This week’s parasha is about the spies. It’s also my Birthday parasha, although growing up reform/conservative I didn’t know these things until I came to Israel. That’s not totally true, I must have known it at some point, I did have a Bat Mitzvah after all, but there was absolutely no sense of relevance or meaning when I memorized the Hebrew, so it never stuck in my mind.
Nonetheless, when I rediscovered this portion, Shelach, along with the idea that your birthday parasha holds some clue or connection to your individual mission in the world, the Zionist in me was thrilled. I had already moved to Israel, sight unseen, with little more than faith, passion and a healthy sense of drama (like our people were apparently supposed to do 3,500 years ago). Putting these pieces together one Shabbat in the hilltop city of Tsfat, I was actually a little freaked out, and quite a bit in awe that perhaps my life was on track afterall and I was participating in some cosmic Tikkun.
Shelach has since become one of my favorite parashot, even if I’m a little biased. It’s Zionistic, it’s dramatic, and deals with the human condition, group psychology, those spectacularly loaded moments in our life where the decisions we make can change everything, and the sheer power of our words.
Our tradition tells us that the whole world was created with words. God spoke and it came into being. We, being created “in the image of God”, seem to have a similar power. It is interesting to note that in Hebrew “dvar” means both “word” and thing”. These realizations were the beginning of me starting to think differently about speech. On the one hand, you say it and its gone, it has no mass or weight. But on the other hand, it is through words that people connect, or exchange ideas or are emotionally destroyed. Charismatic leaders use their speech to cause revolutions or incite violence. It is through a well versed argument that defendants are imprisoned of set free. We both value and fear what those we love say to us. The list could go on. (In fact, see Joseph Telushkin’s great essay here, and support National Speak No Evil Day)
The spies in this Parasha went in to the land, and by the a difference a couple of words, they affected an entire generation.
As speech plays such a pivotal role in this Parsha of my birth, I take it as a challenge to always try to improve the way I speak. I try to learn how to be more encouraging and empowering with how I speak to others and to frame my criticisms in a way that will leave room for someone to actually look at the issue from another perspective rather than putting them on the defenisive or simply provoking them to anger because I can’t be bothered to take a minute to phrase what I have to say with more sensitivity.
Bringing these two themes together, speaking well and in a well balanced manner about this land I love is of utmost importance to me, and why I sometimes feel like “tearing my clothes” like Joshua and Caleb (although I don’t think it would be Tznua) when I hear people speak about Israel and Israelis with an overpowering and unbalanced sense of self righteous indignation.
May we all learn a little more sensitivity, and respect for the power of words.