Shlach Lecha 2019: When fear gets in our way

Fear. I have a feeling, that, in this room, we are all afraid of something. Fearful of bad health. Fearful of violence. Fearful of loss. Fearful of ourselves own failure-imposter syndrome-often, we don’t look at the facts of our success, we focus on the potential of failure…

In this week’s parasha, Shlach Lecha, there is a lot of fear. And I would argue, that is fear based on perception, not on facts, and the response to that, is what got our ancient ancestors in hot water w/God, delaying their entry to the land, 40 years…

Let me recap: In this week’s parasha, we are taught that Moshe chose 12 spies, 12 representatives of the Israelite nation to scout out Canaan, the promised land. Let’s think about this…They were close enough to scout it out and yet…it still took 40 years to get in…why? Because of fear.

We read this morning: they scouted the land as far as Hebron. At the end of 40 days, they returned and reported to Moses, Aaron, and the whole Israelite community … saying that the land did indeed flow with milk and honey but that the people who inhabited it were powerful, the cities were fortified and very large, and that they saw the Anakites there. Caleb hushed the people and urged them to go up and take the land. But the other scouts spread calumnies about the land, calling it “one that devours its settlers.”They reported that the land’s people were giants and stronger than the Israelites. And of course we know the end of the story…only Caleb and Joshua got in…no one else found success.

This week’s parasha is all about fear without facts….It is about perception, not reality. Perception of oneself-feeling like a grasshopper…and perception of the other-assuming they are like giants, trying to hurt us. Or even sometimes, acting like giants…

How do we balance the fears that we anticipate and the facts in front of us?

Sadly, this is an issue that continues to plague our world, and continues to keep us outside of the promised land…though fortunately, we have made some progress in certain areas.

This morning, I want to use this framework to reflect on two issues, that though they seem unrelated, to me, are deeply tied up in the issue of fear, facts, and failure.

The first is the question of the LGBTQ community. There is no question that many “traditional” communities have been and were fearful of those members who are LGBTQ. Over the last 50 years there has certainly been an increase in acceptance, as will be seen tomorrow here on the streets of NYC, as is seen on social media, as is seen, in writings by people like Eric Goldstein, an Orthodox Jew who leads the UJA Federation of NY, one of the longest legacy organizations there is, as he demonstrated the importance of UJA reaching out to the LGBTQ community.

Over the last several decades, fear, on both “sides” contributed to a gap in the community, a literal hiding which has been tragic.

But we know that fear exists in the context of those who are LGBTQ. In many ways. Those that are gay, lesbian, and transgender are often fearful-fearful of how people might react to them. Fearful of no longer being accepted or loved by family. Fearful of discrimination. Fearful of violence. I will never forget my senior year of colleage when Matthew Shepard was murdered because he was gay.

And so of course this contributes to a sense of retreat, of hiding, of holding back, of not being one’s fullest self.

I just learned a fascinating story:
A group of rabbis and rabbinical students traveled from Philadelphia to Southern California in December 1986, they were told they would be picked up at the airport. When their ride arrived, they exchanged code words with the driver. Then they took off through the streets of Los Angeles.

“I remember not knowing where we were driving to,” said Rabbi Linda Holtzman, a faculty member at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College who was traveling with the group. “It felt as if we were walking into this secret, scary organization.”

Holtzman was in L.A. to attend the first gathering of Ameinu, an underground group for LGBT rabbis and Jewish professionals that provided a critical support network during a period when being outed meant you would likely lose your job, when no Jewish denomination had ordained an openly gay or lesbian rabbi, when same-sex marriage was not on the table, and when the AIDS crisis was at its peak. For three successive years in the late 1980s, Ameinu offered a haven for LGBT rabbis and Jewish professionals from across North America to gather, talk, offer support, daven, and strategize.

“At a time when so many of us were closeted, to be in a space where we could be fully ourselves with each other was profoundly significant,” said Setel,

..Navigating the experience of being closeted was a topic of intense interest at Ameinu, where most of the retreat was devoted to fellowship and informal conversations.

“Secrecy is toxic, and it eats at the person who’s holding the secret,” Brin said. “There’s a level at which you can’t be authentic and there is no integrity.”

“It sounds hard to imagine now, but we were all terrified,” Brin said.

The three years that Ameinu was in existence spanned a difficult but crucial period as the Jewish community began to evolve on gay issues.

“It gave us the political strength to change the world,” Sleutelberg said. “We’ve lived through the total rejection of who we are, through the transformative decades, and please ,God, soon we’ll be in an era of total acceptance.”

And those who aren’t LGBTQ sometimes have a fear of the other as well and it can manifest in a variety of ways. How do we integrate what feels right and wrong, simultaneously? How do I acknowledge my prejudice? How do I find a way to not be fearful….

In 2006 the Conservative movement took a necessary step towards inclusiveness-to get beyond their fears-in the Jewish community, but not without serious deliberation. There was a 4 year period where the CJLS debated if and how to understand the roles of LGBTQ Jews in Jewish life, rather than be paralyzed, like the Israelites, by fear.

Rabbi Danny Nevins, the current dean of the JTS rabbinical school, who was one of the authors of the teshuva permitting ordination and sex sex wedding ceremonies in 2006 wrote,

“In Tractate Brakhot 19b there is a discussion of human dignity–kvod habriot–and its legal implications. As I looked up parallel sources and then later applications of this concept in halakhic sources, I realized that this might be the key to the conundrum: How to be inclusive and sensitive to human dignity, while still being authentically halakhic?

For me, this dilemma has always been a matter of dignity. It is forbidden to humiliate another person, and yet our policy on homosexuality is clearly humiliating. It is commanded to love our fellow person and to dignify him or her. How was this possible given our precedent?-

…My main insight was to apply the Talmud’s concept of “gadol kvod habriot shedocheh lo ta’aseh shebaTorah”–the principle that human dignity is so important that it can override negative commandments in the Torah.”

Human dignity. Such an important concept, that often gets overlooked as we are looking down at our bellybuttons, trying to understand laws. It is fine to have laws. It is necessary to have laws. But we need to understand the human component of this, and how fear enters into this conversation.

Of course, this applies as well on a national level, we are encountering fear. Fear of the other. Fear of what we, our country, is becoming. Fear that somehow, regardless of what we call it, we are at a point where conditions of people in our country, is just inhumane. Undignified. Earlier this week,

The Conservative/Masorti movement of Judaism expressed intense anger at the status of immigrant detention in the United States, particularly reports of children being held in inhumane conditions and that a former internment camp used during World War II for Japanese-Americans at Fort Still, Oklahoma is now slated to be used as a new detention center for immigrant children.

The movement issued the following joint statement:

“Judaism has a strong tradition of calling for loving the stranger (Deut 10:19) because we were strangers in a strange land. Two of the most powerful values Judaism teaches are the dignity of all creatures (k’vod habriyot) and b’tzelem Elohim, the firm belief that each and every human being is created in the image and likeness of God.

Our tradition values children. They are our future and our hope. Yet today in this country, we leave them in outdoor detention pens – with no diapers for babies, no toothpaste, no soap, often no clothes to speak of, and certainly no toys.

Further, we continue our support for a fair immigration policy that guarantees due process in immigration proceedings and protects the civil liberties of immigrants. We vehemently oppose capricious immigration raids like the one recently proposed.”

So we need to ask ourselves: What are they afraid of that causes them to risk everything to end up like this? What are we afraid of that has caused us to have detention centers?

And we need to ask ourselves, are we sometimes the giants, referenced in this week’s parasha? Overtaking those who are trying to enter?

I was glad to see that this week, the JCPA, the umbrella organization issued a statement that said:

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) continues to denounce the inhumane conditions at immigration detention centers and border holding facilities along the Southern border, which violate federal law and “common decency,” according to the American Bar Association. We urge the federal government to immediately end the detention of vulnerable immigrants, the “zero tolerance” family separation policy, and the denial of due process to those in our custody or seeking our protection.

The Jewish people know firsthand the fatal consequences of turning away desperate refugees without a timely and fair hearing. Our ethical teachings require us to extend the same opportunities to those escaping violence.

A nation’s immigration policy is an expression of its humanity. We seek to protect American values and ideals by reforming the draconian measures currently in place, which negate so many of the democratic principles for which we stand.


End the detention of asylum seekers, families, and children–with or without their parents. Detaining a family costs between $300-$800 per day, draining funding and resources that could be used to address the humanitarian crisis or pursue real national security threats.
Reallocate funding from detention to community-based alternatives to detention like case management and legal orientation programs, which are more humane and cost-effective.
End the “zero tolerance” policy, which remains in force, and immediately reunify all separated families. Separating children inflicts irreparable psychological trauma on both parents and children, many of whom have already experienced trauma.
Enhance oversight and accountability of immigration enforcement agencies, particularly given the long-term pattern and severity of abuse allegations in immigration detention.
Immediately release those who pose no risk to the community and improve detention conditions by enacting clear, enforceable standards that include proper medical treatment and access to pastoral care, legal counsel, and legal orientation programs.

Over and over again, the founders of this country have used the metaphor of the promised land, to think about what it means to be in America. There was a sense of freedom, hope, equality, opportunity.

So here is what we must do-

Let’s figure out what are rational fears and what are irrational fears. They might be different for each of us-they might be different on a personal, communal, or national level. But we need to know that there is a difference if we are ever going to reach the promised land.