Tuesday, 25 Jun 2024

Written by Daisy Bogod, LBC rabbinical student

Four years ago, I gave a sermon for this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, in response to the global Black Lives Matter movement’s protests following the murder of George Floyd. I wrote:

We weep and we wish like the Israelites to go back to Egypt, when it was simpler, when our eyes were closed to the injustices of our world. When we could pretend that everyone was treated as equally as they were created.

“We are scared, like the Israelites, of the difficulties ahead. Of unlearning, of re-learning, of learning how to say ‘sorry,’ and ‘I was wrong,’ and ‘my mind has changed’.”

These words feel just as apt today, in a different, though related, context. For many of us, we have internalised half-truths and some fabrications; ones we continue to cling to because the alternative, understanding and accepting that we were wrong, that we have harmed, is so very painful. Some of the biggest falsehoods were never vocalised — maybe because they would have been denied if they were, if we were faced with the blatant truth of what was being said — such as the lie that Palestinians’ lives are not equal to our own.

It is the fundamental principle of Torah, that everyone is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. It seems so simple, and yet…

When the spies return from scouting the land, they acknowledge its fruitfulness, that ‘it does indeed flow with milk and honey’ (13:27), but they assert ‘we cannot attack the people, for they are stronger than we are’ (13:31).

I have been scared of facing the nephilim, seeing myself as a grasshopper with minimal power in the face of community giants. I have seen the very real consequences friends and colleagues have faced when standing up for justice. I understand the cry that ‘it would have been better for us to go back to Egypt’ (14:3) than to face the battle ahead.

The cantillation mark underneath the word tov, here meaning ‘better’, appears only five times in Torah. In Bereshit (27:25), emphasising it was the wrong son Jacob blessed; in Shemot, when the overseers of the Israelites stand up for the slaves to Pharaoh (5:15); in Vayikra when Nadav and Avihu make an offering to God without permission(10:1); here, and again in Bamidbar when Novach captures a city and its inhabitants and names it after himself (32:42).

Professor David Weisberg suggested that the appearance of mercha kefula, this cantillation mark, signals a lesson to be learned. Kefula means double; as the name suggests, the symbol is literally a doubling of the basic cantillation mark mercha. It seems to me to also indicate conflict — a tension between the perception and reality of the situation. It wouldn’t really be ‘better’ to return to Egypt, to surrender ourselves as slaves in the Narrow Place, but it feels to the Israelites it would be easier.

Rabbi Lev Taylor writes in his sermon ‘I Believe that God is Screaming’:

“I think if I used God for comfort in a time like this, I would be retreating from responsibility. God does not need me to feel safe now, but to shake me from illusions and complacency.

“If God is the moral voice of the universe, that voice must be crying out in desperation.”

At the end of Shelach Lecha God punishes those who aren’t faithful who, despite having ‘seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness’ (14:22) — despite having been liberated from enslavement  by God continue to think God will abandon them, or that God isn’t strong enough to carry them through times of challenge.

As Rabbi Taylor continues:

“The commandments may once have been given as words of instruction or even as a love letter, but now they are a desperate plea.

“God says ‘I am the Eternal One thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. Thou shalt have none other gods before me.’

No other gods. No state, no flag, no military, no leader, no ideology, no grudge, no border, nothing. None of these can ever be placed before God. None of them have any trump over God’s words.”

I do not believe in an interventionist God with the power or desire to fight battles on our behalf, but I believe in God’s teachings; that no matter how difficult or unsettling it may seem, we have an obligation to voice the truth, to be God’s voice on earth. All human beings, without exception, are created in the image of God. Once we truly recognise this, v’yimalei ch’vod Adonai et kol ha’aretz, ‘God’s presence will fill the whole world’ (14:21). Ken y’hi ratzon.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.