Muswell Hill Synagogue
Vaetchanan 31 July / 1 August 8.36pm 9.45pm

Stephanie Brodkin’s d’var Torah

Stephanie gave this d’var Torah on  Shabbat 9th June 2018

As I walked up here today many of you, I’m sure, were making assumptions about me, based perhaps on my age, what I look like and the fact that I’m a girl. We all do it – all the time.

Sometimes assumptions make us seem foolish. If Kaiser Wilhelm were around today he would surely regret the moment in 1864 when he grandly announced in reference to the train: “No one will pay good money to get from Berlin to Potsdam in one hour, when he can ride his horse there in one day for free.” Although sometimes I do think my dad is close to agreeing with him.

Or how about when the bank president who advised Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Company, reasoned that “the horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad”. He got that one half right. The horse is still here, though you don’t see many around Muswell Hill.

For me the children’s author Lemony Snicket captured it best. As he put it: “Making assumptions means believing things are a certain way, with little or no evidence. Assumptions are dangerous things to make, and like all dangerous things to make, bombs for instance, or strawberry shortcake, if you make even the tiniest mistake, you can find yourself in terrible trouble.”

And yet we all make assumptions every day – or at least I assume we all do – without thinking about how ghastly the consequences could be. When you see a man with a black-hat and tistsit, it may seem reasonable to assume he’s a Jew but many of us will also assume other things such as his ability to do an impromptu 3 point turn on Golder’s Green road…

Or maybe when you see a teenager walking down the street with headphones on, you’ll assume that they aren’t listening to classical music. When you see a Muslim man, do you make certain assumptions? Our brain seems preconditioned to make judgments about people that carry the possibility of being not only untrue but also being ridiculously unjustified.

We see the dangers stemming from assumption in this week’s parasha, when the 12 spies return and tell the Jewish people of their experience with the Nephilim – the supposed giants who lived in the Promised Land. Ten of the spies declared living in Israel an impossible mission, whilst two – Caleb and Joshua – argued that they could conquer the land.

The 10 said “we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes”. The suggestion is clear: that the giants saw them as small, inferior and weak. However, the spies hadn’t actually interacted with the Nephilim, and couldn’t possibly know whether they were seen as grasshoppers or whether they were a perceived threat from whom the giants would flee.

This assumption of the giants’ opinion and their own presumed inability to conquer the land led to the death of an entire generation and an extra 40 years spent wondering the desert, since it convinced the Jews to seek to go back to Egypt, against God’s will, prompting him to wipe them out.

Although this is an extreme example which we can’t relate to in our lives today, it does illustrate how our assumptions can impact those around us, shutting down the opportunities right in front of us, and causing dire consequences.

We see another assumption in this week’s parasha – how the people of the desert assumed that the majority view was correct. Two out of the 10 spies did return certain that the land was conquerable. “We can surely do it,” Caleb said.

The people, though, took the majority’s side. With only verbal evidence to go on, and without challenging anything, they assumed the negative view must be correct because more people said it. And it is understandable why they did this. We, as humans, are social creatures. We like to be part of group, a community, and going against the majority sets us apart from the rest. We humans also like certainty and safety.

In the eyes of the Jews in the desert, the holy land being conquerable was NOT a guarantee but, at best, a possibility. Returning to Egypt was certainty and safety, for they knew what was there. They could just go back to the hard, mundane life of slavery without having to lift a finger. And so it’s, it’s easy to understand why they took this choice. Mind you, here I am making assumptions about what they did and why they did it!

I think we can learn that going with the belief of the majority simply because more people believe it isn’t always a good idea. If that was always the case, women wouldn’t have got the vote, since it went against what the majority wanted and the death penalty wouldn’t have been abolished in France, since 65% of people were in favour of it at that time.

This is not say that it’s wrong to conclude the majority is correct. Think about the recent vote that made abortion legal in Ireland, with a 66% majority, which will revolutionise the lives of countless women, or the referendums that legalised gay marriage in Australia, Malta, Austria and Germany last year. But I think it’s a lesson on properly hearing out both sides of an argument before arriving at our decision, and about having the courage to ask questions, regardless of where the majority may stand.

Whilst I was researching information about this parasha and finding inspiration for a theme, I came across the story of some more recent Jewish spies. Caleb and Joshua had the difficult task of finding a way of getting Bnei Yisrael into the promised land safely. Relevantly, I found the story of a Jewish spy based in Beirut in the 1940s. Their role was to help smuggle Jews from Arab countries through Lebanon and into Palestine. I found this a fascinating story. Not only does it tie in with the parasha by having a shared aim -namely spies getting Jews into the promised land, but I also realised how when someone mentions a spy, most of us will assume that they are a man.  This spy was in fact a lady called Shula Cohen, code name, ‘The Pearl’.

We can also take inspiration from how Caleb and Joshua went against the majority and made an informed decision for themselves. God rewarded them for this- by allowing them into the Promised Land. We can learn from this that it’s important to make our own, educated decisions and uphold our beliefs. It’s important to challenge and disprove assumptions.

Everyone makes mistakes. For example, we all know Einstien was an incredible scientist but that doesn’t mean he was infallible in his field. He said that “there is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable”. Now it is a large source of the energy we consume today.

On the subject of assumption, perhaps the last word should go to Orville Wright, one of the brothers who invented the aeroplane. He said “If we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true then there would be little hope for advance.”

Thanks for listening to my d’var torah. I won’t assume you enjoyed it.


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