What You Get  Is What You See

Subjectivity. The Webster’s Dictionary definition of subjective is “relating to the way a person experiences things in his or her own mind, based on feeling or opinions, rather than facts.”  This week’s Torah portion deals with the nature of subjectivity.  Chapter 13 of the Book of Numbers contains the narrative of the scouts sent out by Moses to scout out the Land of Canaan, the land already promised by God to the Israelites.  That, in and of itself, is a test of the subjective, for what is it that they are scouting?  It is not whether or not to go, but rather to discern what it is that they see in a place to which they are already committed to live and grow.

The adage ‘What you see is what you get’ is often meant in the context of there being no hidden agenda to something, that what is visible is all that there is.  In this case, it becomes much more than that; the facts of what things are is not disputed, but the way we interpret them and value them, how we see things play out in our own lives….that is in fact what we get.  The same circumstances/facts/details with each person seeing them differently – we each respond to them differently and therefore end up with different results.

Life is all about how we see things.  And, how we see things affects how others who rely on us understand a situation.  The scouts each had their own perspective –ten of them saw the people there as giants and even presumed that they saw us as if ‘we were like grasshoppers.’ Their own perspective of themselves clouded the truth in front of them.  Two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, saw the same circumstances, the same situation – but they saw possibility, they saw the hope of today, they saw the promise of tomorrow.  Caleb and Joshua succeed and endure because of their faith in how they were to view and understand what they saw before them.

Especially at this time for me, all that I am dealing with is primarily about my own perspective.  Moving, new job, new surroundings, planting roots in a new community – that can be fraught with anxiety and tension, or with promise and hope, all depending on how I see and encounter each step that I have to take to get there.  Like the Israelites, each of my days now are filled with steps both ‘away from’ and ‘toward’.  While my move is not one away from oppression as it was for the Israelites, the definition of a journey implies not merely movement, but movement with directionality and purpose.  My journey now is scouting out what is ahead so I can be best prepared for what lies ahead, seeing things in a positive light, a new chapter of life, with new possibilities.  Whether through a large transition or in the unfolding of a day, what you get is what you are willing and able to see.

[Sh’lach L’cha 2014]

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Never Too Late

As I began to write this week, it is in the hours when Jews around the world are preparing for Shavuot – one of our three main festivals, which marks a moment in our history extending through time.  It is the time for us to virtually stand [once again] around the foot of Mt. Sinai, recalling the experience of the Israelite people receiving the Torah in the wilderness.  This is a fascinating approach to so many of our holidays: beyond merely recalling history, we are meant to step back in time to be present in the past as if we were there. However, we are not to live in the past, but rather to draw that experience back into our present lives.  Talk about standing in many worlds and in many times!

To make it more confusing, here in this week’s Torah portion is a passage about the second Passover – Pesach Sheini.   Initially, a year after the Exodus, God instructed the people of Israel to bring the Passover offering on the afternoon of the fourteenth of Nisan [the first month], and to eat it that evening, roasted over the fire, together with matzah and bitter herbs, as they had done the previous year just before they left Egypt. “There were, however, certain persons who had become ritually impure through contact with a dead body, and could not, therefore, prepare the Passover offering on that day. They approached Moses and Aaron…and they said: ‘…Why should we be deprived, and not be able to present God’s offering in its time, amongst the children of Israel?’” (Numbers 9:6–7). In response to their plea, God established the 14th of Iyar [the second month] as a “Second Passover” (Pesach Sheni) for anyone who was unable to bring the offering on its appointed time in the first/designated month.

Virtually all of the mitzvot of the Torah, including those governing rare and unforeseeable circumstances, were of unilateral origin: from God to the people. This law of the Second Passover was instituted in response to the outcry of those who protested being deprived of being able to observe Pesach in its appointed time.  There is no other mitzvah in Torah that, if unable to be fulfilled, has an out-clause and the ability to fulfill it in another way. It is a remarkable notion, and embodies great foresight: like values and principles of Reform Judaism, it is with great kavanah and understanding of the mitzvah that there becomes latitude granted in the fulfillment of the mitzvah.

It gets even more interesting. After the people complain to Moses that they might be excluded from the mitzvah of Passover, Moses waits to give them God’s response, which institutes this Pesach Sheini not only in the case of a person who been “contaminated by death” but adds this alternative observance for someone who is “on a distant journey, whether among you or in future generations” (Numbers 9:10).  In this response, God now grants that anyone who couldn’t do what they had to do because they were touched by death or out of range of the community could have a second go at it every year, one month after Passover, for one day only. Thus, the Pesach Sheinu, the second Passover represents the power of teshuvah — the power of repentance and return; more than just turning a new leaf and achieving forgiveness for past sins, it is the power to go back in time and redefine the past.

The Torah, wishing to include all Israelites in the significant ritual of Pesach, demonstrates here the need to assess circumstances in the application of law and, sometimes, to give us humans a second chance. Here, weighing the exclusion of Israelites from a “perfect” ritual against the accommodation of less-than-ideal circumstances by adapting the ritual in a somewhat inelegant manner (commemorating the Exodus on a day other than its actual anniversary) Torah advocates for adaptation. In other words, in this second Pesach account, we see preference for the acceptance and understanding of human reality over and above the perfect and pristine performance of ritual duties. Here, God is compassionate and understanding. And as we are all made in the image of God—a compassionate God crafting divine rituals around the realities of human life and ensuring the inclusion of all – that is certainly the image we should try to emulate.

[Beha’alot’cha 2014]