Shelah Leha (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.

Faith is a good thing. It can bring comfort to those who suffer the grief and sadness of profound loss and inspiration to those seeking spiritual guidance and support during times of doubt and personal struggle. Faith can give hope and strength to the weary while they battle challenging diseases or the loss of a job during economic downturns. And sometimes, sadly, faith can kill those we love, as is evident with the sad and twisted faith of Herbert and Catherine Schaible of Philadelphia, who were charged last week with third-degree murder in the April death of their 7-month-old son.

I am a rabbi, a deeply religious individual who has spent my life working in the world of faith and prayer. Yet when I read the story of the Schaible parents and how their misguided faith in divine intervention to cure their two innocent children (a 2-year-old son died in 2009) of pneumonia resulted not in their healing and health but in their tragic deaths, I could only be deeply saddened by the inevitable results of "faith" misguided, "faith" turned from a blessing to a curse, "faith" twisted from the spiritual tool of strength and inspiration it was meant to be into an instrument of pain, sorrow and death.

I can't help but think of the powerful statement in the Book of Deuteronomy where God is quoted as telling Moses, "See I set before you this day good and evil, blessing and curse, life and death, therefore choose life." In Jewish theology, God, through our sacred literature, gives all human beings the sacred mission to choose life over death, good over evil, and blessings over curses – even while knowing that life is a messy, complicated affair and that everyone's life contains both blessings and curses.

Sometimes the greatest challenge of all when life is difficult, when we face illness or struggles, is simply figuring out which choices will lead us to blessings and which will lead to curses.

My tradition teaches that faith is a blessing, but that we human beings are co-partners with God in completing the act of creation. Part of that partnership means that we use our God-given talents, creativity, ingenuity, and intelligence to create cures for diseases. Faith to me means believing that God intended us to create penicillin, antibiotics, cures for diseases and medicine to ease our pain and suffering, and that this is exactly how God actually works miracles in the world.

We are to see God working through the creativity and brilliance of the human mind and spirit, and to recognize in our own hands God's hands, in our own eyes God's eyes, in our own minds the creative genius that is God working miracles in our everyday lives.

When a child has pneumonia and we have the blessing of penicillin that can heal that child of his illness and literally bring him back to life from the brink of death, that is the miracle of God working in the world through the agency of the human mind and heart.

I think of the story we all know of Moses going up to the top of Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights to receive the Ten Commandments, written (according to the Torah) "with the finger of God." When Moses comes down from the mountain and sees the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf, he smashes the tablets in a dramatic gesture that demonstrates the power and demand of God to have "no other gods before me."

As the story in the Torah goes, Moses then ascends Mount Sinai once again, only this time it is Moses himself who inscribes the commandments in stone. It is this version that the Children of Israel carry through their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and then bring to the world. It is this version that has been the foundation of right and wrong in western ethics ever since.

I share this story to point out that even in the most sacred ancient text of the Jewish people, accepted by Christianity as the "Old Testament," it is the word of God as mediated through the heart and mind of the human being (in this case Moses) that becomes the source of our ethics and values. That is how God works in the world: through us and our hearts, and our passions and our wisdom and our searching for the truths that elevate humanity.

Jewish tradition teaches that God left the world incomplete and it is our job as human beings to imitate God by bringing godliness into the world through the use of our own creativity and God-given abilities. Merely praying to God to intervene is an abdication of our co-partnership. Judaism believes that the highest "mitzvah" (religious obligation) is the saving of life. In fact, our tradition insists that not using our talents and abilities to intervene in a health crisis when our intervention could save a life is one of the highest sins we can commit.

As a religious leader I often have people come to me asserting "I'm not very religious, rabbi," by which they inevitably mean they don't "religiously" practice rituals, attend services weekly, or necessarily believe in a supernatural God who intervenes in the world and responds to prayer. To me, being "religious" means acting in such a way as to bring more holiness, more godliness into the world. It means recognizing that every human being is created in the image of the divine and, as such, is deserving of dignity, respect, and all the God-given human talents we can gather to bring healing into the world. What the Schaibles claim as "religious" behavior – in ignoring what God has given the world through human creativity and our ability to heal the sick – is to me exactly the opposite of what religious behavior should truly be.

This week’s Torah portion contains the famous stories of the twelve scouts Moses sends to check out the Promised Land before the Israelites enter, to bring back a report on whether or not it is fertile and fortified and what the nature of the existing population might be. In the Torah, ten out of twelve scouts report back that, although the land is indeed fertile and literally flowing with milk and honey, the inhabitants are fierce giants who would certainly crush the Israelites should they attempt to enter and claim the inheritance that God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Only two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, see the land as filled with promise itself and have faith that if the people believe they can conquer the land they will. Joshua and Caleb alone encourage the Israelites to trust themselves, have faith in God and claim their inheritance. We are taught in this week’s portion the power of perception, and are reminded of the famous saying, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.” The lack of faith, not only in God as their protector but most importantly in their own ability to conquer the land, resulted in the Israelites being condemned to wander through the wilderness of the Sinai desert for the next forty years.

Faith, we are reminded, is not merely in God alone, but in our own ability to seize the opportunities presented to us to fashion our own destiny. We cannot merely pray to God, whether to conquer our enemies or the diseases that attack our bodies. For true faith is to believe that God has given us the strength, determination, wisdom, ingenuity, creativity and drive to fashion our own destiny and be co-partners in the fulfillment of God’s plan to bring peace, harmony and wholeness into our own lives and into the world.

(Check out www.rebreuben.com, www.becomingjewishbook.com and www.interfaithrabbi.com for more commentaries, articles and books by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben).