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Shlach Lecha: Healing the Crushed Spirit

Va’nehi b’eineinu kachagavim, v’chen hayinu b’eineihem

We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, so we certainly must have looked that way to them. (B’midbar 13:33)

The Children of Israel are preparing to enter the Promised Land. Moses sends twelve scouts, one from each tribe, to scout out the land and bring back a reconnaissance report. Forty days later the scouts return. They bring back an enormous cluster of grapes as evidence of the land’s fruitfulness. But then ten of the scouts offer a damning report: The inhabitants are enormous, titans. They will devour us. We cannot do it. Another scout, Caleb, vigorously disputes their claim: “We must, we must go up to the land and take possession of it, for we surely, surely can do it.” (13:30) But the ten then deliver their coup de grace: no, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, so we certainly must have looked that way to them.” (13:33)

At this, the entire community bursts into wails, and weeps through the night: We’re going to die! “If only we had died in Egypt!” they exclaim, “Let’s turn around and head back to Egypt!” (14:2,4) Total bedlam ensues.

As a result of this breakdown, YHVH declares that the people are not ready to enter the Promised Land. They will instead wander for forty years, until the slave generation has passed away and a new generation raised in freedom comes of age. Only then might they be ready to enter the land. Of the generation that left Egypt, only Caleb and Joshua, who were among the twelve scouts, and who were the only ones who believed that the Children of Israel could attain their goal, would live to see the Promised Land.

The moral of this tale is clear: if you think of yourself as a lowly insect, you are unlikely to attain your goals. But if you are also convinced that everyone else thinks you are an insect, then you are certain to fail. You are unlikely to even try. You might as well head back to Egypt, the place where crushed spirits dwell.

So many of us were conditioned or even abused as children such that we concluded that we were less worthy, less intelligent, or somehow less deserving of a place in the sun than most everyone around us. So many of us learned to enter a new social situation in fear, assuming that we were somehow uniquely unwelcome. This is certainly the adolescent nightmare that almost every one I know once faced or faces today. That sense of smallness is disabling in and of itself. But then we project our own self-judgments onto the people around us: “I’m sure no one wants to hear what I have to say. After all, it is obvious to everyone how unimportant I am.”

Says who? How did we get this damning idea in our heads? Why do we do this to ourselves? It is a tragedy – are we not all children of God?

In chapter 6 of Exodus Moses makes a stirring speech to the Israelite slaves, promising that YHVH had heard their cries, and that their liberation was coming. “But the people would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Ex. 6:9) Now, in our portion, the Israelites have certainly left slavery, but has the crushing imprint of slavery left them? This is the lifelong challenge we each face: to contest our “learned powerlessness”; to recondition ourselves, day by day, to think of ourselves and to act as fundamentally equal and worthy as those around us. Only then will the Promised Land appear attainable to our eyes.

Let’s practice together. Assuming that most of us are still feeling like grasshoppers a certain amount of the time, let’s remind one another with encouraging demeanor and words that, however lowly you may think of yourself, your projection that we share the same low opinion of you is unfounded, even ridiculous. As we worship the Power in the Universe that liberates the slave, let us serve that Power, and work to heal one another’s crushed spirit.

In Leviticus 26:13 YHVH declares, “I, Life Unfolding, am your God who brought you out from Egypt to be slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke so that you might walk erect.” As with the slaves in Egypt, the first and necessary step is to liberate the oppressed and the abused from the yoke of cruel oppression. But that is only the beginning. We must also help liberate one another from the yoke of a crushed spirit, so that we might feel cared for and confident enough to straighten our backs and walk upright together towards our Promised Land.

Ken y’hi ratzon – So may it be.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan