In recent days, as the light is growing longer, my 6-year-old has become fascinated with shadows, specifically the shadows our bodies cast. In particularly proud moments he remarks, "Look my shadow is as big as yours." I am quick to remind her that it is almost inevitable that he will in fact be taller than me in just a few years. This youthful fascination with his shadow seems to accompany her quickly evolving self-perception. How do we understand ourselves relative to others? How do other's perceptions of us affect our self-perception?
We read in this week's parsha, Shlach, the consequential story of the Spies which lies at the very heart of Sefer Bamidbar. This is a story about fear. And its lethal consequences.
What I am drawn to this week -- as we celebrate Juneteenth Shabbat and the liberation of Black people from slavery, as we celebrate the riots at Stonewall that led to the possibility of pride -- the feeling even more than the march -- is a moment of reckoning in this ancient story that speaks directly to the moment of reckoning we are living through.
As the story goes, Moses sends out spies to scout the land of Canaan. When the spies return, Caleb makes the case that they can indeed inhabit the land. But the others refuse, saying:
לֹ֥א נוּכַ֖ל לַעֲל֣וֹת אֶל־הָעָ֑ם כִּֽי־חָזָ֥ק ה֖וּא מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃
"We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we...
וַנְּהִ֤י בְעֵינֵ֙ינוּ֙ כַּֽחֲגָבִ֔ים וְכֵ֥ן הָיִ֖ינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶֽם׃...
-- and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them" (Num. 13:31,33).
Mind you, these are slaves who have just been emancipated, who crossed a sea and are in search of a safe place to settle. About this moment, Avivah Zornerberg writes, "...seeing and seeing oneself precipitate the narrative into a dynamic of madness, of images, fantasies, and projections."
In Midrash Tanchuma, God frames a critique of the Spies' inner world:
"They said, 'We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes.' God said, 'This I can overlook. But, "And so we looked in their eyes" -- here I am angry! Did you know how I made you look in their eyes? Who told you that you didn't look like angels in their eyes?'"
Zornberg explains, "Apparently, it is legitimate to imagine oneself as a grasshopper in the presence of a giant. This is how human beings begin life, small and powerless in the presence of immense powers...To see a world of giants is to remind oneself of a primal sense of things. But to project one's own fantasy onto the giant is to limit the possibilities of fantasy and of otherness...Here in the Tanchuma passage, God is angered at their fatal constriction of imaginative possibility" (122).
At times, we too may see ourselves as small in the shadow of the other. But, says God, "You know nothing of how they see you." In this moment pregnant with possibility, we can learn from the mistakes of our ancestors. Let this not be a story written by fear. Let us not confuse the limits of self-perception with the limits of possibility.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.