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An Account of Death and Memory

June 7, 2007 By:
Rabbi Cynthia Kravitz
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Dedicated to the memory of my husband, Dr. Nathaniel Entin, who passed away the week of Parashat Shelach 5765.

The words of the Torah are a pathway guiding us through and even beyond life. This week's parashah, Shelach, recounts the adventures of the 12 tribal chieftains sent by Moses to scout out the land of Israel. This reconnaissance is critical to both the physical and spiritual future of our people.

It is clear that the report of the returning 12 scouts will shape our people's courage and attitude about entering a land that we have not seen for the 400-plus years that we have been slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.

The report of 10 of the scouts is strikingly different from the other two. At the end of the 40-day mission, 10 very distressed scouts report that "the land is flowing with milk and honey ... however, the people who inhabit the country are powerful. The country we traveled is one that devours its settlers ... we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them."

Joshua and Caleb, the two remaining scouts, paint a very different picture. "The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceeding good land. ... If the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into that land ... have no fear of the people of that country."

This episode clearly speaks to a Jewish shaping of our attitudes toward the unknown and its relationship to faith in God. It is a message of optimism and belief in a good future, even when all signs point to the contrary. The heart of Joshua and Caleb's message tells us that we must trust in the goodness of God's path, no matter how frightening.

Nowhere did I experience the wisdom of this more than when my own husband passed away. As a rabbi and a teacher, how many times have I turned over the words of Torah in helping others? Now it was my turn, and I looked to the portion Shelach for a message, a hint of wisdom of how I should be "going into this new land."

My search has taken me on many paths as I come to reconcile myself to this new place. It has forced me to grapple with our tradition's understanding of "the world to come" and my place in it together with my husband. It has forced to confront the Jewish idea of eternality.

Two excellent guides along the way have been Does the Soul Survive by Rabbi Elie Spitz and The Death of Death by Rabbi Neil Gillman.

My surprise, in this personal journey, was just how uncomfortable the Jewish people are in speaking about this idea. I understand very well the origins of this discomfort. We hear "the world to come" -- and our minds think "mysticism, superstition, messianism and beyond."

Our comfort level, as a people, varies on discussing these ideas in a matter-of-fact manner. This is unfortunate, given that we come from a tradition that invites and even enjoys speculation on the question of what comes next, if anything at all.

However you weigh in on this question of "the world to come," this parshah has taught me that it is faith in God that makes all of the difference in how we navigate the unknown. If I am to follow the words of the 10 scouts, then my life as a widow is fearful and intimidating.

If however, I listen to Joshua and Caleb, I then take my steps forward with a belief in God's presence that will help me to face my fears with confidence and trust in a good future. It is ultimately my choice -- one born of my own psychological makeup, and the shaping done to it by Jewish belief and tradition

It is through the study of Torah and an openness to personalizing its words that we gain meaning in our lives. The first step is study. I share this with you in the hope that my journey helps others along a path we all eventually must tread.

Rabbi Cynthia Kravitz is the education director of Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester.

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