I am absolutely delighted to be back on the bima of this distinguished congregation and to be officiating with my good friend, Cantor Robert Gerber, as we continue an almost century old custom of the Union Service, started by Har Sinai, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Temple Oheb Shalom when we were all within a mile of each other on the West Side of Baltimore and later, when we were located on Park Heights Avenue. I lament that Baltimore Hebrew no longer participates in this summer tradition but rejoice that we are able to celebrate Shabbat, pray and learn together.
As we celebrate the 240th anniversary of our country’s independence from Great Britain, we live in a state of high anxiety. The ramifications of Brexit are still resonating throughout the world economy. Business likes predictability and even though the markets have rebounded since the vote, no one can accurately foresee the ultimate effect of Britain’s leaving the EU on the world economy. We do know that the pound and Euro will be lower in relation to the dollar for quite some time. This makes tourism to Britain and the Continent a relative bargain but also makes American exports more expensive, increasing our trade gap. We do know that the only ones rejoicing over Britain’s vote are the Russians, who view any European weakness as an advantage as they continue to economically and militarily threaten Eastern Europe.
Brexit narrowly passed the British electorate but, as I read this morning, its vote is advisory, not mandatory. In other words, the next British government may not heed the results of the vote and may decide to stay in the Common Market. Regardless of what happens, we are more concerned this evening with the fear fueled anger that caused British voters to reject affiliation with the EU. Most British voters say they approved Brexit because of concerns regarding immigration and national autonomy. This new populism rejects multi-culturalism, internationalism, and globalization. Many who embraced Brexit are those who have been hurt by the globalization of the world’s economy, especially by the elimination of manufacturing jobs that used to provide millions with a secure middle class life. It is no different in these United States, where millions see in Donald Trump’s candidacy a rejection of international trade, immigrants and immigration, and globalization. They want a return to an “American first” policy, one that historians tell us was one of the root causes of the Great Depression, when countries put up trade barriers against imports. I am not here to debate those policies, but simply to reflect that neo-populism has risen in almost every country in the Western world. Its refrain is the same whether in Austria, Great Britain, or the United States. It is nationalistic (even tribalistic), anti-immigrant, and anti-free trade.
Jews have never done well in this kind of environment. We thrive in a cosmopolitan, open environment where ideas and opportunities cross borders and where people can thrive based on their talent, not on their religious or racial make-up. It is this same fear that haunted our ancestors in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-lecha. Fear of the future and the idealization of the past is what our ancestors have in common with the populists of today. Needless to say, our Tradition tells us that God is on the side of those who are hopeful and have faith in the future. Allow me to explain.
God told Moses to send twelve spies, one from each tribe, to explore the land of Canaan. Moses said to them (Numbers 13: 17-20), “Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell there strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” The spies scouted the land from South to North, from the Negev all the way to Syria. At the end of forty days they returned and said to Moses (Numbers 13:32-33), “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there.” They then went on to say, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people we saw in it are 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.”
Among the spies only Joshua and Caleb were optimistic. They urged the people to go forward and invade the land. They believed that if they had faith in God and the future they would succeed. The other ten spies caused the people to lose hope. They railed against Moses and Aaron and said, “Let us head back to Egypt!” They would not embrace the future and preferred to return to the idealized past of slavery. “It wasn’t so bad to be slaves,” they said to themselves. “Better that then die at the hands of some giants.” The fear and faithlessness of the ten spies condemned that entire generation to death in the Wilderness. Among the adults, God said only Joshua and Caleb would survive to inherit the future and lead the people into the new land. Israel would have to wait until a new generation, one which came of age in the Wilderness, born into freedom rather than slavery, would inherit the land. The ten spies and all their followers viewed themselves as being inadequate to face the future. They seemed “like grasshoppers to themselves.” Joshua and Caleb knew the future was daunting but understood that they had the resources and the confidence to pursue it.
“Ultimately, the question posed by the text is whether what we imagine possible is limited to what we see before us or whether we can discern possibilities not immediately apparent to the eye. In more traditional theological language, the challenge is “whether to trust the bare word of God’s promise or to have our vision limited by the observable realities before us. Joshua and Caleb do not dispute the acts communicated by their ten colleagues but they trust that God is with them and that God will give them the land.”[i]
Dear friends, so it is with us today. We cannot return to an “idealized” past but must go forward to an uncertain future. After all, the past was not that great. While there may be some attraction to living in the world of the fifties or sixties, I would much prefer to live in an egalitarian age in which there is no legal discrimination against Jews, blacks, women or gays. I prefer to live in a world of modern medicine and one in which we recognize the danger of climate change. I prefer to live in a world in which my daughter and gay son have the same opportunities as my straight son. I prefer to embrace the future and all its challenges rather than return to a past in which Jews were marginalized and did not have equal rights. Just like Joshua and Caleb, we need to accept that fear of the unknown is a given in life. With faith in God and with a healthy dose of confidence, we shall go forward and meet all the challenges the future will bring.
Amen and Shabbat shalom
[i] Shai Held, Machon Hadar, Commentary on Shelach-lecha, 2015