Shabbat Shalom, everyone. Have you ever had a moment where you were ungrateful for something, not realizing how important it is? I sure have, and I’m sure many of you have as well. Picture this: your grandma gives you a sweater that she knit. It says, “I love my grandma,” in the center of a heart. You roll your eyes. “Uh, thanks,” you might say, imagining how embarrassing it would be to wear it around. People might then only know you as “Grandma’s Boy,” or something. Cool name, right? You forget that in another situation, that sweater might be the only thing you have to wear in the cold weather. It’s something to be grateful for not just because of the practicality, but also because of the care and work that went into crafting it. (And no, my grandparents wouldn’t actually make me an embarrassing sweater.) In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Sh’lach l’cha, the Israelites took for granted a gift given to them just as you and I might.
In the story, the Israelites have finally left Egypt, and God leads them to their old homeland, Canaan. A small group of spies are sent to scout out the land. The spies return like a kid scared off by a haunted house. First, the scouts talk about the place's riches, the fruit, everything that catches their eye. But then, they shine the flashlight on their own faces, and talk about the spoooky giants, the scary soldiers, how they don’t stand a chance against them. Only two of the spies see the glass half full. The other spies loudly declaim the dangers and risk of taking over the land, and don’t appreciate the possibilities of prosperity in it. Of course, the Israelites then do the natural thing: whine. God doesn’t appreciate the complaining, so God sends the Israelites into the timeout chair of the wilderness for 40 years. At the time there was no child services hotline to report God’s cruelty.
What did the Israelites do wrong? Why are they punished? Some commentaries say that God punished the Israelites because they discredited the land and committed the sin of slander. The scouts claimed that the land “eats up its inhabitants,” and talked about how dirty the air was and how hard it was to farm. God doesn’t like when you talk smack about land apparently. But, why is it a sin to disrespect something inanimate like location?
Fifteenth-century Spanish commentator Isaac Arama thinks that the mistake of the spies was rejecting the land of Israel. He says that the disloyalty to the land shows that the Israelites don’t deserve to retake it. I think that Arama means the Israelites were disrespecting their culture. They forgot that the land was where they came from and helped make them who they were. We, like the Israelites, need to remember where we came from and know that we are the product of so many other people’s struggles to make a better future for the people after them.
In my opinion, the real crime in Parshat Sh’lach L’chah was not that the Israelites disrespected the land, but that the scouts were bad leaders. Most of them discouraged their own people, who were already downtrodden, from trying to overcome the challenge of taking over Canaan. The Israelites had just escaped from a long time of slavery, where they were harshly oppressed. They had spent their whole lives being told they were worth nothing, so of course they believed it. The pessimistic spies didn’t see that they had to lift the spirits of their people, whose self-esteem was at an all-time low, and help them appreciate the importance of having a homeland where they could prosper and feel safe. The spies’ behavior ensured that their own friends and families would continue to believe that they were weak and worthless, rather than encouraging them to recognize their inner strength, rise above their tragic pasts, and achieve happiness in the land of milk and honey. A good leader should be able to make anyone feel like they are important and recognize when and how to motivate others. Doing something other than shouting, “OH GOD, WE’RE ALL DEAD!” in the face of a challenge seems kind of obvious, but I guess not. We can all try to be positive, uplifting leaders, and it doesn’t take much effort to be a better leader than the spies sent to scout Canaan. I tried to take my own advice with my service project.
My mitzvah project grew out of the desire to help a group of people who are sometimes overlooked as they try to help us live safer lives. I think a lot of us forget the struggle of each individual in the military, who work a very hard job for every one of us. I can’t imagine struggling like they do each day, at times risking their lives, and being forgotten by someone like me who doesn’t often think about the military. Regardless of the politics or morals behind war, it takes a strong and compassionate person to go through what a soldier does. A project called Operation Gratitude helps us show our gratitude to each and every person stationed in the military by reaching out to them with letters, candy, scarves, care packages, even old beanie babies.
I don’t have a beanie baby, so I wrote letters to people serving the country. The goal was to try and make the soldiers feel like someone out there appreciated the sacrifices they made and was thinking of them. I wrote around 50 letters, each with their own original message and a small doodle. I think every soldier, every sailor, every pilot deserves a "thank you" card, or even someone to talk to. I haven't gotten any letters back yet, so I can't say that they really had a friend, but I hope I helped them through their tough days in some way.
Wounded Warriors is a project that doesn't forget the people who are working so hard and putting their lives on the line. Like the spies should have done, I was trying to give the soldiers optimism. This also applies to preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. Since my family, the temple, and my tutor did so much so that I could have the opportunity, I should give it my all and look for the positive. Now that I'm finally up here after months of tutoring, I can say that I was ready to do my best and be confident in myself.
Enough about me, and more about you. Thank you so much to everyone here today, to everyone who helped me, to everyone who cleaned up the temple for today. Thank you to my parents for driving me around to so many places, for, everything really. You taught me to work hard and told me that it would all be worth it in the end. Thank you to my brother and sister for putting up with me--sometimes I wonder how you do it. I’m glad you’re okay with me making stupid jokes and that you actually laugh at them. Thank you to my family for coming from near and far to support me. You always are so caring. Thank you to my tutor Missie for teaching me so much and making sure I went the extra mile. Even when she wasn’t feeling well, she always made sure to chant loudly and clearly to help me. Thanks so much to Rabbi Penzner for always being supportive of me and helping me with this d’var Torah. Without you I would be staring nervously at the wall right now without anything to say. I would also like to thank Ashley Adams for helping with my public speaking. Morah Ilana, Morah Tracy, and all my other Chaverim School teachers have taught me a lot about what it means to be a Jew. I certainly know now that it's not just Dreidels and Purim carnivals. Last but not least, thank you to my friends from school, Hebrew school, and everywhere else for staying with me all these years. Hopefully by next year I’ll actually be at your eye level when we talk. Shabbat Shalom everyone.