Shelach-Lecha: Another Year Older

I’m celebrating an anniversary this week.

There are various ways of keeping track of things in Jewish time. One can celebrate the exact date of something in the Jewish calendar (say, 11 Sivan, 5774) or the Gregorian calendar (June 8, 2014.) My way of keeping track of this anniversary is to celebrate when a particular Torah portion comes up in the calendar: this week’s portion, Shelach-Lecha, the story of the scouts (Numbers 31:1 – 15:41.)

Shelach-Lecha was the Torah portion the week I became a Jew. I think of this week (whenever it falls, depending on the year) as my Jewish birthday, and it’s a big deal to me, in a quiet sort of way. I don’t give a party, but I do attend services and spend some time reflecting on my life as a Jew.

The story in the portion is pivotal for the Israelites in the wilderness. God tells Moses to send scouts into the Promised Land, as they are camped just outside it. God even tells Moses which men to send. Twelve scouts go into the land. Ten of them report that it is totally scary, the people are giants, and we’ll all die there. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, come back and say, hey, it’s fine. The people are so frightened by the account of the ten, however, that they panic. God is disgusted by their reaction, and says that clearly these people are not ready for the Promised Land – the next generation will get to go, but not them. And that’s how the 40 years in the desert happened.

What I took from the story at the time of my conversion was simple: “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” There were things about Judaism and the Jewish community at Temple Sinai that I loved. But I knew that there was lots I didn’t know; I was more ignorant than many of the children. I’d taken an “Intro” class, I’d studied for a year, but I found Hebrew very difficult and some of the social stuff very challenging. For instance, I wasn’t a “huggy” person – I never touched strangers – and at that synagogue, people were constantly hugging and kissing (and for the record, they still do.) I wanted to fit in, but I still had a lot of fears.

Years later, I know that it was reasonable to have some fears. But I am so very glad that I took the risk of “entering the Land.”

The story in the Torah is full of people taking risks. Some were very well-calculated risks, but others were true leaps of faith. At Sinai, as they are offered the Torah, the people say, “We will do and we will hear.”  In other words, they agreed to the Torah before they knew what was in it. Becoming a Jew is something like that: you learn what you can, you hang with the community and see what it’s like, and then the day comes when it’s time to commit.

There has been some discussion of late in the Jewish press, wondering if the process of conversion is too long and too involved. “Should we be more welcoming?” some wonder, meaning by that, “Should conversion be an easier, shorter process?”

My take on it is that a year is the least it can take in most circumstances. Becoming a Jew is a shift of identity, and it has many aspects. Candidates for conversion often encounter surprises. Some discover that the parents they thought would be horrified, weren’t. Others discover that their relatives are antisemites. Some discover that it really hurts not to have Christmas, and others are surprised when they hardly miss it. Some find that the more they go to synagogue, the happier they are – and others find that they don’t enjoy being part of the community. Some think about Israel for the first time, and have to get used to the idea that as a Jew, they will be connected to it whether they like it or not.

It takes time to have these experiences. It takes time and support to process them. And some of those experiences may be deal-breakers. It’s easy to focus on the intellectual tasks: learning prayers and vocabulary. However, the emotional work of this transition is very serious business. It involves letting go of some aspects of the self, and adopting new aspects of identity. I am still the person who showed up at the rabbi’s office, all those years ago – I still have memories of Catholic school, and my Catholic school handwriting. I had to let go of some things: my habit of crossing myself whenever I heard a siren, for instance. It was a reflex left over from years before, but it took time to fade away. It took time and effort to figure out how I might respond as a Jew to a sign that someone was in trouble.

After a year of study, that process was well underway, but I can’t imagine being “ready” any sooner.

The ten scouts were scared. They weren’t ready. I suspect that even though Joshua and Caleb are celebrated as “good” scouts, they weren’t really ready either. They talked as if going into the Land was no big deal.

It takes time to change, and change is an uncomfortable process. The midbar, the wilderness, is a frustrating place. It’s big and formless and full of scary things. But sometimes it is only by passing through the wilderness that we can become our truest selves.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

14 thoughts on “Shelach-Lecha: Another Year Older”

      1. I am: @BigDreamer0323! And thank you for the reading the post. I will say it has been one of my favorites. Mostly because every time I read Underdog I hear the music in my head! lol

          1. Well thank you so much! I also enjoy your posts as it expands my world-view. I have some experience with Judaism, mostly during college. But my studies were in first century Christian origins. Back when that movement was strictly Jewish, before Paul’s theology took over. So I am familiar with some but your blog informs me more. Keep the posts coming!!

  1. Shelach-Lecha is also an anniversary of sorts for me. Years ago, a friend/musical colleague’s eldest was becoming bat mitzvah at another local shul on that Shabbat, and the family was responsible for providing Torah readers, and they asked me to be one. I didn’t yet know how to do it, but as someone whose professional life involves taking funny black squiggles on a page and turning them into music, I figured I had a pretty substantial head start. So I called dibs on the shortest (3-verse) aliyah, went to Afikomen and got “The Art of Torah Cantillation,” taught myself to read trope with some coaching from our cantor, and leyned at the bat mitzvah. I was terrified, and hadn’t thought through how to find my starting pitch and wound up in an uncomfortably high tessitura, but got through it just fine.

    1. Sounds like you went about it quite well – but that starting pitch thing is hard for a lot of us the first few times through. It doesn’t help that you’ve just heard the Torah blessing chanted in whatever was a comfortable pitch for someone else. For me, the best way is to claim my pitch with Amen on the T’vir trope comfortable for me, even if I have to do it twice or even three times. (And to other readers, if that last line might as well have been in Aramaic, don’t worry about it – it’s a Torah cantillation thing.)

      Happy anniversary to you, too, Patti!

  2. Question: I have considered conversion for years, but my job requires me to work every Saturday. What are your thoughts on this obstacle?

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Happy anniversary, Rabbi! You’ve given me much to think on with my own mikveh/beit din date rapidly approaching.

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