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Weekly Message

June 28, 2024
22 Sivan 5784
Parashat Sh'lach
Numbers 13:1 - 15:41

Dear Friends,

As we come to the end of June and the end of Pride Month, it is my pleasure to share these words of Torah from Jay Stanton.

In this week’s portion, sh’lac lecha (Numbers 13:1-15:41), Moses sends 12 scouts into the land of Israel on a reconnaissance mission to prepare to enter the promised land. When the scouts return, ten of them are extremely pessimistic about the success of the Israelites conquering the land, while Joshua and Caleb are sure that the Israelites will prevail. In the story, God says that Caleb has “a different spirit,” allowing him to enter the land while excluding others involved in the scouting. 

The verse reads (JPS, 2006):

But My servant Caleb, because he was imbued with a different spirit and remained loyal to Me—him will I bring into the land that he entered, and his offspring shall hold it as a possession.

The Hebrew for a different spirit is “ruach acher”. Acher means another, and it can have a number of connotations. In this instance, the commentators are divided on whether it means a different opinion from the other spies, or whether Caleb maintained his relationship with the ten pessimistic spies by telling them he agreed until they returned from the mission, but kept his positive attitude toward the project private – a different spirit within than on the outside. Either way, different is used here to mean distinctive, and, in this case, in a positive sense.

Yet acher can also mean other in the sense of strange, alien, outsider. In rabbinic Judaism, it is often a euphemism for something viewed as the antithesis of Judaism, such as idolatry.

My sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as the perspectives on life they give me, are different from those of, perhaps, the majority of people. I perceive them as something to be valued, and something that God values as part of the mystery, diversity, and grandeur of creation. Yet there are those who view this difference as strange, and even, to say the least, improper.

The phrase ruach acher echoed another phrase for me -- the phrase neshama yeteira, which is the extra soul we are given on Shabbat. Though temporary, the additional soul we receive on Shabbat allows us to experience the holiness and joy of the day of rest as a taste of the world to come, a perspective on life we cannot otherwise attain. If we are mindful, we can take some of its essence with us into the ordinary days of the week. Yet, if we remain preoccupied with mundane concerns during Shabbat, such as errands, work, or fixing that leaky faucet, we do not feel our neshama yeteira even on Shabbat.

Perhaps Caleb’s ruach acher is not a different spirit from his counterparts or a difference between his speech and his conscience, but rather another spirit, different from his usual one. Just as the holy time of Shabbat offers us the enhanced experience of the neshama yeteira if we are open to it, so too must the holy land of Israel offer us the enhanced experience of connection with God. When Caleb enters the land, he is not besieged by the practicalities of conquest; rather, he can see the land flowing with milk and honey, the land of the seven species, in front of him. While that certainly differentiates Caleb from the spies, the more wondrous phenomenon is Caleb’s ability to retain that holy-land-consciousness on the other side of the Jordan, accessing the spirit of what my Celtic forebears would call a “thin place”: a space where the barrier between the earthly and the divine is worn thin, despite the fact that Caleb is no longer there.

On the whole, I think members of the LGBTQ+ community exemplify the joy of being who you are. We need to cultivate a particular resilience to thrive in a society that questions your worth or belittles you (again, erring on understatement). This resilience is a type of different spirit.

In the Book of Isaiah, we are called to be a light unto the nations. In Jewish communities, we strive to be exemplars of living kindly, justly, and communally. Like Caleb, we have a ruach acher, a different spirit, a holy inspiration that enriches both us and the world. Our task is to tap into it.

Additionally we have included a link to Rabbi Rob Scheinberg’s Dvar Torah for the AJR community.

Wishing you all a good July.

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784