Strength Doesn't Hide Behind Walls* - Parshat Sh'la
Much of this week, I’ve felt helpless and angry about the situation on the southern border. So I turn to the Torah for guidance and I wanted to share some thoughts with you in the hopes that it will be helpful to frame these issues in the language and values of Torah.
In Parshat Sh’la
which we read this week, we retell the story of the scouts who were charged with reconnoitering the Land of Israel. Moshe charges the scouts, “See what kind of a country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified?” (Numbers 13:18-19).
What is the mark of a strong people? How will the scouts know if they are strong?
A midrash from Tan
uma, quoted by Rashi, offers an answer which links the last of Moses’ questions with the first:
[Moses] gave [the spies] a sign. If the cities are open, unwalled, this is a sign that the people are strong since they rely on their strength. If, however, the cities are fortified, they are weak. (Rashi on Numbers 13:18)
You might have thought that strong people build good fortifications. But the midrash argues the opposite - if the people are strong, they have no need for walls; if the society is good, it will be open. If, however, they are weak, they’ll close the gates.
The ten scouts get it wrong. When they return they report:
“the people who inhabit the country are powerful and the cities are fortified and very large” (Numbers 13:28)
The scouts assume that fortified cities mean that the people behind them are powerful, when, according to the midrash, they are a sign of fear and weakness.
A generation later, when Israel marches into the land of Canaan, led by Joshua (not coincidentally, one of the spies who had faith that Israel could conquer the land), we learn the truth of this teaching. The first battle in the conquest of the land is at Jericho. The text makes a point of telling us that Jericho was “
- closed and shut up tight” (Joshua 6:1) - which I believe is both a physical and spiritual description of the walled city. But Ra
av, an unlikely hero, reveals to two Israelite scouts, that “dread of you has fallen upon us and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you.” (Joshua 2:9). Fortified on the outside, terrified on the inside.
Sure enough, the walls of Jericho come tumbling down by the sound of the shofar and the shouts of a recently freed people seeking to settle in the promised land. Because that’s what happens to closed societies. The walls they build around them cannot keep them safe - maybe for a while - but not ultimately. The moral corrosion and injustice has already decimated the city from within.
The analogy (like all analogies) is an imperfect one. Migrants seeking to cross the southern border are not a conquering army (although security concerns are legitimate), nor is America Jericho. But the lesson of the midrash still applies. If we are truly strong, we can ensure the protection of our citizens without becoming hardened to the suffering of people who were “by accident of their birth” born in another country - especially since so many of our own ancestors arrived in America as refugees from other places.
It is the responsibility of our elected officials to keep us safe. That is a heavy burden to be sure. But they must, I believe, strive to fulfill this obligation without abandoning our moral responsibility to help others and fulfill America’s promise as a place of refuge and opportunity for the oppressed.
This week, we’ve witnessed the effects of a broken system taking a moral toll on the soul of a nation and taking a human toll on migrants seeking a better life. We cannot unsee images of parents and children dying in an attempt to cross the Rio Grande. We cannot unhear the cries of children locked in unsanitary prison cells separated from their parents. Nor should we. When confronted with these daily realities on the southern border, we are forced to ask ourselves, “Is this the mark of a strong nation? A moral nation? A kind nation? If scouts from abroad came at this moment in our history to “see what kind of a country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak?” what would their answer be? This crisis didn’t start overnight and it won’t be solved overnight. I don’t presume to know the best way forward, but I do know there must be a better, more compassionate approach than this.
Strength doesn’t need to hide behind walls nor does it need to imprison children. May God continue to bless America with abundance and may we have the true strength to confront these challenges with concern for the dignity and well being of all God’s children.
-Rabbi Ari Lucas
*With acknowledgement of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' Torah Commentary for some of these teachings and ideas.