Parashat Sh’lach

Two Minutes of Torah with Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky

Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim there—the Anakites are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.

—Numbers 13:32-33

“Why does she look like that?” my daughter asked me one Sunday morning as we made our way home from our errand, walking together in our Manhattan neighborhood. “Why is that person small?” My daughter, three and a half years old at the time, was asking about an adult who appeared to have a form of dwarfism. I calmly and quietly explained that adults are all different sizes, for different reasons. I added some small rebuke for pointing and unintended rudeness. I silently prayed that the woman had not heard the question and if she did, that my response didn’t make the situation worse. I was trying to formulate my response in a way that did not diminish the woman or ignore what may be a key part of her identity. My daughter’s question came from a place of trying to fit another image and paradigm of adult into her young mind, a genuine pursuit of knowledge. I wanted my daughter to know it was okay to ask questions, but that questions can have the unintended consequence of making someone feel as though they are “other” and unintentionally feared or avoided. Where is the balance between educating people about difference and diversity and creating a situation where someone is “othered”?

This week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach, details the reactions of the group of Israelites who were sent to scout the land beyond the desert which would be known as Israel. The scouts returned with news of the land’s inhabitants, telling stories of their great size and inhospitable behavior. Their stories created fear in the Israelites as rumors flew through the camp. The inhabitants of the land were judged by their physical attributes and tribal affiliation, as experienced by a small group of Israelites, and immediately deigned to be the “other.” The Israelites developed fear and hostility towards people they did not even know, their minds made up before even entering the land.

Over the last few weeks, our society has experienced a lot of the fear and hostility, the “othering” that takes place when we see only the physical characteristics of a person. The COVID-19 pandemic unearthed racism toward people of Asian descent, specifically Chinese people, as false narratives spread as fast as the virus itself. Most recently, society responded to how people are judged based on the color of their skin and committed to acknowledging that Black lives matter. Our society is at a critical moment and we can’t act as the Israelite scouts acted, seeing the physical attributes and making harsh judgements condemning an entire people. What if the Israelites had the opportunity to ask questions, to see for themselves? What if instead of seeing “other,” they saw potential for moving forward as a radically different society, committing to learning about each other? We can’t change our history, but we have a chance right now to ensure a better future.