#TorahForTheResistance: Parashat Shelach
#TorahForTheResistance is a campaign by young rabbinical and religious students about Jewish resistance to Trump through the lens of faith, Judaism, and spirituality. Read the full series here.
לב וַיֹּצִיאוּ דִּבַּת הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר תָּרוּ אֹתָהּ, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר: הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ בָהּ לָתוּר אֹתָהּ, אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא, וְכָל-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-רָאִינוּ בְתוֹכָהּ, אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת… א וַתִּשָּׂא, כָּל-הָעֵדָה, וַיִּתְּנוּ, אֶת-קוֹלָם; וַיִּבְכּוּ הָעָם, בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא. ב וַיִּלֹּנוּ עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן, כֹּל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם כָּל-הָעֵדָה, לוּ-מַתְנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, אוֹ בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה, לוּ-מָתְנוּ.
13:32 And they spread an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature… 14:1 And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night. 2 And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron; and the whole congregation said unto them: ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would we had died in this wilderness!
In Jewish tradition, we think of the words we say as powerful weapons. We scrupulously guard the things we say about others and ourselves and try to avoid lashon hara, evil speech, at all costs. In an old folktale, a rabbi describes rumors as irretrievable as the feathers in a pillow that was ripped open on a windy day. And we have the story of the spies in this week’s parsha, whose report back to Moshe about the “promised land” was described as a דבה, an evil report, which cost them their lives and their entry into the very land they shunned.
It is hard to say exactly what was evil about the spies’ report. Dr. Nechama Leibowitz examines the juxtaposition of fact vs. opinion in the story. She explains that Moses asked the spies for facts about the land, “see what the land is, and the people that dwell there, whether they be strong or weak, few or many…”(13:18-20) But the spies don’t just bring back a report; rather, they tell Moses before the whole people, “We came into the land where you sent us, and it does indeed flow with milk and honey and this [cluster of grapes] is the fruit of it. Nevertheless, the people be fierce that dwell in the land, and the cities are strongly fortified…”(13:27). Dr. Leibowitz points out that their words are not exactly objective “when they contended that all the good points of the Promised Land would avail them nothing, because the inhabitants were too powerful and their strongholds too formidable.” This is precisely the failure of the spies: their “nevertheless” transforms the support, undermining its integrity a B’nai Yisrael into a panic.
One of the qualities of an evil report, similar to lashon hara, is its formidable quality of being both easily spread and difficult to undo. When the spies spread their report, B’nai Yisrael were hysterical, and only Caleb and Yehoshua offered a rebuttal. But rather than expending their energy trying to undo the spies’ report, they focused on giving the people a different perspective about how to go forward into the future they were confronted with. They spoke in the imperative, “let us go up at once and possess it; for we are able to overcome it.” (13:30) and later, as the people continue to revolt, “the land we passed through to spy it out – the land is very very good! If Hashem desires us, God will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey.” (14:7-9) Thus the majority of the spies become a representation of faithlessness, while Caleb and Yehoshua demonstrate faithfulness. I want to emphasize that, regardless of our political leanings, we are almost always like the majority of the spies and B’nai Yisrael – looking towards the future and that which is required of us with trepidation and incredulity. Yet the faith that Caleb and Yehoshua exhibited is one of the only ways to overcome the toxic fear that such reports engender. How do we cultivate the Caleb and Yehoshua qualities of willingness to fight for the unknown in a hostile climate?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of words over the past year. I made a personal commitment, after Trump’s election, to not get swept up in a momentary fervor of activism, but to involve myself both consistently and deeply in the politics of the things nearest to me – my school being one such place. Over the past few years, JTS has begun reconstructing our campus. In February, myself and many other students found out that JTS had hired a contractor, Gilbane, using an open shop model, which means that both union and non-union subcontractors would be able to compete for bids on the project. Most of us learned this because a local community alliance for worker justice showed up on JTS’ doorstep to rally against the chosen contractor. Suddenly we had new information, and, like the spies, we needed to investigate. Initially the campus was abuzz with questions. Were the claims the protesters were making accurate? Was Gilbane the malicious employer being described? After a few days however, the buzz died down to a murmur.
Like the spies, the reports that began to come to us from our leaders were tinged with qualifications. We care deeply about safety, some said, but unions would tie us into unnecessary levels of oversight. We care about fair wages, but demand in the building industry is so high that we don’t need unions to bargain for fair wages, the free market will provide. We have a core value of employing local and minority workers but unionized labor is predominantly white and suburban. We care about minorities, high safety standards, and fair wages, but union labor is too expensive and ultimately unnecessary to guarantee these things. Unions still have some valuable qualities, but the market is trending towards an open-shop model (and word on the street is that Union Theological Seminary across the way is also using an open-shop model for their upcoming building project).
Yes, each of these things represent important complexities, but how can we be like Caleb and Yehoshua, and answer these complexities from a framework of faithfulness, not fear? How can we hold onto our moral vision without being controlled by the fear that we won’t be able to actualize our ultimate vision? JTS tried to respond to the concerns raised about safety piecemeal, appointing an independent monitor and an advisory board, but the idea that there would be workers on the advisory board hadn’t been broached until I asked about it. It was explained to students that construction workers make $70,000 a year because of market demand, which is a good middle class wage — but this figure doesn’t account for the reality that many construction jobs are short term, and even if they provide prevailing (not merely minimum) wages, a singular contract can’t support workers in finding their next job in the way that unions do.
The concern about the importance of hiring local workers and workers of color is being addressed by unions themselves, who already employ a greater share of Black workers than the nonunion sector and pay them more (see http://www.epi.org/publication/diversity-in-the-nyc-construction-union-and-nonunion-sectors/) and have requirements to offer a certain percentage of their training programs to minorities, working to grow their minority base. Additionally, JTS as an institution can and should work with unions to commit to ensure greater percentages of minority and local contracts, through entering a PLA (project labor agreement) which would enable unions to bargain on behalf of workers, and JTS to stipulate our core concerns (about minorities, safety, wages, etc) in writing. And though I have no trouble believing that markets are trending towards an open shop model, market trends are not moral predictors. The trend away from organized labor ultimately puts workers at risk. As a faith-based institution, we have an opportunity to set an example with financial choices that support our carefully articulated ethical vision.
As with the spies, it is hard to separate out the facts and the fictions inherent in any report. And yet, Caleb and Yehoshua exemplify an orientation to the future that I want us each to take note of. They don’t abdicate their power, saying – the land is good… BUT. Neither do they deny that there are in fact giants, obstacles, valid concerns about the challenges ahead. Rather, they stay grounded in the reality that the only path is forward, towards the promise of a better future. B’nai Yisrael cry and demand a return to the enslavement they came from, while Caleb and Yehoshua say, “do not rebel against Hashem, and you will not fear the people of the land, for they are our bread” (14:9) they understand that we must find the way in which the very challenges we face become our nourishment.