Drash on Parashat Sh'lach 2019
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky
Beit Shalom Synagogue
Adelaide, South Australia
The Kvetching Parshiot
This week’s parshah forms the centre of what is essentially a kvetching trilogy—three Torah portions in a row in which the Israelites kvetch bitterly to Moses about the state of things. In last week’s parshah, B’ha’alotcha, the Israelites complain that they are tired of manna and speak nostalgically of the food they used to enjoy in Egypt. In this week’s parshah, the Israelites are dismayed to learn that the land of Canaan, while fertile and appealing, is also highly fortified and populated by intimidating warriors. The people lose all hope and begin an ill-fated march in the direction of Egypt. God’s rebuke of them is to proclaim that, having spent the last while worrying that they were going to die in the wilderness and never reach Canaan, that is exactly what is going to happen to them. No one from this generation will ever get to the Promised Land; only their children will have that wish fulfilled.
Next week’s parshah Korach can be seen as the climax of these kvetching parshiot: Korach, joined by a disparate crew of prominent leaders of the Israelites, challenges Moses and Aaron for the right to lead the people. It does not end well: the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers alive, while a fire consumes those 250 leaders who had joined in the rebellion.
Jewish tradition has sided with Moses and Aaron against these waves of complaints. After all, shouldn’t the people be grateful that God, with Moses and Aaron as God’s representatives, redeemed them from endless years of slavery in Egypt? How could they possibly speak longingly of their lives in Egypt when those lives consisted of generations of bondage? And how can they fail to be thankful for the endless miracle of manna, which keeps them nourished in the wilderness?
But those who jump to condemn the actions and words of the Israelites fail to identify the underlying emotion which is pushing them to lash out at their leaders: this is a traumatised people, who have been torn away from everything that is familiar to them and are now leading lives of overwhelming uncertainty in a strange and threatening place. When the people speak longingly of Egypt, what they are saying is, “We miss our old lives, when each day was exactly like the last and when we knew exactly what to expect.” Nothing in the wilderness is certain, and Moses’ promise that they will eventually find themselves in the land of Canaan seems increasingly elusive. In this week’s parshah, even that hope is take away from them, as God condemns them instead to another 38 years of misery wandering around in the endless wasteland of the Sinai Desert. No wonder a significant number of leaders choose to rebel against Moses; they have nothing left to lose! Perhaps a different leader might bring about a different outcome.
This year, these three parshiot happen to cluster around Refugee Week, the week designated as a time to be mindful of the plight of the world’s refugees. At the moment, nearly seventy million people have been displaced from their homes and have lost control over their lives. In the midst of unimaginable anxiety and trauma, they are expected to be docile and cooperative with those authorities who will decide their fates. These are the most vulnerable people on earth, and tragically countries around the world are increasingly closing their doors to them and stirring up hatred against them. We Jews frequently speak of the need to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We almost never speak of the need to support the refugee because we were refugees FROM the land of Egypt. These three parshiot push us to share in the sadness, anxiety and fear that the Israelites wandering in the wilderness would have experienced and to grow in our understanding of those who are wandering today. May we be among those who extend a hand in welcome to them.