Divrei Torah

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June 24, 2022 - Parashat Shelah 5782

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A Fish We Shouldn’t Let Get Away
A D’var Torah for Parashat Shelah
By Rabbi Katy Allen (’05)

You should have seen the fish that got away!

Remember Paul Bunyan? The giant lumberjack blew through a hollow tree to call his men to dinner, and the blast blew down trees for miles. When he spoke, the limbs fell from the trees.

Such is the stuff of tall tales, for we humans are wont to exaggerate, whether to build ourselves up or to entertain. And we also exaggerate in the other direction:

“I’m going to fail that exam, I’ll never be able to finish school, my life will be a failure!”

“If I tell the truth, they’ll never speak to me again!”

And from our parasha, the report of the spies: “The country we traversed and scouted devours its settlers! All the people we saw in it are of great size; we saw the Nephilim there—the Anakites are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them….Our wives and children will be carried off!” (Num. 13:32-3314:3)

Catastrophizing, always expecting the worst will happen, is a psychological term for a cognitive distortion that prompts us to jump to the worst possible conclusion or to describe pain or other negative emotions or situations in an exaggerated way. But not all dire predictions of the future are exaggerations:

“Your diagnosis is terminal, with a general expectancy of a year to live.”

“If you insist on not exercising, your chances of getting heart disease, diabetes, or cancer are much higher.” (CDC)

As the impacts of climate change continue “…human life, safety, and livelihoods will be placed at risk from sea level rise, severe storms, and hurricanes…flooding will become a dominant risk…large wildfires will increasingly endanger lives [and] livelihoods…”  IPCC facts

In the story in the parasha, two scouts, Joshua and Caleb saw only blessings: “The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land…a land that flows with milk and honey…” (Num. 14:7-8)

We are often faced in life with two choices – to distinguish between real and perceived dangers and how to respond to actual threats.

Caleb and Joshua saw no threat, but perceived all the blessings. What made the difference in how they reacted? The sages provide us with answers:

“Moses changed the name of Hosea son of Nun to Joshua.” (Num. 13:16) By giving him this name יהושע (Yehoshua) which is a compound of י-ה and הושע “G!d may save”, he in effect prayed for him: “May G!d save you from the evil counsel of the spies.” (Rashi quoting Sotah 34b).

“And they went up into the south, and he came to Hebron.” (Num. 13:22). Why is the phrase “and he came” in the singular form? The verse should have said: And they came. Rava says: This teaches that Caleb separated himself from the counsel of the other spies and went and prostrated himself on the graves of the forefathers. He said to them: “My forefathers, pray for mercy for me so that I will be saved from the counsel of the spies.” (Sotah 34b)

Prayer and blessing. Connecting to G!d. These are what gave Joshua and Caleb the power and ability to both see the good and to understand that the threat was not real. Thus, unlike the other scouts, they were neither overwhelmed nor afraid.

That test we are convinced we will fail? The chances are slim. And even if we do, it rarely means the end of our chances for success in life. In fact, sometimes failure opens unexpected doors toward a pathway that is more closely aligned with our deepest self.

Telling the truth to those we love? Yes, we may face hard conversations, but those conversations have the potential to bring us closer together. Telling the truth means being true to ourselves, and even if that does actually lead to a breakdown in a relationship, it also has the potential to lead us to greater connection with ourselves and others.

In the face of a terminal diagnosis, we still have the choice to continue to live fully each day, thus opening us to the possibility of experiencing unexpected blessings in our remaining days.

Recognizing the dangers inherent in a sedentary lifestyle, we can make the choice to find ways to fit activity into our lives and increase our physical and emotional wellbeing.

In response to climate change, we can acknowledge the opening for moving toward greater justice: “Just Transition is a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices…to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy…The transition itself must be just and equitable; redressing past harms and creating new relationships of power for the future through reparations…Just Transition describes both where we are going and how we get there.” (Climate Justice Alliance)

Even when we feel like we don’t have a choice, we actually do have a choice about something.

We always have the choice to see the future in a positive manner, even when facing what may be great danger, either global or personal. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches that “The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you. A place that demands being honest with yourself without regard to the costs in terms of personal anxiety. A place that demands being present with all of yourself.” (Eyes Remade for Wonder, p. 66)

Prayer and blessing. Connecting to G!d. Being present in the moment and to yourself. This is what can give each of us the power and ability to think positively. To find the good in life. To be realistic about what is and what can be. To know that we are not alone. To have a vision for a stronger relationship with the sacred and a just and sustainable world, and to follow that vision.

May we all be like Caleb and Joshua, and may we not let this fish get away.
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Rabbi Katy Allen (AJR ’05) is the founder and rabbi of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long and has a growing children’s outdoor learning program, Y’ladim BaTeva. She is the founder of the Jewish Climate Action Network-MA, a board certified chaplain, and a former hospital and hospice chaplain. She lives in Wayland, MA, with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the singing at Ma’yan Tikvah. She blogs, and invites others to share their wisdom as well, at www.mayantikvah.blogspot.com.