Shlach Lecha

Last Sunday, I had the incredible good fortune to stand under the chuppah with Daniel, as we were married according to the laws of Moses and Israel. In our wedding ceremony, we attempted to balance all of the different elements that make up who we are. On the one hand, the ceremony and reception were both very Jewish events. They had all of the recognizable elements of a Jewish wedding: a rabbi, a chuppah, a marriage contract, a horah dance. We even did the mother-son dance to “Sunrise, Sunset.”

But, obviously, as two men getting married, the ceremony was also a major revision of Jewish tradition. Our wedding in a Conservative synagogue would have been unimaginable even one generation ago. So, we wanted to present our wedding as both ordinary and in-line with lots of other Jewish weddings, but also as a special moment in the history of American Judaism. It was a gay wedding in which several leaders of the Conservative movement could participate without anyone batting an eyelash.

But it was also a wedding just like any other, a time for family and friends to gather and celebrate. It celebrated my and Daniel’s partnership, a partnership that we hope will sustain us through the good times and the bad times, through a long and successful life together. It ended with breaking two glasses, reminding us, even in our happiest moment, of the brokenness and pain that are part of life.

Our Torah portion this week, Shlach Lecha, contains the stories of the 12 spies who scouted out the land of Israel. Moses sent them to bring back a report about the land so the people could prepare to conquer and settle it. Moses instructs them to find out: “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? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?” Furthermore, Moses tells them to “take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land” (Numbers 13: 18-20).

The spies return from their tour of the land, fruit in hand. But they tell the people that the current inhabitants of the land are powerful and strong. The people panic and lose their faith in God and in themselves. They even suggested heading back to Egypt. In response, God decides that the people will have to wander in the desert for 40 years, one year for each of the 40 days that the spies spend in the land. That way, a new, more confident generation, could actually inherit the land.

During their time scouting out the land, the spies reached a place called Eshcol. Following Moses’ instruction, they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and also some pomegranates and figs. The Torah says that the cluster was so big that it had to be carried by two. Rashi, the great medieval commentator, says this means that it was carried on two poles by eight of the spies together. But a more straightforward reading is that the cluster of grapes was carried on one pole by two of the spies. This scene is usually depicted as such, for example, on the emblem of the Israeli ministry of tourism.

In other words, carrying the grapes could be a symbol of partnership, of two people working together to do something that neither could do alone. In this context, I want to examine two midrashim, two rabbinic interpretations, about this cluster of grapes.

The first midrash (Yalkut Pitron Torah) pays close attention to the word of the bundle of grapes and also the location from where the spies took them: Eshcol. This word sounds similar to the root shin-kaf-lamed, which is the Hebrew root for bereavement or loss. On account of these grapes, and the panic they inspired among the people, the wives of the 600,000 Israelite men were bereaved when their husbands died in the wilderness. This midrash goes on to compare the cluster of grapes to the fruit through which Adam and Eve sinned and were expelled from the Garden of Eden.

So, according to this midrash, the partnership of carrying the grapes was a disastrous one. It led to the bereavement of an entire generation that died off in the wilderness. It shows how harmful the spies’ cooperation was to the fate of the entire people.

But another midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:12) shows that there was also a positive aspect to this cluster of grapes. This midrash suggests that this cluster of enormous grapes was the source of the wine that was poured out as part of the ritual in the Tabernacle during the 40 years in the wilderness. Perhaps the grapes were so large precisely so the wine from them would last for 40 years. So, even though this whole episode was the cause of the 40 years of wandering, it also offered the materials to sustain the people’s religious life during that time. The grapes symbolized their lack of faith in God, but also allowed them to worship God as they wandered in the wilderness. That which caused the rupture also contained the seeds of repair.

Together, these two midrashim remind us that partnership is a neutral thing. It can be put both to good and bad ends, even in the same act. The grapes brought about great sadness and mourning, but also were the medium for great joy and celebration.

So too are the fruits of any act of partnership. Even at one and the same moment, any act of partnership can have both good and bad results. Even the best of marriages and relationships can have its high and low points, its cycles of rupture and repair.

Nonetheless, my hope is that is that our marriage and life together will result in more sweetness than sorrow, more joy than dejection. In all of our partnerships in life, with our spouses, our relatives and our friends, may the grapes we carry together always be sweet.