Parsha Shlach and Our Own Years in the Desert

In this week’s parsha, the Jewish people are punished for the false reports 10 of the 12 spies come back with.  Their punishment is to wait 40 more years in the desert and to only have their children be able to go into the land they have been promised.

I recently read a commentary by Rabbi Sacks on this parsha, from his book, Covenant and Conversation.  In it, he talks about how it could be that this punishment was always going to be necessary because it simply takes a lot of time to transform a people from slaves to free men and women capable of entering in the land.

“It takes more than a few days or weeks to turn a population of slaves into a nation capable of handling the responsibilities of freedom. In the case of the Israelites it needed a generation born in liberty, hardened by the experience of the desert, untrammelled by habits of servitude. Freedom takes time, and there are no shortcuts. Often it takes a very long time indeed.” – Rabbi Sacks

There are often people unfamiliar with the process of Orthodox Jewish conversion that ask me why our process is taking so long.  There are even people familiar with it that ask the same thing and I admit, there are definitely times I ask.  At a higher level, though, I realize that just as Hashem could just have easily remade the Jewish people to be ready to inhabit the land while they were in the desert, He chose not to.  As Rabbi Sacks says, He held back His power to do so in order to preserve the freedom of the Jews.

“Even God Himself, implies Maimonides, has to work with the grain of human nature and its all-too-slow pace of change. Not because God cannot change people: of course He can. He created them; He could re-create them. The reason is that God chooses not to. He practices what the Safed Kabbalists called tzimtzum, self-limitation. He wants human beings to construct a society of freedom – and how could He do that if, in order to bring it about, He had to deprive them of the very freedom He wanted them to create.” – Rabbi Sacks

If Hashem truly believed that my family should be converted already, we would be.  There is some reason that we are not that is deeper than what we can see looking at the circumstances we’ve faced and I really believe that the reason is for our benefit.

This message is also timely.  Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the day I decided I wanted to convert and be a part of the Jewish people.  It was such a big decision for me that I decided, in typical geeky fashion, to mark it on my calendar, along with all the other important anniversaries of my life.  Many years ago, after months of thought and study and my first holiday at a Chabad House, Shavuos, on June 16th, I decided that yes, even knowing that Orthodox conversion is hard, this is what I wanted to do.  I wanted my family whole and I wanted my family to be Jewish.

Since then, I’ve learned, changed, and grown more than I ever could have imagined and I’ve come to realize that conversion is deep inner work.  As Rabbi Sacks rightly states, unlike other religions, Judaism doesn’t believe in sudden and complete transformations.  Even after the great revelation at Sinai, the Jewish people are still growing and evolving and aren’t yet ready to enter the land.  They did not suddenly become fully the people Hashem had meant for the Jews to be and the Jewish people continue to grow and learn, each generation picking up the task of working always to be more what Hashem wants us to be.

Real transformation just takes time.  There are no shortcuts if you want that kind of deep and lasting transformation.

I think the biggest theme of my conversion journey has been learning to trust Hashem.  Earlier on, I kept looking for someone who would be a kind of spiritual parent to me through this process.  I expected there to be a Rabbi who would take us under his wing and answer all our questions and tell us exactly what we should do.  When we didn’t receive that kind of clarity, I assumed it was because we hadn’t yet proven our sincerity or commitment or that there was something we needed to do or show and that then, at last, we’d be given that clarity.

At some point just this year, I realized that while that might work wonderfully for others, maybe that really isn’t the process I needed?  I was always good at finding learning and studying and maybe, just maybe, the reason why my process has been the way it is is that what I uniquely needed was to trust more in Hashem rather than in any one guide or leader.  Would I have learned to daven so sincerely if I had felt like my needs were all already being met by someone guiding me?  Would I have developed the same strength or commitment?

This also gave us tremendous freedom.  Without being told exactly what we should do, we had to think carefully about our choices and try to decide what was best for us and our family.  It gave us the freedom to step away for a while, which is something that I’ve see far too many converts do after conversion and likely for similar reasons as we did.  We were confronted with the humanity of Judaism, the imperfections that settle in after the infatuation wears off.  We were given the gift of being able to wrestle with those before we were obligated in the mitzvos and to come to terms with them before we’d made a forever commitment.

The wait has not been easy, but perhaps we needed more time than most.

I’m certain it wasn’t easy for the Jews to hear that they had forfeited their ability to enter Israel and that they would die in the desert instead.  I can’t imagine how much harder everything after that would have been, knowing that while your children might finally reach your ultimate goal, you never would.  I picture how I would feel if I was told that our children would convert, but that we wouldn’t be allowed to, yet we would have to remain in the conversion process so that they would be given that opportunity.  How much more difficult those last 40 years must have felt knowing they would never find their way home?

And yet, the Jews kept going.  They kept teaching their children, preparing them to live a life they were denied.  They kept fighting for a future for their children that they would never share.  To me, that’s incredibly inspiring and helps balance out their failings and complaining after the spies report.  It would have been easy for them to throw their hands in the air and give up knowing they’d never see Israel, but they didn’t.  They worked now to provide their children with a better future.

I watch as my own children learn and grow.  My son already can correct my Hebrew pronunciation and learns with his Zaide each Sunday.  My daughter knows songs from Hebrew school I never learned and often fits in with her Jewish friends to the point it’s hard to tell which kid is different.  In time, it’s my hope that they’ll both be back in day school, far surpassing any Torah knowledge I will ever reach in my own lifetime and it’s my hope that after conversion they will marry into the Jewish people, fading into them as so many converts have in generations past.

For now, we’re in our own desert, dreaming of a better future for our children, but I do think that Hashem chose the most beautiful desert possible for us.

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