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Parashat Shelah-Lekha

by Rachel Petroff | Published on June 1, 2006

First of all, I want to thank Rabbi Ezring for giving me the oppor­tu­nity to speak to all of you this Shabbat. It truly is a blessing to be with you this evening.

In this week’s Torah portion, “Shelah-Lechha” God instructs Moses to send a repre­sen­ta­tive from each of the twelve tribes to go and scout out the land of Israel. For forty days, these twelve men are gone on their journey. When these spies return, they all speak of a land of plenty, a land flowing with milk and honey. To prove their point, they bring back with them a cluster of grapes so large that two of the men need to carry it together. Now I have been to this Promised Land, and I can tell you with confi­dence that there are no freaky human-sized grapes there, though the produce is fabulous.

Ten of these twelve men, however, also carry back with them stories about the people who inhabit the land. They are so big that the Israelite spies saw them­selves as grasshop­pers in their pres­ence. These men fear that the Israelites will be unable to conquer this land, and that the current inhab­i­tants will kill them and their offspring. Their fears catch on among the rest of the Israelites, and soon all of them are crying to God, suggesting that it would have been better to stay in Egypt than to risk such a terrible fate.

Amidst this panic, only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, retain their confi­dence in God’s ability to deliver the land into the hands of the Israelites. God, so angered by this lack of confi­dence, only the latest of many lapses of faith since the Israelites have entered the desert, threatens, and not for the first time, to smite all of the Israelite people and make a second go of it with Moses and his offspring.

Luckily, Moses talks God off the ledge and God chooses to spare the Israelite people. Instead of utter anni­hi­la­tion, God decides that the gener­a­tion of Israelites who were slaves in Egypt, those who are appar­ently unable to sustain their faith in God in the face of uncer­tainty, will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. For forty years the Israelites were sentenced to wander in the dessert. The number forty is a highly inten­tional choice, as God corre­lates the number to the number of days that the scouts jour­neyed, saying, “You shall bear your punish­ment for forty years, corre­sponding to the number of days – forty days – that you scouted the land: a year for each day.”

I had the great priv­i­lege of living this past year in the heart of the Modern State of Israel, in the capital city of Jerusalem. As you all prob­ably know, Israel this year cele­brated sixty years of Statehood. It was a monu­mental event, marked by great festiv­i­ties in Israel and throughout the Diaspora. In Jerusalem, however, it was not the only special anniver­sary being recog­nized. On every govern­ment banner commem­o­rating 60 years of Statehood, the number 40 was also promi­nently displayed. 40, in cele­bra­tion of 40 years of a united Jerusalem.

The Six-Day war, of course, when Israel acquired The Old City and East Jerusalem from the Jordanians, was in 1967. And Israel offi­cially annexed the land just a few days after the war. So tech­ni­cally, the fortieth anniver­sary of Jerusalem as a united city took place last year, in 2007. Israel has chosen to cele­brate it this year, however, in combi­na­tion with 60 years of statehood.

The cele­bra­tion of 40 years of a united Jerusalem have caused me to put a lot of thought into just what it means for Jerusalem to be a united city. I have been blessed to have the oppor­tu­nity to spend over two years living in Jerusalem. Over this time even I, with my terrible sense of direc­tion, have come to know this city, whose streets change names every few blocks and never travel in straight lines. I shopped at the outdoor market of Machane Yehuda, elbowing in to get the freshest fruits and vegeta­bles. I cele­brated Shabbat at count­less syna­gogues, relishing the oppor­tu­nity to expe­ri­ence new modes of prayer. I had count­less picnics in Jerusalem’s many parks, and always sat in awe of the far supe­rior picnicking skills of the Israelis that surrounded me. I consider Jerusalem to be one of my homes, and I know it very well.

This year, however, during my very last week in Israel, I went with an orga­ni­za­tion called Encounter on a tour of East Jerusalem. It seems stupid, right? Why would I go on a tour of a city that I’ve been living in for so long? As it turned out, I spent the day with a bright, artic­u­late and passionate group of young, mostly American, Jews learning about a whole new side of Jerusalem. I walked for the first time along Salah el-Din Street, a kind of equiv­a­lent to Jaffa Street, filled with shops, restau­rants, and people. Even though this street is very close to Jaffa Street, and also less than 10 minutes away from my apart­ment, I had never been there before.

In the after­noon, we had the oppor­tu­nity to speak with indi­vid­uals who iden­tify as Palestinians, most of whom are also Jerusalem resi­dents. They spoke of the diffi­culty of balancing their iden­ti­ties as resi­dents of Israeli-controlled Jerusalem with their iden­ti­ties as Palestinians. They spoke of barriers, both phys­ical and polit­ical, that keep them from loved ones who live in the West Bank.

For these equally bright, artic­u­late and passionate people that we met, Jerusalem means East Jerusalem. The friends that they have, the places they frequent, all were in East Jerusalem. The same prin­ciple holds true for Israeli Jerusalemites I know. Most never go to East Jerusalem, and even those who live in the mixed Arab and Jewish neigh­bor­hood of Abu Tor gener­ally socialize only with other Jews. Given this divide of popu­la­tions and neigh­bor­hoods, not to mention other issues such as discrep­an­cies in munic­ipal services, it is worth asking whether Jerusalem can be accu­rately described as a “united city.”

Throughout the day on the Encounter tour, I was struck by the fact that no one we met spoke about the cele­bra­tion of 40 years of a united Jerusalem. In fact, throughout our day in East Jerusalem we did not see any of the banners so promi­nent in West Jerusalem that cele­brate the anniver­saries of Statehood and Jerusalem’s unification.

What does it mean, then, that only approx­i­mately two thirds of Jerusalem’s popu­la­tion is cele­brating this 40 year anniver­sary? Was East Jerusalem conquered in 1967 or was it liber­ated? If the two distinct popu­la­tions that live in the city still keep sepa­rate from one another has the city been truly united?

These are not ques­tions that I have the answers to, except to say that I am dissat­is­fied with the current state of my beloved city. I believe that this 40th anniver­sary ought to be a time of reflec­tion and contem­pla­tion for the future of this Holy place.

For the Israelites, the 40 years in the desert forged them into a nation. But forty years of Jerusalem under Israeli rule has not brought the diverse popu­la­tions living within her bound­aries together. By the time the Israelites entered the land of Israel, a change in lead­er­ship had occurred and a new gener­a­tion was leading the people. In Israel today, it is not so clear how much lead­er­ship has changed. To be sure, in 1977 the right-wing Likud party broke the unin­ter­rupted rule of the Left. But since then, the lead­er­ship has flipped back and forth, with many of the same faces appearing time and time again.

I don’t know what the future holds for Jerusalem, and despite a bach­e­lors degree in Middle Eastern Studies, I have no wisdom on how to help us reach what I person­ally hope the future will be – a shared capital for two states. But I do believe that our Torah portion can offer us some insight. The greatest down­fall of the spies was that they saw the inhab­i­tants of the land as utterly different from them­selves. When they looked at them, they felt them­selves grow smaller. Imagine what could happen today if we could view the others who share the land of Israel as part­ners instead of unwel­come inhab­i­tants that must be feared or controlled.

All of us, even if we choose not to live out our lives in Israel, know the power of choices made by the commu­ni­ties in which we find ourselves, and how deeply these communal choices can affect our lives. The Israelites acted out of fear, and made a choice that condemned them to wander in the wilder­ness. I hope that we, in all of the commu­ni­ties that we iden­tify with, can work to make choices driven by hope and faith, that we may expe­ri­ence the bless­ings of entering our own Promised Lands.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rachel grad­u­ated from HUC-JIR with a Masters in Religious Education and recently left New York to become Family Educator at Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland.

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