Rerouting Goals

Learning to overcome setbacks, just like the Israelites.

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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

The episode of the twelve spies sent to scout the Land of Canaan leaves the generation of recently-freed Israelites farther away from the Promised Land than they have ever been. The Israelites believe the report of ten of the spies that the Land is filled with giants against whom they could not prevail.

God punishes them severely for this demonstration of lack of faith, telling them, in no uncertain terms, that they will never enter the Promised Land: “Your children shall wander in the desert for forty years and bear your defection until the last of your corpses has fallen in the desert” (Numbers 14:33) The news of this devastating detour throws the community into mourning and panic.

In movements for social change, we often experience such demoralizing setbacks: The champion of our bill loses re-election. Civil liberties it took decades to win are eroded instantly by a single court decision. A visionary leader is assassinated.

Such a setback was experienced by the campaign to stop the Narmada River Dam Project in central India--a highly contested megaproject consisting of 30 hydroelectric dams that threatened the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Indians living along the Narmada River.

This project, funded by The World Bank, attracted tremendous criticism by environmentalists and by advocates of the large numbers of people who would be displaced by rising river waters upstream. A grassroots movement formed to halt the dam, organized by the NGO Narmada Bachao Andolan.

The movement’s actions led to an unprecedented reversal, and the Bank’s participation in the project was cancelled in 1995. Writer and activist Arundhati Roy describes the magnitude of this grassroots victory in The Greater Common Good: “No one has ever managed to make The World Bank step back from a project before. Least of all a rag-tag army of the poorest people in one of the world's poorest countries.”

But the triumph did not last long. Almost as soon as The World Bank withdrew support, the Indian government declared that it would pursue the project on its own, claiming that the benefits of the dam--irrigation, drinking water, and electricity--outweigh communities’ concerns. As suddenly as the villagers had glimpsed their “promised land” of a dam-free future, it disappeared from sight.

Overcoming Setbacks

When we suffer such shattering of hopes in our own pursuit of social justice, how can we move on to accomplish our goals? Parashat Shlah--in the discussion that follows the setback of the spies--suggests an answer. Immediately after telling the people that their generation will not enter the Land, God launches into a series of instructions beginning with: “When you arrive in the Land of your dwelling place, which I am giving you…” (Numbers 15:2)

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Alana Alpert

Alana Alpert earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Community Studies from the University of California in Santa Cruz. She is currently studying at the Conservative Yeshiva and volunteering with organizations working toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.