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Israel, Freedom and Choice #632

06/19/2020 05:37:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Israel, Freedom and Choice


About five years ago, during a trip to Israel, I ran into trouble with my laptop. I panicked: “OMG,” I thought, “I’ve lost all my files.”

A friend remembered that at the nearby Dizengoff Mall, there was a guy who repaired computers.

So — laptop tucked under my arm — I walked over to the mall, past the street performers, the cafés and the Israelis rushing to and from work, and found the shop hidden on the second floor next to the tattoo parlor.

Fortunately, there was nothing seriously wrong with my computer — only a tweak and a new wire were needed — and as I waited, I began chatting with the store owner.

His name was Larry, and he and his family moved to Israel from France during the 1990s, after he became increasingly concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in his home country.

“So, Larry,” I asked. “How do you like living here?”

And without hesitation, he answered in a mixture of Hebrew, French and English. “I love every day.”

“Taxes are high. I have to struggle to pay my rent at the mall. We have millions of people around us who each day are thinking about new ways to kill us. The government is divided. People complain all the time. I absolutely love it.”

I looked at him, confused.

He paused for a moment, and as he continued working on my laptop, he referenced the Torah portion, which we will read in synagogue this Shabbat.

“Yes, life here is challenging,” Larry continued. “God warned us when he sent 12 spies ahead of the people to inspect Israel, and ten of them came back and told the Israelites, ”The country which we traveled and scouted is one which devours its settlers.” (Numbers 13:32)

I nodded.

“They were right,” said Larry. “Israel to this day devours its settlers. But what they didn’t say is “consider the alternatives.”

“My family survived the Holocaust. But in France today, like in many European countries, it is now difficult to be a Jew. Religious extremism and unemployment are all around. We get blamed, with no one there to defend us.

“But here, I walk the streets as a free man.”

“Yes,” he looked at me, “this is a challenging country — but it is ours. As I walk the streets of Tel Aviv, past the beggars, the environmental activists, the religious zealots —- as I watch everyone struggle in this challenging country — I ask myself — “Where else would I rather be?”

I thought of his words as I reread this week’s Torah potion — Shelach Lecha (“Send men to scout the land.”) It is the story of the Jewish people, barely a year after their exodus from Egypt, standing in readiness to enter Israel.

Faced with the challenges of an unknown land, they had their doubts. God sent 12 tribal chiefs to Israel to scout the land. Ten came back with negative reports.

They agreed, that although the land was full of milk and honey — and its vineyards and fields were bursting with produce, the land was inhabited by giants, who lived within fortified cities. “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,” they declared, “and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:33)

The people cried all night. Most wanted to return to Egypt. God, in turn, concluded that the Israelites were not ready to taste freedom, and condemned them to wander the desert for 40 years.

Over the centuries, our rabbis have mused, “How could this be possible in the aftermath of 10 plagues, the parting of the sea and the giving of the 10 commandments?

And many conclude, it was not failure in the Promised Land that concerned the 10 spies, but rather the potential and pressure to be successful.

If you are free — then you are responsible for your own destiny. If you have free choice, then you are commanded, in the words of the Torah, to “choose life” every day.

Indeed, each one of us has something amazing to contribute to this world. The only thing preventing us from doing so is lack of self-confidence. Like the spies in the Torah, we often feel like grasshoppers.

But as Joshua and Caleb — the two positive spies — remind us in this week’s Torah portion, with God under our wings and a bit of faith, we can achieve what we are destined to do. The key word is “faith” — in ourselves and in the spark of life God has placed within each of us.

And as my friend, Larry, reminded me six years ago, in life — particularly in Israel — you must weather many storms. But, as the negative spies in this week’s Torah portion failed to realize, most storms are followed by a rainbow.

This lesson from this week’s Torah portion reminds us that rather than be enslaved by the negative — freedom and success are often choices.

Indeed, thousands of years later, we see that the spies in the Torah and Larry were right: Israel is a land that devours its settlers. It can be challenging and frustrating, demanding and sometimes divisive.

But, we as Jews in the spirit of Joshua and Caleb, have been up to the challenge in Israel and wherever we have gathered.

Israel is a glorious success story in the Middle East and in the world. Its pursuit of innovation, possibilities, medical and environmental breakthroughs is changing the world.

For the past six years, each year that I visit Israel, I walk over to the Dizengoff Mall and see how Larry and his shop are doing.

I usually buy a charger chord or a cell phone case, even if I don’t need it, and join in as he shoots the breeze with one of his customers.

We talk about Israel’s problems — its political insanity and its ongoing challenges. We talk about our universal hope for peace. And at some point, Larry inevitably looks up and repeats, “I love it here.”

For as Joshua and Caleb inspire us to remember this week, although life is not always easy, we have the capacity to overcome struggles if we embrace our freedom.

Israel is the epicenter of Jewish life, but that same spark — God’s spark — exists within each of us and within our communities.

And, in spite of all of our challenges — as Joshua and Caleb taught 3,000 years ago and as our history has time and time again proven — whatever the world places before us, we as Jews, shall surely overcome.

Indeed, as Larry reminds me when I visit: “Is there any other place we’d rather be?”

For we are free.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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