Monday, June 20, 2011

Shelach Lecha Sermon

Given this week’s news, and last week’s, and perhaps even the week before, I have been thinking about how incredibly disappointing people can be.  People really have the remarkable ability to disappoint.  This of course was the theme of my weekly email message.  I am not going to retell that Talmudic story and its sordid details at services, but here is the question for this evening: what is the meaning of being human?  As human beings we are capable of untold depths, but also of course great heights.  People can indeed disappoint, but also surprise.

We find this theme in the week’s parsha, Shelach Lecha.  It tells the story of the spies who are sent to scout the land of Israel.  Twelve spies are sent; two different reports return with them.  Ten report the following: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them.”  (Numbers 13:32-33)  Joshua and Caleb however say, “The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land…  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!”  (Numbers 14:7-9) 

It is a remarkable contrast: the same experience yet entirely different responses.  Some spies see only the challenges and difficulties.  Joshua and Caleb see instead possibilities.  Joshua and Caleb see only milk and honey.  The other spies see giants; they imagine mythic figures who will overpower them.  For this good report Joshua and Caleb, and they alone, are rewarded with being able to enter the land of Israel.  They are the only two of the generation who leave Egypt allowed to enter the land.  It was of course the same experience for all twelve spies, yet they offered different responses and therefore discovered different outcomes.

There was an interesting article in The New York Times about this week’s events.  It made the claim that male politicians are far more likely to be felled by sex scandals.  Women politicians by contrast are not so frequently embroiled in such things.  The reporter suggested that this was because women better understand how precarious their achievements are and therefore don’t want to jeopardize these hard earned positions.  Sheryl Gay Stolberg also made the claim that men go into politics to be somebody and women by contrast go into politics to change things. 

I thought this last point was an interesting claim.  I am not going to weigh in on this male-female dichotomy, but I am sure it will make for interesting debates at home between husbands and wives.  Instead I wish to focus on the claim that the goal is not to make something of ourselves but instead to make something of the world.  I believe, I have always believed, that this is our God-given task.  And so I guess in the Time’s reporter’s estimation, my belief shows your rabbi’s feminine side.  We are called upon to improve our world, to make things better, even if only a little bit.

Now I am not usually a fan of CNN or the TV news in general, especially this week.  It is not just because of CNN’s biased reporting about Israel.  It is instead that TV is actually no longer news.  It all seems to be approaching reality TV, and even Jersey Shore.  It is because TV reporting spends far too much time talking about people’s mistakes and foibles.

But CNN also has this wonderful program called, "Everyday Heroes".  It showcases ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  Here is one such story. Yuval Roth, is an Israeli whose brother was kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists in 1993.  Since then he has become active in a group that brings together Palestinians and Israelis who have both suffered loss, whether by terrorists or the IDF’s weapons.  (The result of course is the same even though the moral legitimacy is clearly different.)  In this group Yuval discovered a need.

Many Palestinians require medical attention in Israel but can’t afford to get to Israeli hospitals. So Yuval created an organization that now comprises some 200 volunteers.  These volunteers help transport Palestinians to and from the West Bank.  One young three year old Palestinian girl requires frequent dialysis and has been driven some 500 times by the group.  In 2010 the group drove 90,000 kilometers helping Palestinians traverse Israeli checkpoints and reach medical care in Israel.  Yuval said the following: “I lost my brother, but I didn't lose my head.  This activity gives me an essence for life. I have learned the price of the conflict is a lot more than the price of making peace. We are all human beings.”

Many people might understandably look at this situation and make a different choice.  Many people might again understandably allow grief to turn into anger.  But Yuval demanded of himself something different.  He chose instead to make something of this world.  He did not set out to make a name for himself.  He chose instead to transform his small piece of the world.  Whether or not he helps to make peace in the Middle East is not the point.  He is helping to bring healing to others.  To a greater or lesser extent each of us is faced with a similar choice.

We have to decide.  We can look in the mirror (forgive me, I cannot resist) and say like our former congressman, “Wow don’t I look fine?”  Actually in case this is unclear, you are not supposed to say that.  You are also not supposed to say with the ten spies, “I am but a puny little grasshopper.”  Or we can say what we are supposed to say, “What good can I bring to this world?”  What can I make of this world?  What can I change?  What healing can I bring to others?

In the end Anthony Wiener’s sin was not that he tweeted a picture of himself, however lewd and salacious it might have been.  His failure was one of leadership.  The moral issues are only between him and his wife.  His sin was instead that he actually thought it was all about himself.  Leadership, and politics, are supposed to transcend the self.  His failure to see this was his great undoing, and our shame.  It is never supposed to be about ourselves.  Ok, maybe that is an impossible ideal.  It is not supposed to be only about ourselves.

Try thinking about others first.  Try thinking about what the world need you to do first.  Because the more of us who live by Joshua’s and Caleb’s example the better.  That is, the better the world will be for it.  Thinking about others and our world is really supposed to be our most important job.  It is all of our jobs.  But it is especially the job of our leaders.

Below is the CNN video clip of Yuval Roth.

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