Parashah Ponderings

Dear Scouts: When you must cross a very, very narrow bridge, do not fear.

Parashat Sh’lach 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת שְׁלַח־לְךָ
Torah Portion: Numbers 13:1-15:41

Dear Scouts,

I was sad to read in this week’s Torah portion that your journey toward the land of Canaan has gotten off on the wrong foot. 

On order from Yud-Hey-Vav-Hei, the Big G-dash-D, Moses sent you on a reconnaissance mission to scout out the land that God promised the People of Israel. Moses instructed you to bring back vital information that he and you could use to plan your attack. Forty days later, you came back with answers. You accomplished your mission and could have gone home then and there to reunite with your wives and kids. Why, then, did you go on and on about how impossible it would be to overcome the so-called “giants” in the land, people so gigantic that you felt as small as grasshoppers in comparison? To make matters worse, when you returned to the camp at Kadesh, instead of debriefing privately with Moses and Aaron, you immediately delivered your report to them in front of the entire community of Israel! Now, the people’s trek – which you, yourselves, proved could be accomplished in only a few weeks – will take 40 years! Worse yet, none of you, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, will be able to step foot into that land and watch it blossom into the future homeland for the Jewish people. What were you thinking?

Actually, I know what you were thinking. You had already drawn the conclusion that you were incapable of meeting the challenge that God had set before you. Rather than taking the data you gathered and putting together a workable plan, you had given up before giving yourselves every opportunity to succeed. Rather than having faith in God and in yourselves, you threw in the towel. At least, Joshua and Caleb maintained their faith, and Moses was able to convince God to control God’s anger and not do you all in then and there! So, good luck on that 40-year journey!

Let me share with you some wisdom from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov himself, the founder of hasidic Judaism. Reb Nachman lived from 1772 to 1810 and died at the age of 38. Throughout his life he confronted huge obstacles but he never gave in, he never saw himself as unworthy, and he never lost faith. He had six daughters and two sons, but two of the daughters died in infancy and two of the sons died at about a year and a half. His wife died of tuberculosis and then, right after becoming engaged to another woman, he contracted tuberculosis and survived for three more years before dying from it. Just five months before his death, though, his house burned down, and he was housed and cared for by a group of compassionate secularists in another town. All the while, scholars estimate, he suffered from severe and manic depression. This was not the life that any of us would choose, but he got through it all with his faith.

This was the same man whose words inspired the popular song: “Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar maod v’haikar lo l’fached klal. All the world is a very narrow bridge, but the important thing is to not fear at all.” But that song is a misquote of Reb Nachman’s actual words, which were: “Unde​rstand: that when a person must cross a very, very narrow bridge, the most important​​ and essential​ thing is that he not have any fear at all” (See, accessed 6/24/2022). Despite all the hardship that befell him, Reb Nahman didn’t see all of life as threatening. He understood, however, that there are times when obstacles present themselves and sometimes we are tempted to succumb to our fear and just give in and give up. It’s at those moments, he taught, when we must lean into what intimidates us and just do what it takes to cross those very, very narrow bridges.

Scouts, you’ve got a long 40 years ahead of you. I guarantee there are going to be unpleasant surprises along the way. Some of them may seem even more frightening than the “giants” you thought you saw in the land of Canaan. Rather than panic and cause the rest of the people to give up hope, be like Reb Nachman, or, for that matter, like Joshua and Caleb. See the possibilities that lie ahead of you. Don’t fool yourself into thinking it’ll be easy to cross those very, very narrow bridges. It won’t be easy. But don’t let your fear overcome your faith in yourself and your faith in G-dash-D. When you tackle obstacles with preparation, planning, and confidence, you will overcome them.

Now, with your permission, Scouts, I’d like to share this message with my friends in America on June 24, 2022. I’ll spare you the details, but a lot has changed this week and people are afraid. They are already predicting doom and gloom. But with faith that reason and good will will prevail and leaders from all over the political spectrum will rise to the occasion, I am confident that our country will not fall apart, that we will overcome the challenges that await us, and that we will avert the disasters we are so sure will overtake us. We are not grasshoppers, nor should we see ourselves like grasshoppers. We, too, will cross that very, very narrow bridge.

Hazak v’amatz – be strong and courageous,
Rabbi Dan

Parashah Ponderings

Can’t we be more like elephants than riffraff? Beyond individualism to community, covenant and courage.

Parashat Beha’alotcha 5781
פרשת בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ
Torah Portion: Numbers 8:1-12:16 

Why can’t people be more like elephants?
Consider these facts about elephants from the World Wildlife Federation

  • Elephants have around 150,000 muscle units in their trunk.
  • Their trunks are perhaps the most sensitive organ found in any mammal – Asian elephants have been seen to pick up a peanut, shell it, blow the shell out and eat the nut.
  • Elephants use their trunks to suck up water to drink – it can contain up to 8 litres of water.
  • They also use their trunks as a snorkel when swimming.
  • An elephant’s skin is 2.5cm thick in most places.
  • The folds and wrinkles in their skin can retain up to 10 times more water than flat skin does, which helps to cool them down.
  • They keep their skin clean and protect themselves from sunburn by taking regular dust and mud baths.
  • Amazingly, elephant calves are able to stand within 20 minutes of being born and can walk within 1 hour. 
  • After two days, they can keep up with the herd. This incredible survival technique means that herds of elephants can keep migrating to find food and water to thrive.
  • The elephant’s temporal lobe (the area of the brain associated with memory) is larger and denser than that of people – hence the saying ‘elephants never forget’.

Their noses do so much more than ours. They have thick skin. They don’t need to worry about their babies crawling on dirty floors. And they have awesome memories. I think it would be pretty neat to be an elephant.


I learned something else about elephants this week. A video of elephants in Israel’s Safari Ramat Gan, a zoo near Tel Aviv, shows how elephants put aside their own self-interest to care for their young in times of danger. The video was brought to my attention by Daniella Yitzchak, our congregation’s office manager, who wrote about it in her weekly email message

Daniella writes: “Filmed during a rocket attack in Israel last week, the video shows the moments when an air raid siren is sounding and an explosion is heard in the distance. During that time, five female elephants move towards little Pele (meaning wonder in Hebrew), a 14-month-old elephant calf, and form a protective circle around him, facing outwards in all directions to ward off any threats.

“Ramat Gan zookeeper Guy Kfir explained that the behavior during the siren is likely due to elephants having much better hearing than people, and their ability to detect seismic vibrations through their feet. He continued to explain that it’s very common for elephants to respond this way when facing danger… When recognizing a high risk situation, elephants gather their young and form a protective shield around them. This also happens when an elephant is giving birth. What a moving demonstration of love and commitment as well as courage!”

Those of us who are parents can certainly relate to the elephants’ instinct to protect their young. When our children are in danger, we take extraordinary measures to keep them safe. Or, at least, we should.

But unlike the elephants who form a protective shield around someone else’s baby, we aren’t always so good at caring for other people’s children. In fact, sometimes we are so focused on our own needs and desires that we turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, regardless of who those “others” might be.

The challenges of ego-centrism, self-interest and rugged individualism that pervade our society today are not unique to our day and age. Wandering through the wilderness toward the land that God was to give to them, the Israelites imperil their very lives when they start focusing on their individual needs at the expense of the greater good.

Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses’s leadership. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” (Num. 12:2). Hungry for a share of Moses’s leadership, Miriam and Aaron initiate a rebellion against him. For her role in demeaning Moses, Miriam is stricken with a skin disease, for which she was shut out of the Israelite camp for seven days. Meanwhile, Moses, the epitome of humility, pleads to God to heal his sister.

Perhaps Miriam and Aaron had gotten caught up in the popular revolt that we read about several verses earlier. There we find the people were complaining bitterly against God. They objected to the structure of the camp, which was designed to ensure the safety of all the people. They separated themselves from God. They, too, challenged Moses’s leadership. 

What’s more, we read: “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Num. 11:4-6)

They’re objecting to the very sustenance that God had miraculously provided them! They grow nostalgic for their days as slaves when they had more variety in their diet.

For thinking only of themselves, God sends them more quail than they could possibly eat on their own and they stuff their faces. And while they still have quail between their teeth, God causes a fire to break out in their midst and strikes them with a severe plague (Num. 11:33). 

The Israelites had lost sight of the calf, if you will. Perhaps the calf was the Ark that moved with the Israelites in the center of their camp. Perhaps the calf was God, the one who had freed them from Egypt. Perhaps the calf was the Israelites themselves, the collective, the People who had recently united around Mt. Sinai and made a covenant with the Holy One, vowing to be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation. All of a sudden, the higher cause for which God brought them together was being neglected.

We can sympathize with the people’s desire to want something new and interesting. We can relate to Miriam and Aaron’s envy of Moses’s exalted place among the people. Yet, Torah demands that we curb our appetites and appreciate what we have. We are to practice self-restraint and cultivate an attitude of gratitude every day.

Just imagine what the scene would have been like if the Israelites in our story this week were more like elephants. They would have accepted their responsibility for one another. They would have circled around God, Torah and Israel. They would have protected the proverbial calf.

In today’s world, we, too, need to do a better job of protecting the calf, of setting aside our individual wants, our personal liberties, which we mistake for God-given rights. What a world it would be if we thought about the common good, if we went to extraordinary lengths to protect the most vulnerable in our midst. 

May we strive to be more like elephants. Though we might not be endowed with the qualities that make elephants such magnificent creatures, we can, at least, choose a life of community, covenant and courage. Imagine what the world would like then. We have the power to bring that world about.