I have the privilege of speaking to a fledgling congregation across the Rio Grande in Juarez this weekend. I think the message for a tiny group of Jews just getting started is not all that different from the one that a historic congregation in a comfortable building needs to hear…
I apologize for not being able to speak to you in Spanish, and I’m grateful to Ralph for offering a translation. The number of Spanish phrases I can speak with confidence can be counted on one hand. How serendipitous, then, that one of those phrases comes right out of this week’s Torah portion, in both letter and in spirit: Si, se puede!
As the portion begins, Israel is preparing to enter the Land of Israel. In order to plan for their entry into the land, Moses sends forth a scouting expedition made up of twelve men, one from each of the tribes. Here’s how the Torah tells it:
Numbers 13:17-30 17 When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, “Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, 18 and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? 19 Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? 20 Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” — Now it happened to be the season of the first ripe grapes. 21 They went up and scouted the land…They reached the wadi Eshcol, and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes — it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them — and some pomegranates and figs. 24 That place was named the wadi Eshcol because of the cluster that the Israelites cut down there.
25 At the end of forty days they returned from scouting the land. 26 They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, and they made their report to them and to the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land. 27 This is what they told him: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. 29 Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.” 30 Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, ki yachol nuchal lah – yes we, can – si, se puede!”
Perhaps you know the rest of the story. The people failed to listen to Caleb. The other spies disputed Caleb’s assessment, dwelling on the fact that the people living in the Promised Land were so large that they, the Israelites, felt like grasshoppers in their presence. The people shouted down Caleb and Joshua too, and even threatened to pelt them with stones! Our tradition looks upon their act as a tremendous failure of nerve.
For that failure of nerve, Israel was sentenced to forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The pessimism of former slaves had to give way to the optimism of men and women born in freedom. A whole generation needed to be able to say yachol nuchal, si se puede, in one voice.
That two said “si, se puede” and ten said “no” is not surprising. It’s hard to say si, se puede when the obstacles are staring you in the face. They can seem insurmountable. You can feel so small, like grasshoppers looking up at giants. It takes incredible courage to say si, se puede.
And here you are, little Beit Jehudah. You are small in number. Compared to the other religions that have taken root in this city, you are small in stature, and you probably feel even smaller! A Jew in Juarez? Better you should be a grasshopper! It’s tempting to say, “Forget it. Starting a synagogue in Juarez is crazy! The obstacles are just too great! Let’s turn back, let’s play it safe. Let’s go to Temple Mount Sinai once a month and leave it at that.” The voices of Joshua and Caleb urge you on to become a congregation. And other voices shout them down, saying, “but what about the giants?”
Have no illusions, you will face giants along the way if you decide to march. You will argue about ritual. You will disagree about whether to be Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. You will argue about silly things and the arguments will take on a life of their own. You will get frustrated because you aren’t growing fast enough. Then, when you do grow, the founders will resent the new-comers and long for the days when everything was so much better. An important founding member will move on to other things and you’ll be tempted to close your doors. You will squabble over how to collect the funds it takes to pay your bills. Again and again, you will wonder if it’s worth the trouble. Yes, there are giants out there, and it will feel like they are standing between you and the promised land.
But here’s the secret, folks. The arguments, the disagreements, the fights, the squabbles, the frustrations, the doubts…they are the promised land. All of that strife is the price you pay to be yisrael. The price of admission allows you, from time to time, to experience the heights of prayer, the joys of study, the deep satisfaction that comes from creating a sacred community that lifts up you up when you are down, comforts you when you are afflicted. That is what it means to be a community in which each person has a claim on every other, in which the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. It isn’t always easy, and it’s seldom very pretty. But this landscape, with all of its hills and valleys, is very, very good.
I am here this morning to tell you that you have friends as you march. After the service we’ll talk more about how Temple Mount Sinai and the Union for Reform Judaism can help you get organized as a Reform congregation should you so choose. But the bulk of the work is yours to do. Let Caleb and Joshua be the voices ringing out loud and clear. Si, tu puedes!