Putting a Face with the Name – Parshat Shlach Lecha 5779

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I’ve written about naming and the meaning of names before, but it seems it keeps catching my eye in various places in the Torah. I always recall how we named our two children. With our daughter, we had a few good alternatives, but Shiri was our favorite girl’s name. For Matan, it was a little different. Most of you know that his English name is Max, and his Hebrew name is Matan (meaning “gift”). But we never actually use his English name. You see, for both children we were more certain about the girls’ names than the boys names we picked, but we didn’t know if Matan would be a boy or a girl. Although “Max” was a top contender, it somehow didn’t seem to match as perfectly as we hoped when Duncan had to tell the hospital his name after he was born. Even at his bris I wasn’t so sure about it, and by the time we did realize that we were calling him Matan instead of Max, it was past the time when it would have been easy to legally change it. Despite the fact that filling out medical and other legal forms is somewhat complicated now, saying his Hebrew name each day is still a delight and joy to remember how incredible this gift is.

Names convey an identity in a couple of ways, including how we relate to family members as well as to our religion. As you probably know, the Torah is full of examples of how religion influences names. Think of the changes of Avram to Avraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Yisrael. Moshe gets his name because the Hebrew root means to be drawn up as he was drawn out of the water.

This week we read Parshat Shlach Lecha and the story of the spies. The parshah begins with Moshe sending 12 spies, one from each tribe, into the land of Cana’an to bring back an accounting of the land. The spies return with their report, and it’s pretty discouraging. Two spies report back with a positive message, but the negativity of the other ten reports instills so much fear into the nation that they decide they do not want to make the journey into the promised land after all. This infuriates God, who then decrees that anyone who went out from Egypt at age 20 or older will not be allowed to enter the land of Cana’an. This generation will purposefully die out so that a new generation, unfettered by the destructive mindset of their predecessors, can start anew.

We tend to think of Joshua as the hero of the story because he was one of the two spies who returned with an honest, unexaggerated report of the land. However, in the list of the spies we’re given in chapter 13, verse 16 it says, “Moses changed the name of Hosea, son of Nun, to Joshua.” By adding the letter yud, the meaning of his name becomes “God will save.” Rashi interprets this change to mean “May God save you from the malign and influence of the other scouts.”

As early as the Torah, we’re given this lesson that perhaps there’s something more to a name than just an identifier. We have the power to change them, and sometimes they have the power to change us. In Judaism we have a beautiful tradition of changing the names of our loved ones in times of trauma by adding “chayim” (life) to strengthen that person with life. Imagine if we always interpreted the sound of our names being spoken out loud as very short, individual blessings bestowed on us by others. Imagine how much strength would that build. Shabbat shalom.

You CAN Handle the Truth – Parshat Shlach Lecha 5778

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Sometimes it’s hard to tell how much collective integrity we have. We hear stories all the time about corporations putting shareholders’ interests above customers and employees or about people in positions of power using that power to take advantage of others. On the other hand, more people are standing up for their rights and making their voices heard. How often is your integrity called into question or into action? Have you had to speak out against an injustice, or if you needed to, could you? We try to teach our children that the right way is not always the popular way, but it can be a long road and a difficult lesson.

We find one such lesson in the Torah this week with Parshat Shlach Lecha and the story of the spies. The parshah begins with Moshe sending 12 spies, one from each tribe, into the land of Cana’an to bring back an accounting of the land. The spies return with mixed reviews. Two spies report back with positive findings, but the negativity of the other ten reports instills so much fear in the nation that they decide they do not want to make the journey into the Promised Land after all. This infuriates God, who then decrees that anyone who went out from Egypt at age 20 or older will not be allowed to enter the land of Cana’an. This generation will purposefully die out so that a new generation, unfettered by the destructive mindset of their predecessors, can start anew.

We don’t know the motive behind the negative report, but clearly Moshe and Aaron, as the leaders of the people, must have felt defeated. After having led the Israelites out of Egypt, making promises of a great new land, the very same group decides they want nothing to do with the land anymore, and we’re left to guess whether it was fear of change or a lack of courage on the part of the spies. What we do know is that when Joshua and Caleb come back, they offer a different report. In chapter 14, verses 6-10 we hear of all the good in the land. As they finish their report, they leave with a powerful message:

“Only you must not rebel against the Lord. Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey: Their protection has departed from them, but the Lord is with us. Have no fear of them!” As the whole community threatened to pelt them with stones, the Presence of the Lord appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites.

Joshua and Caleb had the courage to speak the truth. They held integrity to their story and their belief in God in the face of a nation ready to rebel (again). Ultimately, Joshua and Caleb are right. They speak the truth, and as the Christian Gospel of John will instruct in a different context and 600 years later, the truth is literally what sets them free. The misguided majority dies out in the wilderness, and those with courage and integrity (Joshua and Caleb) live on to see their dreams realized. The lesson of Parshat Shlach Lecha is that certain truths don’t vary according to how many people agree. Shabbat shalom.

Life Goes On – Parshat Shlach Lecha 5777

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Living with a three-year-old leads itself to plenty of melodramatic moments. If the hair is not the right kind of Elsa braid, the world ends. No more purple shirts to wear? How can we possibly leave the house? The carrots touched the mac and cheese? Everything on the plate is unfit for consumption. Moments that make it seem as if the world is going to end don’t go away, they just change as we get older. Of course most of the time, we get over it and move on. The challenge is to find the appropriate reaction to our circumstances.

In the Torah, we’ve now reached the point where the Israelites are ever closer to reaching the promised land and their own new beginning. Parshat Shlach Lechah, our Torah portion this week, teaches us about the nature of change and the emotions that come with it. The text begins with Moshe sending out twelve men, one from each tribe, to look at the land of Cana’an. As the spies venture out, one can imagine Moshe standing and watching them fade into the distance, hoping they’ll come back with a positive report. Like a parent or teacher, he knows they might be nervous or scared, and he hopes that they represent their community with good faith and integrity.

The spies check out the land and all but two come back with a doom and gloom report of what lies ahead. New places can be scary, and the spies admittedly see that. However, new places are also full of possibility; only Joshua and Caleb have eyes to see that. As the spies share their negative experience of the promised land, the Israelites, like the melodramatic teenagers they are, react negatively. “If only we had died in the land of Egypt,” the whole of the community shouted at Moses and Aaron. Yes, rather than take on the new challenge in a new land, the Israelites, tired, overwhelmed, and scared, would have rather died.

In life there are moments where we feel helpless, inadequate, and unable to deal. But, as a part of a community, we can support one another through these moments and press on. Parshat Shlach Lecha reminds us that we always possess the power to do just that.

See For Yourself – Parshat Shlach Lecha 5776

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One of the areas where I struggle the most as a parent is holding myself back in order to let Shiri explore the world on her own. It’s much faster to climb a flight of stairs when I pick her up, but she needs to be able to take each step, one by one, to truly learn how to do it. The same is true of trying new foods or engaging in any other new experience. Sometimes she even learns lessons on her own despite my guidance. Sure, I can tell her the macaroni and cheese is hot and she should blow on it before digging in, but she still may insist on putting it in her mouth, only to scream that it’s too hot. Discovery is how we learn to be in the world.

There’s a big difference between experiencing the world and being told about the world. There’s a reason that experiential and project-based learning are the trends in education. Reading about solar energy could be interesting on its own, but it can’t compare to building a solar-powered kit and then charging a battery from your creation. Education excels when we do more than read the facts, we internalize them and use them in a way that opens the mind to retain the information. We see a similar pattern in the Israelites’ behavior after they leave Egypt. Upon leaving they feel strongly that life was better in Egypt. Until they actually engage with the world around them (instead of simply projecting their feelings), they’re not able to see the beauty of opportunity.

We read parshat Shlach Lecha this week, detailing the new nation’s approach to the land of Israel. The text begins with the sending of spies, one from every tribe, into the land and continues with the report they bring back. Ten of the spies return in fear, and that fear spreads throughout the rest of the nation, causing them to question even trying to enter the land. God becomes angry with the people and their inability to accept new situations, but hopes that Joshua and Caleb, the two spies bringing positive reports, can turn this attitude around.

The text may be familiar, but there’s still a puzzling reversal from how change was viewed many generations before. Earlier in the Torah in another instance when venturing into a new land is necessary, Abraham is happy to leave his home and go where God tells him. Here though, the Israelites appear afraid. This week’s text begins “Shlach l’cha,” meaning “send for yourself.” God is saying to the Israelites the trip into the land is for their own purposes, not for God’s purposes. God, as the parent, is saying, “I already told you the land was good, but you don’t seem to trust me. So go on your own and see for yourself.”

Sometimes the only way to believe is to see it with your own two eyes. Whether it’s a toddler trying to explore and learn the world around her, or a grown-up searching for some meaning in new information, understanding the world often requires active investigation, not just thoughtful consideration. Our parshah this week is the perfect reminder that there are moments to put your faith and trust in God, and there are moments when we must go out and do and see (and spy) for ourselves.

Parenting by the Parshah – Shlach Lecha

Whether it’s a giant sand dune or a strange, foreign land, new experiences are all about perspective. In Parshat Shlach Lecha, this too is Torah.

Also, I’ll be live streaming on Facebook with an “Ask a Rabbi” segment Thursday, June 30th mid-afternoon PDT (early evening EDT). Have a question that needs a rabbinical answer? Join me! Check the page for more details: https://www.facebook.com/RabbiEvePosen