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Shabbat Shelach-Lekha – June 17, 2017/23 Sivan 5777

One of the most interesting aspects of coming to a new community is learning the history of that Jewish community. There were Jewish merchants in Washoe City as early as 1861 and in the new city of Reno in 1868. The first Jewish organization – Chebra B’rith Sholam – was established in Reno in 1878. But there was no synagogue in Reno for forty-three more years. [Thus, our Reno ancestors wandered in the desert for more than 40 years!]

In an article by Phillip I. Earl[1] we read the following:

On June 17, 1917 [100 years ago – today], a number of Jewish Community leaders met to form a non-profit corporation to raise funds for the construction of a synagogue in Reno. The Planning Committee was composed of Sol Jacobs, Max Kragerman, Morris Clink, Harry Ginsburg and Isaac Schultz. An option had previously been taken on a lot on West Street between Fourth and Fifth Streets opposite the high school and enough money was raised that year to purchase the property, but capitol, materials and labor shortages due to the war then going on made it necessary to put off construction for another four years.

No doubt, there had been discussions about the building of a synagogue from time to time over the preceding half-century. I’m sure that there were always good reasons why a synagogue couldn’t – or shouldn’t – be built. And even on June 17, 1917 – the men who came together with the intention of finally building a synagogue in Reno were able to purchase the land, but not to begin building for another four years.

These five men had earlier “spied out the land” – they already had taken out an option on the property. Their report to the community was that they could (and should) acquire the land and build on it.

Our local Jewish history is only a small piece of the history of the Jewish people.

3,328 years ago – in the second year of the Exodus from Egypt – Moses sent a dozen men to spy out the Land towards which they were heading. All twelve of these tribal leaders came back with a similar report, describing what they saw and bringing back physical evidence of the fertility of the land. The problem was not what facts they gathered – the problem arose with the interpretation of those facts.

Isn’t that always the case – whether it is a matter of public policy or a question of what Torah is teaching? Whether facts, data, or texts – the great task of humanity is to interpret what the facts, the data, and the texts mean.

The spies that Moses sent were respected leaders, honorable men. They reported accurately, beginning with a show-and-tell: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit” [13:27]. They continue with a factual assessment of the people and cities: “However [efes] the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negev region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.” All accurate descriptions – only the word efes [however] conveys a negative assessment of these otherwise neutral facts.

At these words, the people interpret them to mean that there is no way that they will succeed in taking the land. Caleb tries to assure the people, saying, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.”

But the other spies (apart from Joshua), offer their own assessment: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” The Torah continues: ve-hotzi’u dibbat ha-aretz … el B’nei Yisrael – “and they brought a false report concerning the land to the Children of Israel.” “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim there—the Anakites are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”

Now this is interpretation – pure speculation! (How could they have known how they appeared in the eyes of the Nephilim?)

Here was a generation that was quick to conclude that they would fail to achieve their goal. It was a generation whose leaders concluded that they would fail. This was a generation born and raised in slavery. It was a generation without faith in themselves. It was a generation that had witnessed the plagues visited upon Egypt – but not upon them. They themselves had walked between the walls of water on dry land. They had received manna every single day since. They had witnessed the defeat of the Amalakites shortly after beginning their trek through the Wilderness. And yet, this was a generation that did not have faith in God – they did not trust that God would ensure their victory over the inhabitants of the Promised Land.

So this was a generation that had to die in the Wilderness. Without faith in themselves or in God, they simply couldn’t be the generation to inhabit the Land. Only their children – born in Egypt or, more likely, in the Wilderness – could have the necessary faith to be able to prevail in the difficult task of taking the Land. After all, the locals weren’t going to simply abandon their homes, leaving the key under the mat. Neither were they going to remain in their homes and give the Israelites the key to the city.

I find it hard to imagine that the generation of the Wilderness believed that the next generation – especially the not-yet-born children – would be more capable than they of taking the Land. (Well, maybe their own perfect children and grandchildren – but certainly not other people’s kids!)

The older and more sanguine we get, the more realistic we are about what we can accomplish. We may still accomplish great things, but we tend to aim lower and think more practically about the challenges we will surely face. We may sleep more, but we dream less.

It is important to dream. But it is equally, or more, important to have faith – in ourselves and in God. One hundred years ago, today, five men began with a dream that one day there would be a synagogue in Reno, Nevada. And though the Great War was raging in Europe, and though just two months earlier America had joined that war, these men nonetheless began the realization of their dream. It wasn’t until 1921 that Temple Emanu-El became a brick-and-mortar reality.

And today, a century later, that dream remains alive and well – who would have believed in 1917 that one day there would be four Jewish congregations in Reno, Nevada, supporting four rabbis! The original dreamers have all gone. I suspect that few (if any) of their children are still living. But their dream lives on. We are the current custodians of that dream. May we have the faith to keep that dream alive and pass it to the generations to follow.

Shabbat shalom.

[1] Phillip I. Earl, “A House to Offer Our Prayers…” A Brief History of Reno’s Jewish Community and the Building of the Temple Emanu El [publication information not available].