I read this week’s parashah on a warm, early summer day in the garden, surrounded by my family and belongings. My thoughts turned to my grandparents who came to England as children, fleeing the persecution in Russia and Poland, separated from their siblings and everything they had known. They changed their names and wore the clothes and mannerisms of their English neighbours, blending but not assimilating.
In Sh’lach L’cha, we read about the Children of Israel escaping their oppressors in Egypt, still raw from the dangerous journey in the desert. As they approach the Promised Land, God tells Moses to send scouts to assess the quality of the land and the nature of the inhabitants. Twelve high-ranking men are chosen and after 40 days they return. Ten of them bring terrible news: the people are so superior that the Israelites won’t be able to defeat them. The last two scouts have a different report, stating that God will lead them to possess the land.
That night the Israelites speak about finding a way to be led back to Egypt and, abandoning their trust in God, they weep. According to the Rabbinic tradition (Mishnah Taanit 4:6), this day became Tisha B’Av, a day of weeping and misfortune for ever.
I wondered about my family, how they made that decision to pack everything up and leave, believing that at the end of the road was a better country and safer life. Were there people who went ahead like the ten spies, sending back letters describing the new country, with talk of tenement blocks and sweatshops? Or did they speak of green fields and plenty to eat? Did my family imagine they would arrive to the nourishment of milk and the luxury of honey, and did they put their faith in God to lead them on their route knowing there was no turning back?
In the second part of the parashah, God instructs Moses with the words, “When you arrive in the land,” describing the precise quantities of materials to be used for offerings of pleasing fragrance. These rules apply equally to the Israelites and the ger, the stranger who lives amongst them – both being the same before God. The juxtaposition of this section with the story of the twelve spies highlights how the condition of the Israelites changed from being the aliens themselves in Egypt, to living as stateless nomads in the desert, and finally to being the settled community where other individuals became the stranger. They had a responsibility to behave towards the stranger within a set framework, the same laws applying to all – not just for a short time but throughout the generations.
So, we live here in England as part of a settled community, following the laws of the land and belonging to Masorti Judaism. The struggles that our parents and grandparents endured are tucked into the memory banks, details blurred with time. For many others, though, there is no Promised Land – only persecution, starvation, danger. How do we relate to those people, the strangers who arrive on their own personal journey? How very close are we to that precarious state when we might ourselves be threatened? The message of the parashah is still fresh for us today: we should be like Joshua and Caleb, trusting God and spreading hope and positivity.
Michelle Knight (née Soskin) is a member of St Albans Masorti Synagogue and works for the NHS as a consultant anaesthetist