RE:VERB THIRTY-FOUR / SHLACH LECHA / DESCRIBE
A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie
A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.
On the last day of their first trip to Israel, they had a terrible fight. D. stayed up all night crying on the balcony of their hotel room, overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. K. was down at the hotel bar. K. is an old friend of mine, born and bred in NYC, a nice Jewish boy. D., his partner, born to a devout Hindu family in London, is considering conversion. They’ve been together for three years. This trip was meant for them to really discuss the conversation issue, to see Israel for the first time, together.
We met for breakfast early in the morning after their terrible fight. I walked into the hotel lobby and immediately saw that something was wrong: both of them sitting, stiff, at two ends of a sofa wearing sunglasses, reading newspapers.
So, nu, how do you like Israel?
I drag them to a rooftop café with excellent fresh baked bread and a grand view of the city. Eventually, it all comes out: The short version: K. hates Israel. D. loves it.
The tension, the loudness, soldiers with guns everywhere, the heat, the occupation, the arrogance, the amazing food, the sky, the no-nonsense friendliness of the people, how sexy they are, even the soldiers, the history everywhere, the smell of Jasmine at night. D. is reminded somehow of India – just so different and unfamiliar. ‘Maybe that’s exactly why I am so uncomfortable’, K. muses, ‘it’s so unbearably familiar – like back at temple growing up, only all the time and much, much louder.’ They don’t even remember what started the fight – something about the politics, for sure, some conversation they had with a tour guide in reaction to Obama’s Cairo speech. At this point in the game – forget conversion – they are not even sure they want to stay together. ‘How can he be so self-hating?? So negative about his homeland?? It makes me doubt everything about him’ D. confides in me when K. walks off to find the bathroom. Later that day, K. and I, sit on the ancient wall overlooking the valley of Kidron separating East and West Jerusalem. To our left, the barricade – the New Wall separating the territories from Israel is clearly visible. ‘Yes, I am a naysayer on this,’ K. says. ‘And it’s ok for D. to be all damn positive and full of love, it’s beautiful and I get it – but – reality bites! This is hard to witness, it colors everything for me.’ One couple, visiting one country with two completely different views: I’m waiting for updates.
One people, completely different views – here’s another update:
In this week’s installment of the Torah, Shlach-Lecha, twelve tourists are sent by Moses to check out Israel, before the rest of the people migrate. In later descriptions, the 12 delegates, each one a leader of one of the tribes of Israel, will be described as ‘spies’, but at this point in the history they are just ‘men’ sent to ‘tour’ or ‘scout’ the land. The Hebrew verb is actually the same as the English one – ‘tour’ – visit – come back to describe.
The terrible fighting begins when the delegation comes back to report to Moses and the people, describing what they saw. Two of the tourists are all thumbs up – the land is milk and honey. The other ten are terrified: giants, large walled city, indigenous people prepared to fight. That night, the Torah tells us, the people weep. They want to go back to Egypt, choose a new leader, turn back to Egypt.
Two interesting verbs show up to describe how the tourists described the Promised Land. The first is va’ysapru – ‘they told’ – from the root SFR – origin of the Hebrew words for story and for book. After forty days on mission, the 12 come back with souvenirs – samples of giant grapes and a fruit basket. “This is what they told him: ‘We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.’” (Num. 13:27 NJPS translation)
Then comes the bad news, and the more complex verb: “And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, ‘The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature.’” (Num. 13:32 King James Bible) ‘Brought up an evil report’ is elsewhere translated as ‘spread lies’, ‘gave bad account’, ‘spoke Ill’ or ‘spread calumnies.’
The Hebrew is actually three words – va’yotziyu dibat ha’aretz – a modern translation may be ‘they slandered the land.’
Confused by lush fruit and bad news, the people begin another revolution. They even lift up stones to attack Moses, but God interferes. It ends up badly, of course, the ten tourists who said ‘nay’ are mysteriously killed and the entire generation is doomed to die in the desert. One of the two ‘yay’-saying tourists, Joshua Ben Noon, will soon become their new leader.
The ten tourists are classically seen as the bad guys in this story. Today, the ADL would probably have them on its watch-list for being anti-Israel or worse.
But their voice is heard here, and echoes - a legitimate, if deeply disturbing description of what some see when coming here. D. and K. are but two modern examples of this ancient multi-headed way of looking at, and describing, the holy land.
And it’s not just about Israel – it’s about how we choose to look at reality – how we choose to describe what’s going on – positive, negative, fruits or fears. Both are real, and both are legitimate – and sometimes this and sometimes that prevails. There are more than two sides to many coins. What matters here is what we choose to see and how we choose to describe reality.
Milk, honey, giants and guns – the people of Israel chose in, and here we are still, debating the land, describing it from so many different angles, fighting to be heard. There is more than one way to read this story, or tell this tale. The word ‘describe’ refers to the act, the art of refereeing that which is written – scribed – and interpreting it. Text or terrain – the personalized process of description has to enable a multiplicity of possible readings.
The huge challenge of pluralism – for each individual – for each group – how to let all those voices co-exist, and respect each opinion and description, the critical and the supportive together. Somehow, the various descriptions of reality define our grand destinies and holiday destinations.
I haven’t heard from K. & D. yet, but the Facebook status of one of them read ‘Wish you were here. Good to be home.’