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Fringe Benefits: Seeing the World Through Jewish Eyes
While I love all the books of the Torah, I think my favorite is Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers, which we are now reading. I love it because it speaks so powerfully to me of what each of our lives is all about.
Bamidbar is about the journey from Sinai to the Promised Land - the Land of Canaan. It is not an easy journey. Our people complain; they challenge Moses and Aaron and their leadership, they lose their way, their direction, and their vision, only to find it again.
And in the end, we learn that this generation will not enter the Promised Land, that the next generation will have to complete the task. But the journey is still worthwhile, for they glimpse the boundaries of the land. We learn in this book that how we journey through life may be as important as actually reaching our destination.
If one of our tasks as Jews when we study and grapple with Torah is to find our place in the text - that is, to make the text live in our lives - than this book of Bamidbar is surely about each of our lives. For in truth, as we journey through life, we do stumble and fall. At times, we loose sight of our vision and goals.
And in every relationship as well, there are times when we stumble and loose our way, only to gain it again. This fourth book of the Torah is not just about our ancestor's journey to their Promised Land, it's about our own journey through life.
Spies Like Them!
This week's portion, Shelach Lecha, is filled with adventure and suspense. It is also a most fateful portion. This Shabbat, we read the story of the 12 spies. (If you are like me and love to read spy stories sitting on the beach during the summer, this one is the classic!)
These spies are no ordinary spies, and this is no ordinary story. They are leaders of the tribes, and in an unusual twist for a spy story, we immediately learn each of their names and lineage.
For 40 days and nights, they scout out the land. When they return, all agree that it is a wonderful land, filled with blessing and bounty. But they report to the community: "There is no way we can conquer this land. The people who inhabit it are giants. They devour the people. We looked like grasshoppers in their eyes, and so we felt to ourselves."
Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, dissent. "Let us go up. If we believe in ourselves and in our vision, we will be successful." The people listen to the majority, and this generation is condemned to die in the wilderness.
This is a story about vision, about what objective reality is, and how we understand what we see. This theme of vision, of looking, of understanding what we see continues in the final verses of our portion, where we are commanded to place tzitzit, or "fringes," in the corners of our garments.
What is their purpose? They are like a string around our finger, they serve as a reminder, "In order that you might look upon them and remember to do my commandments (mitzvot), and be holy to your God."
What is the connection between the story of the spies and tzitzit? Perhaps it is to suggest to us that there are various ways of seeing reality, and even more ways of understanding what we see. The spy's failure was a failure of learning to see the world through Jewish eyes.
As we journey from our Sinai to our Promised Land, let us remember to see ourselves and our world through Jewish eyes, making every moment and opportunity for goodness and blessing.
Rabbi David Straus is the rabbi at Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood.