The events of this week’s Torah portion align perfectly with the social landscape in our nation today. In it, 12 men spend 40 days secretly touring the countryside of the Promised Land. When they return to report their findings to Moses, ten of them give a negative report, filled with fear and apprehension about what they saw and what they thought they saw.
Today, White Americans are confused and apprehensive about what we see when we look at the Black community. We want to understand and we want to help, but our Black neighbors keep insisting that we just don’t understand.
They’re right. I don’t understand. I have no idea what it is like to send my Black son out into the world and wait in fear until he comes home safely, and then do the same thing over and over, day after day. I have no idea what it feels like to be followed through every store I enter. I cannot imagine being stopped by the police on a regular basis as I drive through town.
I do however know the discomfort I’ve felt when I enter predominantly black areas of my community. I know what it’s like to drive around in circles, lost, passing by the same groups of kids again and again, and feeling their stares. I know what it feels like to walk into a church where I’m supposed to speak and have absolutely no idea what to do, where to go, how to act. I know the discomfort of being the only one who is dressed differently and acts differently.
But on those days I have been met with nothing but kindness. By a kid knocking on my window and asking where I’m trying to go, and then giving me directions. By people who welcome me warmly. By a nice man who tells me where to park, and how to get to the main street again. By some of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet, people who are glad that I came and that I was willing to leave my world and visit theirs.
The spies who came back from their mission to scout out the Promised Land didn’t have that opportunity. They skulked in the background, not speaking to anyone, not trying to learn about the people there. They just watched. But that is not the path to understanding.
No wonder that ten of the 12 spies reported that the people there were huge and frightening: “…we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we looked in their eyes.” (Numbers 13:33).
There is a story that imagines God rebuking the spies, saying: “How do you know how I made you look to them? Perhaps you appeared to them as angels!”
I love that. It goes to the heart of misunderstandings between people. If we don’t talk to each other, and even more important, listen to each other, we will never understand each other.
Today, as a White ally who doesn’t understand what it is like to be Black in America, my job is to show up and to listen. To hear the stories and the voices and the pain behind them. To hear about love and friendship in a community that is both different from my own and so amazingly similar.
Writer and director Ariel Julia Hairston once wrote, “For the record, while I don’t believe whites and blacks are inherently different solely because of their skin color, I do believe our cultures and upbringing make us different in a lot of ways.”
We often go out of our way to learn about foreign cultures, especially when we travel to distant countries. It’s time we learned about other cultures right here in America.
We live in a so-called information age, yet we spend our lives in a fog of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and missed opportunities. Judaism asks us to go beyond guessing, to open our eyes, our hearts, and our ears.
When we cease to presume that we understand someone, we have the opportunity to create new levels of understanding, between individuals and between peoples. And that, I believe, is the universal path to peace and justice.