Yom Rivii, 21 Tammuz 5779
Wednesday, 24 July 2019
Parashat Shelach Lecha 2014

Parashat Shelach Lecha
Rabbi Janet Burden
13th June 2014

When I was a teenager, I always kept a battered copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations by my bed.· This might strike you as terribly odd, but it made perfect sense to me.· I couldn’t trust myself with novels – I would often become engrossed in them and would stay up all night reading.·Suddenly, the sun would rise, and I would have to face a full day of school on no sleep.· Not a good move, I realised.· So I contented myself with flicking through the pages of Bartlett’s until I drifted off, savouring occasional gems that touched my funny bone or which reflected my current world view.

The fact that we had a copy of this book in the house was due to my mother, who knew a vast body of folk sayings, which I seem to have picked up by osmosis.· You know the kind of thing:· “A penny saved is a penny earned” and so on. ·But the phrase I remember hearing most often was, “Hindsight is always 20-20” (usually followed by a resigned sigh).· In practical terms, what that meant was that we were going to be stuck with the consequences of someone else’s bad decision – but we weren’t allowed to blame him or her for it.· In such a context, the phrase is harmless enough.· I have learned that it can even be a comfort, when I need to forgive myself for a lack of foresight.

Yet perhaps because this phrase was repeated so often, the idea that one could be certain of the truth in retrospect insidiously wormed its way into my consciousness.· The idea that one’s perspective is inevitably coloured by personal experience and immediate circumstances had never really occurred to me.· It was only much later in life that I came to understand that retrospective vision is almost NEVER 20-20, and in fact is often in need of some pretty strong corrective lenses.

The children of Israel in today’s portion are a good case in point.· When confronted with the prospect of going into battle to secure the land, they suddenly decide that life in Egypt wasn’t so bad after all.· In fact, it was so good, perhaps they ought to return?· Shocking as this idea is, we should remember that this is the second point that such a suggestion has been made.· The first time was on the way to Mt. Sinai.· At that point, the ‘lens’ over their vision was that of hunger.· The people then fell to reminiscing over the pots of flesh and the delicious onions and garlic that were freely available to them in Egypt.· They forgot all about the oppressions of slavery and remembered only their full stomachs.· In the present case, the lens over their vision is that of fear.· Compared to the giants of the land they are expected to conquer, the Egyptian taskmasters look like pussycats.· In relative terms, they were safe in Egypt, so the idea of returning seems pretty appealing.

Most commentaries I have read on this incident focus on how legitimate God’s anger is at this point.· That the children of Israel are exasperating cannot be disputed.· Yet it seems to me that it is not only the people’s vision that is far from 20-20.· God is also seeing through a filter: through a lens of anger.· This leads to the Divine memory being somewhat selective – kiveyechol, as if one could suggest such a thing.·But think about it.· God is pitching what sounds like a bit of a tantrum:· “But I’ve given them signs!” as if to say, “What more do they want?”·The way the narrative is presented, God demonstrates little compassion and even less understanding of why the people respond in the way that they do.· It is a classic case of not listening to what is behind the words.· The people have spent not just years but generations being convinced of their worthlessness and powerlessness.· This is a reality that God – or at least God as presented in this passage - cannot, or will not, see.

I find it interesting that Moses’ function here is to help God to regain perspective.· Curiously, he doesn’t try to get God to change his mind about the people at all.· What he does instead is remind God about the bigger picture, trading the filter of anger for something akin to a wide angle lens, as it were.· If anyone has perfect vision in this piece, it is Moses – but I would argue that it is 20-20 foresight, not hindsight.· He predicts how the nations would view the demise of Israel, and what the implications are for God.

It is an incredibly bold move – patently playing on what could be seen as God’s vanity.· He heaps on the epithets that are now so familiar to us from the Yom Kippur liturgy, calling on God to live up to the words, erech apayim v’rav chesed “slow to anger and abounding in love”.·· It is only then that God relents and says, Salachti Kidvarecha, “I have pardoned according to your word.”

My point is this:· if God’s vision can be understood at times as in need of correction, al achat kamah v’chamah – how much the more so is ours!· We need to be aware that we inevitably see the world through a series of lenses:· through our needs, our wants -and yes, sometimes through our fear or anger.· None of us has 20-20 vision, not even in hindsight.· By acknowledging that with humility and grace, we make room for the possibility that someone else can help us to see better and more truly.· In this way, we can move forward in our lives and find the courage we need to meet the challenges that face us.· And who knows, it might help us to be more compassionate – not only to others, but also to ourselves.