To Deceive or Receive the Stranger- Sermon for Shelach Lecha (31st anniversary of my Bar-Mitzvah), June 28, 2019

So I’m listening to a podcast, as I frequently do as I drive down the mountain. They are talking about the near destruction of the Walt Disney company in the mid 80’s. Cash strapped from budget overruns on building EPCOT Center, an investment group comes in to attempt a hostile takeover. What I learned was there is a common ploy to fend off a hostile takeover. The thing to do is intentionally make your company look as unappealing as possible. This is done by taking on lots of extra debt and devaluing stock. So Disney spends 200 million dollars to buy a real estate company, and then 337 million dollars to buy the Gibson Greeting Card Company of Cincinnati, OH. Neither purchase makes much sense for the entertainment company. But through these actions, they intentionally make the company less appealing to a potential buyer. It is kind of the classic Scooby Doo plot where they fake having a haunted house to scare away the new owners. Instead of a haunted house, it was a haunted balance sheet. And they would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids. This strategy always failed on Scooby Doo, and it actually almost backfired on Disney in the 80’s. It was a fairly harmless deception, and it is an accepted finance strategy. Still the idea of using deception to frighten people away is strange, especially when we are taught that welcome is a value, not to mention honesty. Just the same, it is intriguing and is a subject we encounter in this week’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Shelach Lecha, Moses sends 12 spies to check out the land of Canaan. They are supposed to report back to verify the goodness of this land, their destination, the land which has been promised to them. When they return, they declare it is indeed a fruitful place flowing with milk and honey, but 10 out of the 12 spies declare that it is too dangerous to go there.

“It is a land that devours its people. The people are giants,” they say. “We felt like grasshoppers compared to them, and so we must have looked to them.” This last part is rather important, and often overlooked. They say, “we looked like grasshoppers.” Just how good are these spies if they are seen during their mission? Even worse, they know they have been seen. Rashi tells us the spies have heard the Canaanites talking about ants in the vineyards that look like people. In the Talmud, it tells us the same Canaanites see men like grasshoppers in a tree. So we have 12 spies hiding in a tree trying to be inconspicuous. It’s like a Keystone Cops version of the Torah. These are the worst spies ever. They have been made, and then they fall for a clever trick. Rather than attack or imprison them, the Canaanites show the spies exactly what they want them to see. Their hope is they will go back to their brethren and convince them not to come. It really is brilliant. Various commentators tell us, that the land devouring its people alludes to the many funerals the spies witness in the short time they are there. We can assume maybe these funerals are staged to make the land seem dangerous. We are also told that the men of the land, all the ones they see are of great size. We read nothing about the men they do not see. This means only the largest of the men are paraded before the spies. This also opens the door to the possibility that these giant men are ringers. They are identified as Nephilim, which can be interpreted as the amazing ones. The spies are amazed to see them, perhaps because they do not really belong there. They are hired to look menacing and deter the Israelite invasion.

Anyhow, we wonder why do the Canaanites have to go through all this trouble? We are told they are stronger, and they know they are mightier. They should have nothing to fear… Yet their strategy of deterrence is born of fear. We gain this insight by turning to the Haftarah portion from the book of Joshua. We encounter a similar spying episode. Instead of hiding in a tree, the spies hide in the house of a woman name Rahav. After she sends away the soldiers who had been looking for the spies, she tells the spies everyone in her land is afraid. “Dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the Land are quaking before you.” So if we step back and look at the story of the spies in Shelach Lecha, it is not about the spies’ fears. Rather it is about the unusual lengths people will go to when they are driven by fear and therefore a desire to repel strangers.

It is a surprising twist from the behavior we might expect from an enemy nation in the Torah. Putting on a show to deter the Israelites seems awfully quaint by biblical standards. One might expect more extreme deterrents like we read about with enemy nations. They do things like capturing and imprisoning the opposition without trial, then treating them with cruelty, forcing them to live in cramped, unsanitary conditions, showing little to no concern for the on-going nutrition and health concerns for those prisoners, some of who might die under those conditions in the custody of the Cannanite captors.  All of these things could be effective deterrents to anyone else who dares cross the border. They would be a show of a very different kind from the one the Canaanites choose to perform.

Unfortunately, not everyone responds to fear of the stranger the same way. Our own nation in the current day has chosen to put on a show for potential asylum seekers and immigrant at our southern border. The show we put on is a display of unfairness coupled with cruelty. The intent is not to process these waves of potential immigrants, or even to punish the ones who cross illegally, as most of those detained are seeking a legal asylum process. No. This is about deterrence. I call this a show because it does not represent who we really are as a nation. Most of us still believe in Emma Lazarus’s poem which is engraved on the Stature of Liberty, “Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We are a nation of immigrants who therefore have no cause to be afraid of immigrants. All of our ancestors were once feared for their capacity to be a drain on the system, or to take jobs away, or to bring crime corruption and disease with us. But history and experience have shown, in the main, this has not born out. Each wave of immigrants have found their place and made us a stronger, more prosperous nation. So truly, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Sadly, fear is driving our policy and causing, as it did for the Canaanites in our Torah portion, aberrant behaviors. Unfortunately, the psychological warfare is much worse than hiring giants and staging funeral. It is family separations, children in cages, lack of soap and blankets, unsanitary conditions, lack of medical care. The purpose for all of this, is not even about the people currently in detention centers. It is more cynical than that. As we cause permanent damage and suffering to thousands of children and thousands more adults, the apparent intent is to deter the next group of impoverished, desperate people from approaching our country. It will be years before we understand the humanitarian toll of our current policies, but it will not be legacy to be proud of. And yet, despite all of this, immigrants keep coming.

Perhaps they know something, that this cruelty is not who America really is, that this is just a temporary deception, and that we will eventually come to our senses as the beacon of freedom, decency, and compassion we have always claimed to be.  Perhaps they are following the pattern of the two dissenting spies in our story, the ones who see the giants and the land devouring its people, and know in their hearts, it is still better than where they are in the barren wilderness, and where they have been as slaves. Or maybe they see through the act, and like the dissenting spies say, nevertheless “have no fear of this people.” And perhaps, most importantly, they keep coming because they still believe in the America that we have collectively forgotten to be.

In the Torah portion, the Canaanites choose between peaceful and violent deterrents. Surprisingly, they make a peaceful choice. Still it is a choice based on deception. What they fail to consider is a third option, the one our nation must return to, which is, when meeting the stranger who wishes to dwell with you, drop your baseless fears and open your gates with the knowledge the land is good. It is big enough and the resources are great enough. So please come, share them with us as neighbors. It is the honest choice, the peaceful choice, the humane choice.

May we soon see an end to cruelty as compassion reigns, and may those needing shelter and asylum find justice and fair opportunities to know the safety and prosperity that we enjoy, and to which all are entitled.

 

 

 

 

“THOU SHALL NOT ASK…” — a story for First Friday, June 7, 2019

Tonight, I want to talk about a very strange piece of Talmud I discovered the other day. It says, “You are commanded to say things that will be listened to.” In other words, if you know it’s good advice that someone will accept, you may not keep it to yourself. You absolutely MUST say it. On the other hand, and this is where it gets weird, the Talmud also says, “But you are commanded not to say things that will not be listened to.” This means parents would never talk to their kids! And I’d stop giving sermons at Yom Kippur. No no.. just kidding. I’d do it anyway. Just like tonight. Whether you listen or not, they pay me to talk. So I am going to tell you a story, and it will include this little bit of Talmud I just spoke about. And we will hear that story, after we sing Hinei Ma Tov. How Good it is to be here tonight as friends, as we celebrate this Shabbat.

 

 

Once upon a time, in the old country, there was a very successful banker named Kaspi. He was very clever. Every project he touched made a lot of money. You know about Rocekfeller and Rothchild. You may have heard of Bezos and Buffett… Warren not Jimmy. Although Jimmy does alright for himself. While he wastes away in Margaritaville, he finally can replace his lost shaker of salt. Anyway, all of these famous rich people were nothing compared Kaspi. Next to him they’d all be schnorrers. If they had property, he had estates. If they had mansions, he’d have palaces. If they had Mercedes, he had Bentleys, or whatever the equivalent would have been in 19th century Poland… probably a bunch of fancy horses pulling a buggy… a really nice buggy, a surrey even, with a fringe on top. And it had leather seats and a sound system, and by sound system I mean his own personal Klezmer band that just rode around with him all day. It’s not exactly XM radio, but for his time, Kaspi was living in style. He was the envy of his town…. But despite all of his wealth, he also had a tragic flaw, which I will tell you about in a bit.

For now, we think about confronting our own shortcomings as we take action, rising together, as we hear the call to worship.

 

 

So Kaspi this wealthy man of the old country, successful in so many ways had a terrible flaw. He was selfish. The people of the town knew you could never ask Kaspi for anything, because he wouldn’t even listen. He’d just say no. It was like he wrote the lyrics for Meghan Trainor’s pop song. “My name is no. My sign is no. My number is No.” And one might imagine Kaspi sending people away singing, “Nah to the ah to the no no no.” They just don’t write lyrics like that any more. But if they did, we could be sure that Kaspi would be there to collect his royalties. To be sure, Kaspi paid his taxes. He paid his dues to his synagogue. He even paid into the building fund, but he always paid the bare minimum. He was like an orange that only gave a drop of juice, when he could have filled hundreds of glasses. People used to wonder what he did with all of his wealth, weather he slept on piles of cash, or ate bullion, no the soup but bullion, like gold coins. They wondered if he counted his money all day long, or if he just thew bunches of money in the air and shouted, wheeee! Kaspi was a total mystery. The only thing people knew for sure about him is that his answer was always “No.” So they just never asked, until one day… and I will tell you about that one day soon. For now we think about caring for one another beyond our basic needs. We pray for shelter, and whatsmore we pray for that shelter to be protected throughout the night. We ask God, and if we really listen, we ask ourselves to help one another to achieve this goal.

 

 

So one day, Rabbi Yisroel showed up at Kaspi’s door. He came with a whole entourage of community leaders. The rabbi knocked, and Kaspi politely invited everyone inside. They made small talk. The weather is nice. The Czar is a schlemiel. The synagogue is fine… can’t believe how early the holidays are this year… you know the usual. But then Kaspi knew the rabbi had to be there for a reason, so he cut to the chase.

“My dear rabbi, I know you have come to ask me for something. What is it?” Kaspi readied himself to say no. But his tongue had barely touched his palate when the rabbi surprised him.

“Actually, I came to not ask you for something.”

Kaspi was bewildered. “What on earth do you mean?”

“Well,” the rabbi explained, “We have a commandment, Ask for what you want only if you will be listened to. If you will not be listened to, do not ask for what you want. So I have come to fulfill the commandment of NOT asking. This is the perfect place to observe this commandment, because more than anyone in this whole town, I know YOU will not listen if I ask for what I want.”

This got Kaspi’s attention, and piqued his curiosity. He wanted to know what the rabbi wanted. “Well, my good rabbi, perhaps you’ve got it wrong. Maybe, if you tell me what you want, I WILL listen this time.”

“Ohhhh, no, no, no, no,” rebutted the rabbi. “I’m not falling for your mind games, Mr. Kaspi. Your reputation precedes you. I know you won’t listen. So now I bid you adieu.”

The rabbi walked out the door with his entourage following. And following the entourage, there was Kaspi walking right behind them…. And I will tell you what he did in a moment.

First, just as the rabbi needed to get Kaspi’s attention, we try to get God’s attention with this series of blessings. We ask for God to continue treating us with kindness just like our ancestors, and to do this, we pray first that our mouths may open with good words which will truly be listened to.

 

 

Kaspi followed the rabbi from his home all the way to the synagogue. In the rabbi’s office, he confronted the rabbi.

“I must know what you want.”

“Ok.” The rabbi relented. “There is an older woman who owes a great deal of money to your bank…”

Kaspi cut him off. “Hold it right there. No. No. I can’t help.”

“You see,” said Rabbi Yisroel, “You didn’t listen. This is why I don’t ask.  Meanwhile, next week, you are going to take her house and she will be homeless.”

Kaspi shook his head. “But I can’t forgive her debt. It’s the bank she owes, not me. I’m just a manager. It’s not my place to…”

“A clever man,” said the rabbi, “can invent many reasons to say no. Good day sir. ”

“But…” Kaspi tried to interject.

“I said Good Day, sir.” And Kaspi walked home quietly, but deep in thought.

The next day Kaspi went to see Rabbi Yisroel again…. And I will tell you about that in a bit.

For now, in the midst of conflict like we hear about in our story, we pray for peace to end all disputes and spread throughout the earth. We pray together on page 179.

 

 

The next day, Kaspi showed up at the synagogue and interrupted a class the rabbi was teaching. He pleaded, “You have to understand. People have debts with the bank. The bank has to collect them. If they don’t the bank goes bankrupt. That wouldn’t be fair.”

The rabbi turned to his class. “Do you see how he refuses to listen?”

With this, Kaspi got red in the face. “I have to take her house. Rules are rules. I have no choice!”

“Aha,” shouted Rabbi Yisroel. “I was waiting for you to say that you had no choice. For now I am certain, beyond any measure of doubt, that if I asked for what I want, you definitely would not listen.”

The rabbi pointed to the door, and said, “Now make like a tree and get out of here.”

But Kaspi could not help himself. He came back the next day, and I will tell you about that…. Right now. He hadn’t slept, he hadn’t eaten, he’d been pacing his palatial estate all night.

“Rabbi Yisroel,” he began agitated. “She doesn’t just owe money. She owes a lot of money.”

The rabbi answered him, “A lot or a little. No matter. You still would not listen.”

“Stop saying that!” Kaspi was at the end of his rope. “Fine. I’ll pay her debt myself, but don’t you dare ever ask me for anything again!”

But Rabbi Yisroel just smiled and shook Kaspi’s hand. “It is a fine think you are doing. Such a Mitzvah. But why, I must ask, are you angry with me? I never asked you for anything.”

The debt was paid. The woman got to stay in her home. And Rabbi Yisroel taught us how to fulfill the Mitzvah of not asking for things. May we all be such mensches. And may we always be willing to listen whether someone asks us to or not.

We continue with a prayer, which even though we can never be certain it is fulfilled, it is always our hope that it will be heard and that people who are sick or suffering may be comforted and brought to refua shleima. Complete and total healing of mind body and spirit.