Over the past few years, I have adopted a morning ritual where I immediately recite the Modah Ani prayer with my first conscious thought - giving thanks to God for the gift of another day. It is the first of many such rituals throughout my day that remind me of God’s presence in my life. These points of contact and intermittent “awakenings” bring me back to the present moment and strengthen and refresh me. These touchpoints renew my connection to God and most importantly, God’s connection to me. With each “wake-up call,” I build a stronger and more resilient platform of faith (emunah) and trust (bitachon) in this sacred relationship, which in turn helps me to see the world through a positive lens.
This week’s parashah, Sh’lach L’cha, begins with God telling Moses to send out spies to scout out the Promised Land so they can see for themselves what to expect when they arrive. Even though God had promised the Land to the people, they still wondered and questioned: How was the handing over going to take place? What kind of resistance would they encounter? Would they be able to sustain their families?
After a forty-day journey, the scouts returned and brought back ripe fruits and their report of what they found. They were not all in agreement as to what they had witnessed. Ten of the twelve scouts reported that the land flowed with milk and honey, but also that it was the land of the Anakites, the giants. They reported that “they felt like grasshoppers in their sight.” Two of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua, saw the land through different eyes. Why did some come away with a positive description and others with a negative story even though they all went to the same place? Perhaps those that saw promise and abundance were of the belief that God had a plan for them and that it would be ok – they trusted. They had the courage to leap into the unknown and envision a new reality says Cantor Josee Wolff in The Torah – A Women’s Commentary. While they acknowledged the challenges that lay ahead, they were able to “listen to their own being” and trusted in the people’s ability to overcome those challenges with God’s promised help and protection. Conversely, the others may have let fear color their experience.
Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman, in his blog post Fear and Arrogance: When We Fail the Test of Faith, states that Sh’lach L’cha deals with the basic human need to understand where we are going so that we are better prepared for what we find when we get there. Facing an indeterminate future, it is best that we strengthen ourselves as best as we can. Confidence, this Torah portion teaches us, doesn’t only result from our own abilities. Nor is it luck. It is about preparedness, certainly, but it is also about faith and belief. The understanding that our existence and longevity as a people depend on our faith in God is an intrinsic part of our people’s history.
So why did God command Moses to send spies into the Land if God had already promised the people that it would be theirs? Rabbi Heilman posits that perhaps it was to remind us that our strength comes from many sources, not least from our own resourcefulness. Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, tells us in Chapter 2:21, that “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We have a directive to go out into the world and do our best to be kind to others and to do good. And for so long as we feel bound to that purpose, our faith, sustained by belief, ritual, and mitzvot – remains the source of our strength.
Not that many years ago, the idea of me performing daily, “God-moment” rituals would have been unthinkable. The very idea of having a relationship with God was quite foreign to me. I was raised in a secular Jewish home and while I always identified myself as being Jewish, I also believed that “everyone else” knew more about Judaism than I did. Yes, there was a God and yes, there was the far-off notion that as a Jew I was somehow sheltered underneath God’s protective veil, but I was still very skeptical and even more intimidated to attempt to reach out to “scout” out this unfamiliar territory. I suffered from a lack of self-confidence and belief in myself. I did not believe or yet understand that I could push past my insecurities and achieve a sense of strength through a connection to the spiritual.
As Harvey Fields wrote in A Torah Commentary for our Times, we too can “conquer ‘Promised Lands’” when we have regard for our talents and believe in our creative powers. The sin of the spies is said to have grown from their failure of self-love and self-respect. Cantor Wolff continued that, central to Sh’lach L’cha, is “the challenge of really loving ourselves and trusting our instincts and the challenge of not making ourselves into anything less than we truly are” since this would diminish the One in whose image we are created.
Through my immersion into and study of Torah, Judaism, and Mussar over the past years, I have come to recognize that yes, I still have much to learn, but also that I am not alone in my journey. I feel that I can travel as far as my heart and soul wish to go, for I am strong, and I am resourceful and as long as I keep God in the equation, I am not traveling the road on my own.
Elise Rossman Mikus is a member of Temple Emanu-El of Dallas, Texas, serving on the Board of Trustees. Elise is a student of Mussar, a facilitator of Wise Aging, and recently celebrated her Bat Mitzvah.