Posted By The Stash

The story of the scouts dispatched by Moses is well known. Twelve hand picked and seasoned leaders of their tribes left united to verify that Canaan was indeed “the land of milk and honey”. After 40 days they returned bitterly divided into 2 irreconcilably warring factions who supplied divided opinions on whether Canaan was conquerable. The Israelites lost their composure when they heard these opposing reports, and were eventually doomed to spend an extra 38 years in the desert.

How could such accomplished men become so deeply divided? Rashi famously observes that verse 22 is grammatically strange: “And they went up to the Negev, and he went to Hebron” and comments: “Caleb [one of the two scouts who would remain faithful in his belief that Canaan was conquerable] went to the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron and prayed that he not succumb to the pressures of the majority of the scouts.” In other words, these men were bitterly divided almost from the outset, and Caleb saw almost instantly that no good would come of it.

Caleb was correct both in terms of the immediate outcome of the story and its deeper consequence for Jewish legal history. Later in this parasha, G-d complains “how much longer must I put up with this evil congregation?” The word for congregation (edah) is associated with these ten men. The Talmud in Massechet Sanhedrin cites this example and its parallel narrative from Bereishit in which G-d could not find 10 good men in Sodom, thus sealing its fate as a “wicked city”. From these two stories, the Sages ruled that 10 men are the minimum number for a prayer quorum because the behaviour of ten is the minimum number that can influence an entire community’s fate.

I strongly identify with Rashi’s insight into the importance of community and how even great people endowed with leadership skills are far from immune from quarreling so bitterly that they destroy the community they are supposed to lead. In the three decades I have been involved at the Stash, I have been struck by its deep sense of community. Both the founding congregations sought to transcend the geography of a strange land by bonding with “landsleit”—people they knew from “der alte Heim” (the Old Country)—in a foreshadowing of the 1950’s adage “the people who pray together stay together”. Their small shuls served as an oasis in a cold and harsh land that had little love for Jewish immigrants. I came to understand that when many of these highly opinionated men and women yelled at me (which happened very often for the first 20 years), they were not re-enacting the internecine quarrels of this week’s parasha, but merely the voices of a community defining its ethnic boundary and marking its territory.

I am privileged to bear some responsibility for maintaining our founders’ legacy. But I don’t always use their methods to achieve similar outcomes. I prefer to emphasize our similarities rather than quarrel about our differences. I prefer to discuss rather than argue. And I want to hear what the stakeholders—the daaveners—have to say—it is OUR shul. I am proud that we have grown so much that we don’t limit membership to Stashover or Slipia ethnic boundary, but seek to attract all those who believe that shul should be an oasis of prayer, learning, happy children who feel “at home” here, good coffee, single malt Scotch, and passionate discussion about what insights about life we can glean from our tradition through reflection and interactive learning and listening. I am delighted that we leave politics to experts in Ottawa, Toronto, and City Hall-- it gives us the time to actually pray and learn.

The scouts hardly left home before they were divided and angry. We have been together for over 100 years and are closer than ever. Ken yehi ratzon—may this be God’s plan for us . Thanks for the privilege of participating…may our journey continue in good health.

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