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Three years ago, Rabbi Reuven Samuels, z”l, one of the giants of our generation, left us. Not only did he teach me the essence and essentials of education, liberal Judaism, and the deep connection between them, but during 25 years of devoted service to the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, Israel, he was instrumental in founding Reform Judaism in Israel.
When I started working at the Leo Baeck Education Center 30 years ago, I was excited to be associated with an institution that expresses "community" through Torah, avodah (worship), and g’milut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) – and not only as a Jewish, educational, and social vision but also as an organizational structure that melds an educational community center with a synagogue.
At that time, I began to go to synagogue on Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. At one Kabbalat Shabbat service, a dignified man went up to the bimah and began to speak to the congregation. I did not know then that the man, his loud voice echoing through the synagogue, was offering a d’rash or d’var Torah, an interpretation of the weekly Torah portion.
“The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying, “Send notables to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people.” (Numbers 13:1-2)
There was a brief silence before the speaker asked: “Why should they go spy out the land? What is the purpose of this mission? There is something important to learn here!”
Honestly, I was frightened by his booming voice. Why were these questions important to him, I asked myself. I did not understand them, and I certainly didn’t have any answers.
At the same time, there was something exciting in his voice – something that told me how much he identified with the biblical story. It was as though the 10 spies who cursed the land were rebellious students and the land was the love of his life. Carrying the metaphor further, it was as if the two spies who reported positively about the land, Yehoshua Ben Nun and Kalev Ben Yefuna, were his worthy students who realized their mission as leaders. Speaking enthusiastically and passionately, it was clear he admired them deeply.
As he spoke, Rabbi Samuels became the story itself, as if there was no distance between him and the Bible. As I got to know him, I came to understood the traits he shared with Yehoshua Ben Nun and Kalev Ben Yefuna. Just as they were sent to explore the land, so did he came to explore and settle in the land, bringing liberal Jewish education to Israel.
He continued: "The spies return to Moses and the people; 10 reported the Land of Israel as harsh and hostile, two that the land was very, very good! Which of them spoke a lie?” challenged Rabbi Samuels.
“You know,” he went on in a heavy Texan drawl:
The creation story ends each day with the words “and God saw that it was good.” The sixth day ends with the words “very good.” But here, and only here, in our story about the spies, the biblical narrator writes: “And the land is very, very good.”
Again, he said loudly, “and the land is very, very good!’” to make sure we not only understood, but also were excited with him about the intensity of the experience.
“Friends,” he continued, “do you realize that everything is in the eyes of the beholder?”
Finally, I was beginning to understand – and, most of all, to feel.
Rabbi Samuels concluded his remarks with this:
The two of them – Yehoshua and Kalev – will always be optimistic. However difficult reality is, they will always see the vision of what is worthy. This is how tikkun olam (repair of the world) takes place. The other 10, usually the majority in every generation to this day, are the ones who weaken us and cause us to cry in despair.
The sin of the spies, the greatest sin of the people of Israel in the wilderness, was their mistaken perception of reality, their failure to see the truth through lenses of faith, values, and vision. Each of us can be one of the 10, or we can be the two. It is our choice.
It was only a 10-minute sermon, but it continues to resonate with me to this day. It was one of the first times I encountered a truly deep connection among verses of Torah, a vision of education, and social change.
Thank you, Rabbi Samuels, for your many years of wise guidance and direction. Your memory, vision, and devotion to your work – our work – live in the hearts of countless students, teachers, and community workers who lived and learned in the shadow of your wings.