Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Walk Article-Shelach



Rabbi David Walk


As a grandfather I think of babies differently than I did as a father, and that difference is an infinite change from my attitude as a young man.  Until I had children of my own I didn't consider babies an issue worthy of contemplation.  I'm embarrassed to admit that as a guy, babies were more of a nuisance than an object of fascination.  Once I started having my own, they became a focus of my life.  The bond was immediate and everlasting, but there was a downside:  I had an obligation to take care of them, at least a little.  When they cried or were messy, they couldn't be ignored as much as I would try.  However, now as a grandparent (x20) they are pure bliss.  There's no downside; they have parents to do all the heavy lifting.  Their charm only increases with their playfulness.  And the first game they play is 'Peek-a-boo'.  This is so cute.  You hide behind whatever is available, hands, books, doors.  They never tire of it.  Of course, I do, and that causes crying and the handoff to an annoyed parent.  Ah, the joy of payback!  It seems that sometimes we play a similar game with God, as we find out in this week's Torah reading.

Believe it or not, the science of Pee-a-boo is fascinating.  As serious research (by checking Wikipedia) has shown:  Peek-a-boo is thought by developmental psychologists to demonstrate an infant's inability to understand object permanence. Object permanence is an important stage of cognitive development for infants, and usually appears at eight to nine months.  In other words the baby really doesn't think that the object (or you) still exists when it is covered.  Talk about out of sight out of mind!  But we adults, having passed many more than nine months on earth, have no trouble realizing that something continues to exist even if we're not looking directly at it.  Or do we?

I think that this phenomenon helps us to understand a difficult verse in this week's Parsha.  In the aftermath of the Jews' sin concerning the report of ten of the twelve travelers who surveyed Israel, God has said to Moshe (again), 'How long will this people provoke Me? How much longer will they not believe in Me after all the signs I have performed in their midst? I will strike them and annihilate them; then I will make you into a nation, greater and stronger than they (Numbers 14:11-12).'  Here we go again!  The Jews despair over the account by the leaders who visited the Holy Land and this has brought about a new rebellion.  The Jews would prefer to go back to Egypt than go forward to an amazing destiny in their own land.  This new call for the destruction of the Jews and their replacement by the progeny of Moshe brings about the old reaction by Moshe, that God's apparent inability to bring the Jews to Israel will reflect badly on God in the eyes of the world.  However, there's also a new element to Moshe's defense of his people, which is, at first, hard to understand.

Moshe says, 'And now, please, display the greatness of Your power (verse 17).'  What is Moshe asking for?  Is he asking for a miracle, a demonstration of Divine power like in Egypt and at the Sea?  I don't think so.  Although there can be a number of ways to explain this verse, I believe that Moshe was viewing the world metaphorically as a cosmic game of Peek-a-boo or its more grown up version, Hide and Seek. Moshe is telling God that this present test was failed because God made it too hard.  If we're supposed to search eternally for God, then God has to make the game easier.  This can only be done by making the Divine Presence more easily apprehended by the humans who are searching.  Moshe's defense of the Jews is that we are looking for You, God, but right now, with the magnitude of the task of conquering Israel, God isn't allowing enough of the Divine Presence to be seen.  Moshe beseeches God to increase the visibility of Godliness in the world to make the task easier.

It's a balancing act.  God reveals then covers up.  It is always incumbent upon us to look for the Divine trail, and God leaves just enough crumbs to aid us in the endeavor.  Moshe puts the onus on God to keep the trail as clear as possible.  However, many authorities emphasize our responsibility to keep looking in spite of the paucity of clues.  Reb Elimelech of Lizhinsk stressed the search:  Now, God created the world in order to benefit the creatures, who through their service to God will merit great reward. Therefore, holy sparks fell at the time of Creation, so that later through the service that they will perform to raise the sparks, they will merit much good (Noam Elimelech, Shelach).  We see that mankind must be on the prowl for Godly traces at all times and in all places.

This approach answers another question about our world.  Why do we have this physical realm which hides God from our sight?  Well, simply because the world becomes the playing field for the eternal game of Hide and Seek.   This idea goes one step further.  We often ask while learning Bamidbar/Numbers, why a specific mitzvah is juxtaposed to a particular story. In our parsha this difficult story is followed by the mitzvah of teruma, giving a portion of our crops to the cohen.  This makes sense because if the story of the spies informs us to look for God in the physical world, then the mitzvah of teruma teaches us that the physical material around us is the vehicle for our making the world holy and redeeming the sparks or sacred material embedded within it.

This approach answers one more little problem in our central verse (17).  The word for increase or make large the Divine power is yigdal (like the liturgical poem).  In the written Torah scrolls the letter yud at the beginning of the word is itself enlarged.  That's the letter which makes that verb a future tense.  We're being told emphatically that this job and role will be with us far into the future.  We will never stop this eternal game of Hide and Seek.  Go find your Divine Playmate and keep looking until the eschatological call of olley olley umphrey!