By Rabbi Andrea Steinberger
I was having a conversation last week over Zoom with a friend I’ve known for over 20 years. She and I were talking about the many, many challenges for us human beings in these months ahead: Of staying healthy. Of keeping our jobs. Of fighting for racial justice and equality. Of dealing with all of the uncertainty that we face that is, indeed, real. She asked me if I ever found moments of hope these days. That question struck me. Is there hope in my life? There have been many moments these days when I have felt a tremendous amount of doubt. It is taking me an extraordinary amount of talking myself through some uncertain moments each day about the larger picture of where this world is heading and also the very small picture of how I and others can stay physically healthy in the months to come. The merging of our own personal needs and the worries we have for the world can produce so much anxiety in a person. Do I have hope? How can I rise above my doubts to find a soulful response to my questions?
I have always felt a connection to this week in Torah. Shlach L’cha, a Torah portion several weeks into the book of Bamidbar, was the Torah I learned as I became a bat mitzvah. And one of my daughters also learned this portion as she became a bat mitzvah. It tells a very powerful and complicated story.
Shlach L’cha tells the tale of the anxious Israelite people watching as Moses calls on leaders, one from each tribe, to scout out the land of Canaan ahead of the Israelite people. The scouts go into the land and find it daunting. They see the beauty of the land, but they also see its challenges. They report back to Moses and Aaron and the Israelite people, telling them that there were just too many challenges ahead of them in the new land, and as a result, that the Israelites simply should not enter into it. This announcement from the scouts caused such chaos among the Israelite people, who became so panicked that they wished they had already died rather than face a future of uncertainty.
The Jewish tradition feels that this moment and the delivery of the news by the scouts is very important for us, as readers. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, a Hassidic rabbi in Poland in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, taught that these scouts may have told stories that were factually correct, but they were indeed not the truth. The truth, said the rebbe, is more than a summary of the facts. It is when the soul responds to the facts and looks for ways, in effect, to bring hope to oneself and to other people. In other words, sometimes the facts feel very grim. It is at this moment that we can reach up above our own worries to respond with hope in our souls. To me, in my interpretation, it means that we must dig down even farther into our own wellness reserves and become even more compassionate to one another, even more open to understanding another person’s story, even more caring toward our own selves and to each other.
The name of this Torah portion “Shlach L’cha” – literally means “send for yourself.” And that is a lesson for us all. Each of us must make the decision, sometimes daily, to send ourselves above our doubts, to find a soulful answer to the questions that continue to trouble us. May we find the strength within us to not only see things as they are right now, but to see things as they might be. And may we each find the courage to make things the way they should be.
Andrea Steinberger is a rabbi at the Hillel at the University of Wisconsin, teaching, learning, questioning, and helping students create and expand their Jewish lives and practices during their college years.