The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
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Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Friday, June 15, 2012

Principled Pragmatism

Rabbi David Segal
Parshat Shelach Lecha
June 15, 2012, Aspen, CO

Unfortunately, the Presbyterian Church is at it again. They'll be considering resolutions later this month at their General Assembly, on phased selective divestment from companies that do business with Israel. And they have another resolution calling Israel an “apartheid state.”

This is in the context of the last half-decade when most mainline Protestant churches have talked about divestment from Israel in one form or another. But strides had been made -- similar resolutions were voted down or otherwise headed off by the Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches.

Of course, a big part of the answer to this confrontation is continued cultivation of relationships with Presbyterians "in the pews" as well as clergy and leaders. It's slow and steady work, and very important, and I'm proud that the Reform Movement is one of the leaders in this kind of relationship building.

But on another level, this issue got me thinking about how we Jews respond to crises. It begins with fully assessing the problem, and we have an example in this week’s parshah:

Of the 12 scouts sent to survey the land, ten of them return with the following report: 
The people there are powerful, the cities are fortified and large, and Amalek (our old foe!) lives there!

Caleb & Joshua, however, try to calm the people. They give a pep talk: 
We can take the Land, we can do it! Yes we can!
The ten scouts make their rebuttal:
The people there are giants! We must look like grasshoppers to them -- we do to ourselves! Let us not go up against those people, for they are stronger than we are! (Note on ממנו "than we" – it can also mean stronger "than God” -- so Rashi suggests -- making the scouts' lack of faith all the more blasphemous.)

The people lose it. They weeping and raise their voices. They murmur against Moses and Aaron: By God, we wish we had died in Egypt, or at least in this desert! Let’s get another leader and go back to Egypt.

Caleb and Joshua try again with the pep talk:
It's a great land, flowing with milk and honey!
God is with us, we will prevail!

The people's response? They throw rocks.

Clearly, our tradition is biased toward Caleb & Joshua. The other scouts and those who follow them are doomed to perish in the desert with an entire generation. But it would be too glib to say: be more like Caleb & Joshua. Just have faith, God is with us, we will prevail.

That kind of theology is not sufficient in our days. We know too much. We’ve suffered too much, even.

But the story continues, with God making an appearance, finally. God’s glory comes down as the people threaten to stone Caleb and Joshua. God says Moses: “Lemme at ‘em! I’ll destroy them all and make an even better nation of YOU!” (That's paraphrased, of course...)

And it's here, in Moses' response, that I think we find a model for all of us. Moses says:
“God, what will the Egyptians think?
‘You freed this people with many miracles, only to kill them in the desert’?
You’re not powerful enough to bring them into the land, to overcome their obstacles’?
And by the way, God, remember how you said you’re a merciful God, slow to anger, forgiving sin and transgression...?So forgive them, according to your mercy.
AND since you’ve taken this people this can't stop now.”

God’s response is simple and elegant, a powerful line that appears prominently in our High Holiday liturgy:
Vayomer Adonai: salachti kidvarecha / And God said: I have forgiven according to your argument.

This is Moses the principled pragmatist, and we would do well to follow his lead.

Principled. As he urges God to be true to God-self, so should we be true to ourselves as Jews, and work toward better unity as Jewish community, because that’s who we’re supposed to be. A light unto the nations, a people who preserve minority opinions, who embrace disagreement and argument l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven.

Pragmatist. Moses also asks God to consider what others will think. Because our reputation matters. If we are busy tearing each other apart rather than embracing dissent and working toward consensus where we can, then what hope do we have of changing the world? How can we fulfill our destiny if we are scattered and estranged from each other?
If we embrace both of these -- principle and pragmatism -- like Moses, then we can speak powerfully and effectively when, like today, the Presbyterian Church threaten our values, or tomorrow, whatever challenges come our way.

So here's something small you can do: when you hear a comment or get an email from a Jew badmouthing or demonizing another Jew who differs on some opinion -- I challenge you, our tradition calls you, our future needs you -- to stand up to it. Respectfully, but firmly, call it out.

The future of the Jewish people and, indeed, Jewish relevance to the world depends on it. Neither the pessimism of the scouts, nor simply the pep talk of Caleb of Joshua. Instead, we need a healthy dose of the principled pragmatism of Moses.


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