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Torah Commentary
Sh'lach L'cha (July 2, 2016)

Elizabeth Cooper

As a rising junior who is eagerly, yet nervously, anticipating a study abroad adventure, my imminent journey framed the way I read this week’s parashah: Sh’lach L’cha.

This portion focuses on 12 spies who are dispatched and ordered by Moses to venture eastward and survey the new Promised Land, which God has granted the Israelites. Ten return discouraged, claiming to be unsuited to conquer the current inhabitants; whereas the other two, namely Caleb and Joshua, come back feeling confident in their destined endeavors. As the story progresses, the underlying themes of faith and perspective grow more conspicuous, and the lessons become more easily deducible. The parashah examines the consequences of those devoid of faith through the depiction of an angry God and explores the power of perspective. Feeling abandoned and distrusted, God denies the 10 men entry into the Promised Land while he guides the other two to the land of milk and honey.

While God has not ordered me to scout out the Australian Outback, I shortly will be put in a similar situation as the 12 spies representing the 12 tribes. Upon arrival in Canaan, the same piece of land lay before all 12 sets of eyes, yet the spies saw different things. Some were overwhelmed by the difficulties they would face; others were able to see beyond such challenges. Thus, the Torah teaches us the importance of sculpting our own perceptions. While we cannot choose what we see, we can choose how we see it.

Our perspectives are like spotlights. Sometimes they are too narrow and only shine on particular things, keeping other parts of life in the dark. Perhaps, if the 10 spies broadened their spotlights and were able to shed light onto the fertile parts of the land and bountiful fruit, then they would return home reporting more optimistic feedback. In addition, while faith in God may not suppress my fears or feelings of homesickness, mere hope ought to. Like Caleb and Joshua who felt encouraged to go forth because of their trust in God, I will march forward knowing that I can control how I react to whatever comes my way while abroad. When I take off in a couple of weeks, I hope to have a perspective congruent with Caleb and Joshua. Amidst moments of homesickness and uneasiness, I hope to not be blinded to the rest of the beauty that is Australia and to still be able to see the bountiful fruits, or I guess...smiling kangaroos.

Further wrestling with the text and seeing past the obvious themes, I found a few verses to masterfully exemplify “Audacious Hospitality” — a newly coined term by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, to increase engagement and participation among Reform Jews. More specifically, Audacious Hospitality is a movement that strives to actively seek and integrate strangers into one’s community through means of kindness and warmth. That is, it includes both looking outwards and inwards, member outreach and member retention, and inviting and integration. Both outreach and in-reach are equally important, and the success of accomplishing one is contingent upon the success of the other.

Drawing from Genesis, Rabbi Jacobs provides the following example of Audacious Hospitality: “On a blistering hot day, Abraham runs after three desert wanderers, insisting they come inside for nourishment.” The three underlined words are terms I found to capture the essence of Audacious Hospitality. Firstly, the detail of the day being “blistering” is significant for it shows the unfavorable conditions under which the deed is done. Regardless of the heat, Abraham still carries out the hospitable act, and from this we can deduce that practicing Audacious Hospitality is unconditional. We must go out of our way to welcome others even when it is physically or mentally difficult for us. Next is the specified form of action that Rabbi Jacobs includes, “runs.” This word suggests a sense of activity rather than passivity, for, just as Abraham chased the wanderers, it is our responsibility to actively seek and welcome in strangers. Lastly, “insisting” strengthens the sincerity of Abraham’s offer. While Rabbi Jacobs is not necessarily suggesting Audacious Hospitality should be carried out aggressively, we should uphold the “audacious” part and firmly bring others in.

Moving to Numbers and this week’s parashah, we again see manifestations of Audacious Hospitality. In Chapter 15, verses 14-16, the text teaches us how to embody this concept. It simply puts the host and guest on an equal playing field, mandating that they are equally accountable for their actions and should be held to the same standards. That is, the Torah strips any and all disparity between two people in a household and says that both are expected to adhere to the same rules and abide by the same laws.

These biblical words resemble those of Immanuel Kant’s. Just as the Torah delineates equal standards for both the guest and host, Kant’s categorical imperative spells out the same moral guidelines. The categorical imperative is a formula that states: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law,” providing the framework for a singular unconditional law. These philosophical guidelines echo verses 14-16 because both support a system in which all people live by the same rules.

Elizabeth Cooper is a Young Adult Member of Temple Emanu-El and a rising junior at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. She recently completed an internship at Emanu-El during which she explored ways that Audacious Hospitality could be applied to and practiced by our community.

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