Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Courage to Change, a lesson from a bat mitzvah

I have to paraphrase something I wrote at this time last year:  I have tutored a lot of bar and bat mitzvah students on Parshat Sh'lach Lecha, the portion of the Torah before the wandering in the wilderness when Moses sends twelve spies to scout out the promised land--but no one has ever talked about it the way Anna Carton-Smith did today at Temple B'nai Brith.  What is it about this parshah that gets such interesting readings out of thirteen-year-olds?

Anna gave me a completely new way to read the spies' majority report.  They told Moses:
All the people that we saw [there] are men of great size...and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.  (Numbers 13: 32-33)
Anna hypothesized that it wasn't the physical stature of the Anakite residents of Canaan that made the Israelite spies feel small.  It was their freedom.  Unlike the former slaves who had just come out of Egypt, the people of Canaan were used to making decisions for themselves, and to dealing with the changes and challenges that life throws at all of us with the resources they had.

The Israelites were used to being told what to do.  They found every new and unfamiliar aspect of life in the wilderness disturbing--even when it was literally manna from heaven.  Looking at people who lived without masters, they trembled.  How small their own lives looked to them, and how gigantic the Canaanites' lives!

Perhaps Anna read the portion this way because adolescents face the grown-up world with some of the same trepidation that the spies brought with them to Canaan.  But I haven't yet met an adult who has completely grown out of that fear.  The courage to speak up (like Joshua and Caleb), to confront change, and to imagine that things can be different--and better--is something we can all seek, no matter what our age.

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