with our heads bowed, hoping for the best. We are scouts who can help to create our destiny and transform our society into a place where we all want to live.

How can we be part of the change? To transform a society, we first have to name its problems. I hope you will join JCP’s “What We Can Learn: Antiracism Book Group” so that we can better understand racism in our country, which we hope will lead us to meaningful and impactful action. You can also attend our Wednesday afternoon speaker series, “What We Can Do,” during which Rabbi Andy interviews prominent leaders in our community so that we can learn about their important work and how to support it. You can read more about what it means to invest in the institutions that keep Black people safe and to divest from the police. You can also join me tonight at 7 pm on Instagram Live (@jcpdowntown) for a brief Shabbat candle-lighting to help recharge and energize for the work ahead.

Today is Juneteenth, which commemorates June 19, 1865, the day when Union soldiers came to Galveston, Texas to tell enslaved people that they were free. 155 years later, we know that there is still much more work to be done. But with deep engagement and persistent effort, we can take on the mindset of Caleb; though we might feel like small grasshoppers now, we have the power to contribute to changes that will make our society better.

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