Anyone who has ever ridden a rollercoaster knows how it goes. You rumble away from the starting point in an open car feeling every bump and rattle as you roll along the rails beneath. You are held in by a bar placed in front of you and as the coaster starts to climb to a highpoint you are afforded a look over the terrain but just haltingly before the car starts to plummet downward gathering speed with every turn of its wheels and people start screaming until the car starts to coast towards the bottom of that first hill. The opportunity for you to recover your equilibrium is short-lived as well because looming close by in front of you is a curve that looks to be rather sharp. You are clearly going too fast for the approaching curve to where flying off the rails and becoming airborne seems very likely. Screaming becomes universal. The coaster miraculously makes the curve but, again, relief is too short to celebrate let alone enjoy, when another sharp curve comes into view, then another and another and then a hill to climb and a great drop into nothingness before finally a rumbling and noisy slowing down to the ride’s bumpy and rattling end.
Even the most enthusiastic rollercoaster aficionados need a few moments to gain their composure after a rollercoaster ride is over. Looking death in the eye over-and-over again scares the wits out of most people even if they know they will be coming off of the ride alive. The highly skilled designers of rollercoasters make the scary moments seem absolutely real even though the rides are as safe as they can possibly be. But, just the thought that one can come that close to death has an amazing effect on us.
Parshas Shlach Lecha לְךָ שְׁלַח takes us on an emotional rollercoaster ride from the beginning of the Sedrah to the very end. Though the Sedrah often spends just a brief moment to tell us how long a certain incident being related actually took, the duration of the Sedrah covers a significant period of time and introduces subjects and Commandments from the L-rd to the Jewish People that have become pivotal and which continue to be observed by many as key aspects of the everyday lives of Jews while also serving as symbolic references to why and how the Jewish People continue to exist as a People at all.
As Parshas Shlach Lecha לְךָ שְׁלַח begins, the Children of Israel are encamped in the wilderness of Paran and we are immediately taken up to the heights of the nearby mountain range where the Land of Israel can be viewed, albeit from afar, and we are told of how the L-rd commanded Moses to select twelve princes from among the Jewish People who were to reconnoiter the Land of Israel in preparation and in anticipation of what was to be the final step before the promise made by G-d to Abraham lo those many years before was to be realized; i.e. that the Children of Israel would at last be taken to, given and inhabit the Land of Israel; the land of their forefathers; the Promised Land. We are primed for everything good to happen judging by the terrific view of the Land of Canaan from the mountain top in the south and knowing how far we have come after the amazing miracles of the Exodus and the Sinai experience. We are on our way to the last phase of redemption.
Chapter 13:17-20 details what aspects about the Land and its inhabitants are to be observed by the twelve Spies. We can appreciate gathering facts about the inhabitants since those kinds of details would be important from a military standpoint when the Jews would launch their attack to conquer it. But, a question that comes to mind is why bother “judging” whether the qualities of the Land are “good” or “bad”, “fat” or “thin” and the like since no matter what its qualities may be, it is the Land that had been Promised to the Jewish People by the L-rd and, whatever its qualities, it was to be theirs. The peculiarity of these seemingly unnecessary questions almost serves as a foreshadowing of what is to come. It can be compared to that moment atop the highpoint of a rollercoaster ride when you can see out forever but just for a moment and then everything changes and goes seemingly out of control.
The veritable rollercoaster ride continues in a straight path that can even be seen as lulling us into an optimistic mood as Chapter 13:21-24 describes for us what the Spies spied out naming the cities and places with a few being singled out such as Hebron, which we are told was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt. Now, what does that mean to us today or for that matter what did it mean to anyone then? There are commentators who discuss the relative differences between Egypt and Hebron such as fertility of the soil, and others that mention that the Avos, the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are buried in Hebron and that perhaps Caleb visited their burial place, which may have fortified him and resulted in his appreciation of the Land he would be scouting out, but all this is very much conjecture save for just helping us better appreciate where this very important process took place.
The gathering of evidence of the quality of fruit trees growing in the area took place at least in part in Eshol, which was the local inhabitants’ name for that area and which translates to “cluster” and helps to provide a visual appreciation for the Land of Canaan as it was at the time of their inspection, which can intensify the overall effect of what transpired for us and makes us more and more expectant of how lovely things will be for the Jews in the Promised Land after their tumultuous redemption from slavery.
The ride is still chunking along nicely when the testimony of the Spies or Scouts begins as Chapter 13:25-27 tells of their report that the Promised Land, which they had secretly toured, was a “Land Flowing with Milk and Honey” and they displayed the fruits they had gathered as evidence that what they were claiming was true. Similar proofs regarding the current inhabitants and how the Jews might fare against them in battle were, of course, unavailable save for the testimony of the Spies, which would be all that the Jewish People would have as input to determine whether what was being reported was accurate or not; and more importantly whether the Jewish People would be able to conquer the Land. The perception is that all is well. The Spies spoke as one when it came to the “beauty” of the Land.
But the ride starts to get rough as Chapter 13:29-33 provides more details of how ten of the Spies continue by describing the down side of the people who live in the Promised Land and the great dangers that would be faced if the Jewish People would try to do battle with them. “Like grasshoppers” was the term used by the ten “naysayer” Spies to describe how they felt compared to the men of Anak, who were the current inhabitants of one particular area in the Promised Land. This section of the Sedrah also identifies where each of the tribes lived, which made it clearer that the Promised Land was much more than just the Land of Canaan but was a land populated by several different peoples or nations.
There is a brief time in the forward progress of the Shelach Lecha rollercoaster ride after the rather frightening description of the inhabitants of the Promised Land when calm returns as Chapter 13:30, which can be seen as a pivotal moment where Caleb (כָּלֵב , pronounced Kalev), which means “full hearted” or “faithful,” advises the Jewish People to move immediately to take the Land because, as he put it, the Israelites have the capabilities to do so. He is successful at calming the Jewish People by making his earnest and impassioned observation and advice. But, the calmness that he created in them ends up being extremely short lived and a cascading downward plunge of the coaster begins again.
Chapter 13:31-33 shows an immediate change of tone as ten of the other men who were with Caleb on the reconnaissance mission contradict his report saying that the people inhabiting the Land were stronger than the Jews. Worse still, those ten Spies spread an evil report about the Land; i.e. that it was a Land that eats its inhabitants; אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא. There are a number of Biblical commentators who offer observations as to why those ten Spies who delivered such a negative testimony did so.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founding Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and a former teacher of mine at Yeshiva College in New York City, gathered together a virtual basketful of great rabbinical commentaries in his Ohr Torah Stone Devar Torah presentation on Parshat Shelach 25 Sivan 5761, which corresponds to June 16, 2001, to help illuminate this terrible and most unlikely of happenings where perhaps one of the greatest promises ever made gets thrown off course from being delivered upon, albeit temporarily, by what appear to have been assumptions made by some of the men chosen by Moses to scout out the Promised Land and what are believed to have been selfishly motivated actions of some of the others.
Rabbi Riskin points out that Moses himself, when he heard the negative report of the ten Spies, fell on his face (Numbers 14:5) because he was the one who had dispatched the Spies and did nothing upon their return to learn how they would be reporting about their journey but, rather, assumed they would be delivering only glowing reports about the Promised Land, and for those oversights and assumptions he, Moses, was responsible for what happened and, therefore, deserving, of some kind of retribution or punishment. Rabbi Riskin tells us further that The Ralbag (Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon; 1288 -1344) offers a possible explanation for Moses’ less than stellar judgment in this instance. He suggests that Moses had gotten so close to the L-rd that he had drifted away from his usual clear understanding of the “mind” of the Jewish People. One thing that is clear, as Rabbi Riskin observes: Moses allowed the report of the ten naysayer Spies to stand without doing anything to refute or defuse it and made no kind of heroic effort to “convince the Israelites of the centrality of the Promised Land for their future.”
Rabbi Riskin also reminds us of the Midrash (a homiletic rabbinic story) that explains how Aaron, who spoke out against the ten naysayer Spies was not paid much mind by the Israelites because his status as a member of the Priestly Class would mean he would be automatically leaning towards moving directly ahead to the Promised Land so that a permanent home for the service to the L-rd could be established, which would make his position that much more desirable and important.
The ten naysayer Princes were themselves in somewhat of a compromised position according to The Zohar,זֹהַר , Splendor or Radiance, which is the base of Jewish system of mystical thinking referred to as Kabbalah, which Rabbi Riskin includes as well. After all, as The Zohar points out, The Spies were princes while they were in the desert. But, once in the Promised Land, new elections would most probably be in order and they might well be reduced in rank and, thereby, in importance, which might well have been the motivation for them to have spoken negatively about the Promised Land on their return from the mission in order to dissuade the Jews from entering Canaan, and thereby preserving the status quo and their comfortable places in the society that they had been enjoying.
Joshua is thought by Rabbi Riskin to be the most interesting of those who might have been able to have swayed the Israelites from being so overwhelmingly influenced by the negative reports of the ten naysayer Spies. Rabbi Riskin brings Talmudic and Biblical commentators including Rashi רש"י (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, רבי שלמה יצחק 1040 - 1105) and The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, also known as Reb Hirsch Leib Berlin, (1816 - 1893), in his book of Biblical commentary entitled Ha’Amek Devar, “The Depth of the Word”, where Joshua is discussed as the heir apparent to Moses but only when entrance into the Promised Land becomes a reality. Until then, while still in the desert, Joshua remains what might be termed “second fiddle” or in the language of the Israelites of the day as a “broken head” which is to say a “lower head” rather than the “Rosh Hagadol” or the “great head”, which is what a leader would be considered. So, Joshua was looked at as untrustworthy when the Promised Land was at issue since he would benefit greatly once the Promised Land “promise” was realized.
Rabbi Riskin learns from all of the distrust and mistrust dealing with the why and how of the ten naysayer Spies and their deleterious testimony that gets accepted by the Jewish People instead of rejected, that it is there to help bring us, today, the important message that there must be a marked distinction between the executive type leaders and the priestly ones; that “Moral direction can only come from one who is purely objective and devoid of any personal motivation.”
There may be yet another lesson to learn from the Sin of the Spies; one where the focus is directed less on the spies themselves and on what they reported and more on the Jewish People who listened to the Spies’ report and how they as a People chose to react to it. We refer to the report of the Spies here in the singular even though it is fairly clear that there was a positive report by Joshua and Caleb and an overall negative and very frightening but yet mixed message by the other ten Spies; i.e. that the Land is beautiful and “flowing with milk and honey” but that it is inhabited by giants who, according to the naysayer Spies, the Jewish People would not be able to defeat.
How the remainder of the Israelites interpreted the overall report of the Spies and how they chose to react to it completes for us the overall picture of just who that particular generation of our ancestors were; what drove them, what their appreciation of the Lord really was; how ready they were to do what they would have to do to inherit the Land that God had promised to their (read: our) forefathers.
The other lesson that may be learned from the Sin of the Spies (Chait HaMiragliem) may be seen as the “flip side” of the conclusion made by Rabbi Riskin; i.e. that “Moral direction can only come from one who is purely objective and devoid of any personal motivation.” What the Spies reported was only half of the dialogue. The other half belongs to those who listened to the report, the rest of the Israelites, and how they perceived, processed and acted upon it. And that second half is as much a part of the Sin as the words of the ten naysayer Spies themselves.
When we refer to the “rest of the Israelites”, we are referring specifically to the Israelites of the generation of the Exodus from Egypt, “Yetziat Mitzrayim” who over-and-over proved themselves to be not quite ready to enjoy, appreciate or value freedom even though their generation was the end product of some four hundred years of slavery which one might think would have made freedom an absolutely irresistible attraction to them. But, we who look back at their situation from the relative ease of our lives of freedom today will need to do some extreme mindset adjusting to be able to understand from whence that very particular generation of Israelites came.
In the way of a review, this final group of surviving former Israelite slaves had demonstrated a significant level of faith in the L-rd on earlier occasions where others of their number were unable to show any such faith at all. On the night of the Exodus from Egypt, which we celebrate each year as the holiday of Passover, the Jews who were faithful to the L-rd painted the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a Pascal Lamb, which they had slaughtered earlier in the day. Both those acts, the slaughtering of the lamb and the painting of the lamb’s blood on their doorposts, had been done at the risk of their very lives since the Egyptians, who were their masters, worshipped animals, such as the lamb, as gods and the penalty for such a sacrilege would have been death. Those among the Israelites who did not demonstrate the necessary faith in the L-rd to slaughter a lamb and paint their doorposts with the lamb’s blood were killed along with the first born sons of the Egyptians when the Angel of Death came through the Land of Egypt on that first Passover night.
The survivors of the Passover night “trial of faith” had another opportunity to demonstrate the magnitude of their faith in the L-rd at Mount Sinai during the Sin of the Golden Calf. Those Jews who did not have sufficient faith that Moses would come back down from the mountain as promised and who chose instead to request that Aaron fashion a god (small “G”), such as the ones they knew back in Egypt; i.e. the Golden Calf, were punished. The Golden Calf was pulverized into dust and the participants were made to drink water infused with that dust. The Levis were mobilized and sent out to put some three thousand of the men who worshiped the Golden Calf to death by the sword. The remainder of those who did not have sufficient faith in the L-rd and had turned aside to false gods were killed by the L-rd himself. (Exodus 32)
But, apparently, the depth of faith in the L-rd of the Jews who had passed the tests of the Passover night and who had not joined those who participated in the Sin of the Golden Calf had run its course by the time they faced what was supposed to have been the final hurdle before inheriting the Promised Land; going to war against the Canaanites and the other tribes who were living in the Land and defeating them.
There is that penultimate moment when a thoroughbred jumping horse either leaps with all of its four hooves off of the ground and hurdles itself over the barrier in front of it with an amazing grace or, it does not and, rather, does all that it can to avoid barreling full force into the structure that had been, until that very moment, its scaling objective.
What makes a proven champion steed shun its task by rebelling against its rider’s directions and ending the ride in disappointment? It is difficult to say. But, surely fear of some kind must be a factor.
If a horse that has been trained within an inch of its life can choose to break stride and abort a jump no matter how much its rider, owner and trainer had put into getting the animal ready for that moment, surely a group of lifelong slaves who came from a long line of lifelong slaves could be expected to be less that certain about the promised outcome of a dangerous and frightening deed that they are being asked to perform by even the greatest of leaders, Moses, and even after witnessing awe inspiring miracles performed one after the other by the L-rd Himself. They simply were not ready and far too afraid to go forward. Being carried along on a rollercoaster ride is one thing. But, having to get out and fight for one’s life and perhaps be killed during that fight is quite another.
As a sales manager once told his trainees, there are only two motivations that drive us: fear; negatively; like for those in a foxhole: “Keep your head down or you’ll get it shot off,” or desire, positively, like the new army recruit who has had more than he can take of army discipline and is seen running to the fence to go AWOL and when challenged by a sentry to “Halt” screams out, “My gal’s in Chicago. My mama’s in heaven. I’m seeing one of them tonight!”
But the punishment for this final group of Israelites who were the last of those to know directly the lash of the Egyptian slave owners’ wips was different than of those of that same group who did not have sufficient faith in the L-rd to have gotten them this far. Their punishment was death, but, unlike those before them, not immediate death. They were allowed to live out their lives albeit while wandering virtually aimlessly in the wilderness until every last person in that generation was gone. They would come no closer to reaching the Promise Land than they already had.
The other lesson for us to learn from what we refer to as the Sin of the Spies is the other side of the proverbial coin. On one side, as pointed out so well by Rabbi Riskin, is the need to keep things honest; to make sure that those in charge have no personal interest in the outcome of what they are administrating for the People. The other side of that coin deals with those for whom the leaders served; the Jewish People themselves. The Jewish People can not be seen as merely a passive player in the process. At every step of the way, the Jewish People must be vigilant in both expecting the best from their administrators and leaders and at the very same time, they must be steadfast in maintaining their own individual and communal understanding of who they are, where they are going and how they are going to get there.
Chapter 14 Sentence 1-4 deals with Insurrection and Rebellion. The people, after listening to the reports from all of the Spies, bemoaned their fate even before anything bad had actually happened to them. They bought into the opinion of the ten Spies who denigrated the Promised Land and believed completely the fearsome descriptions of the peoples who then inhabited the land and who they would have to be challenging to take that Land from them for themselves. But, worse than that was their complete and utter faithlessness in the L-rd, who most recently had redeemed them from slavery in Egypt. Their lack of faith was so complete as to result in their wish to return to the Land of Egypt and they began to make plans to select a new leader from amongst their numbers to have him lead them back to Egypt and, we would guess, back to slavery, which they saw as better than being dead at the hands of the “giants” in the Promised Land.
When we ride a rollercoaster, we know, ultimately, that we are safe; that the ride is an entertainment. We are sit in the coaster car committed to stay on the ride no matter what and know at the end we will be fine; scared out of our wits perhaps but fine. What makes us stay on the ride is our faith in the people who designed, maintain and run the ride. What the Sin of the Spies reveals is their lack of faith that was needed to stay the course even in light of the negative testimony that was offered. Granted, this was not merely an entertainment like a rollercoaster ride. But, faith is still the crucial ingredient in both experiences.
Chapter 14:5-9 tells us of how Moses, who learns of this display of faithlessness, prostrates himself before the people. We are told that Joshua and Caleb tear their clothing as a sign of morning. They, Joshua and Caleb, then spoke to the people to try and convince them that the report of the ten other Spies was misguided. They said that the Land was exceedingly good. They pointed out that if the L-rd wants to aggrandize His people because they give Him great joy, He will give His people the Land – and they went on to remind them of the phrase that even the other ten Spies had used in first describing the Land – that it was “a Land flowing with milk and honey”.
In Chapter 14:7, the phrase, “And they spoke …” וַיֹּאמְרוּ could refer to Joshua and Caleb but could also refer to Moses and Aaron or in this instance it could refer to all four of them. But, based on the words describing the Land and the Peoples in it, and how good it is, it seems to be exclusively Joshua and Caleb who are speaking at this juncture when they then admonish the people to refrain from doing anything that could be construed as rebellious against the L-rd. They also assure the People that they need not fear the various peoples who inhabit the land and they depict those peoples as “bread” to them, which is to say that they will be “easy pickings.”
They go on to tell the Jewish People that the defense that had been over them is now removed from over them. How they could know that is not mentioned. They sound more like cheerleaders at this moment even to the point where they remind us in the way of compassion, that the L-rd is with us and not with them; the current inhabitants of the Land. So they repeat their admonition not to fear the people currently inhabiting the Land.
Chapter 14:10 is a turning point where the people go so far astray as to rile the L-rd so completely that He decides to “dump” them and, as He did with Noah after mankind disappointed Him so greatly that he decided to destroy all save for Noah and his family and start all over again with Noah. The people do not even want to listen to Caleb and Joshua nor to Moses and Aaron; not in the least. Instead, this is where they start to talk amongst themselves about selecting a new leader to replace Moses; a leader who will lead them back, if you can believe this, to slavery in Egypt. This is far more than screaming out of fear. This is comparable to getting out of the rollercoaster car and trying to climb down from the ride on one’s own. The Israelites at this juncture demonstrate exactly how much faith in the L-rd they have; none whatsoever.
But, with that, the Torah tells of how the L-rd appears in the House of Meeting (the Mishkan) unto all the Children of Israel.
However, the L-rd does not speak to the Children of Israel but to Moses. And what he has to say is reminiscent of the incident just described with Noah. This latest display of faithlessness by this generation of the Children of Israel seems to be the last straw for the L-rd as far as they are concerned. At every step of the way from the time Moses came onto the scene to lead the Children of Israel out of Slavery to Freedom in the Promised Land, He, the L-rd, encountered higher and higher degrees of unfaithfulness among the Jewish People. The list is like a box score of disappointing faithlessness:
The Night of the Exodus
The Sin of the Golden Calf
The Sin of the Spies
Amazingly, when all is taken into consideration, the number of Jews who themselves were slaves in Egypt and who lived to enter the Land of Israel; the Promised Land was only two; Joshua and Caleb. Everyone else was denied entrance into the Promised Land because they lacked the necessary faith in the L-rd to deserve that reward.
What is also surprising to us is the L-rd’s own and seemingly utter surprise at this point, or really at all, at the Jewish People’s lack of faith in Him and, as He says in Chapter 14: 11, “Despise me” when one considers that He had subjected this People, His People, to four hundred years of slavery in order that they would eventually appreciate freedom and be able to prove to them by redeeming them from that slavery just how powerful He really is. The real question it seems ought to be. “How could anyone think that a group of people, who were totally inexperienced at being free and who only knew of the L-rd through a few ancient tales passed down from generation-to-generation and with nothing more than a secreted away set of ancient bones of a man called Joseph, which they were supposed to protect and eventually return to the Land from where he, Joseph, had come, to keep them together as a people could actually ever be ready to be free? With all due respect, how on earth could G-d have been surprised at that? And yet He was. Or, was the L-rd again testing Moses?
Here we see that the rollercoaster ride is not so much what the Jewish People were on but what we, the readers of today and of every generation since that time experiences as we read it. Do we have the necessary faith to stay the course of the ride and not try to get off and to then try to make it on our own?
In Chapter 14:13-19, Moses pleads the case of the Jews but does so more by stressing the way others, namely the Egyptians, would view the upshot of the freeing of the Jews with great miracles and then having it end in the wilderness with the apparent meaningless destruction of the very people He had saved and for no gain whatsoever, as if to say, “What a waste.” Moses then focuses on the compassionate side of G-d and beseeches Him to forgive His People.
In Chapter 14:20-25, G-d responds immediately to Moses’ prayer on behalf of the Jewish People by reporting He has pardoned according to your (Moses’) petition (request/word/thing) he had presented. However, by no means did that give this last group of former slaves a free pass. Though His pardon saved them from immediate death, it only postponed their eventual demise, which would come naturally while on a journey to nowhere in the wilderness until the last of their numbers had died. In pronouncing this “reprieve that was not a reprieve”, the L-rd reveals what might be regarded as part of His “personality” if the L-rd of Hosts can be said to have a personality. He states with no equivocation that He could not believe how the Jewish People could doubt His strength and failed to demonstrate belief in Him in light of how He had performed ten miracles and freed them from four hundred years of slavery. He was angry about that and also that there were those among the Jewish People who despised Him. Based on their near complete rejection of Him, He decided to keep them from reaching the Promised Land. He did however, single out Caleb, who did demonstrate his belief in Him and, therefore, allowed him to reach the Promised Land. He does not mention Joshua at this juncture and we wonder why He does not.
With that, the Lord figuratively puts on His “Commander-in-Chief” hat and notes the close proximity of the two people who inhabit the nearby region to where the Jews are encamped and, then, directs Moses to lead the Jewish People into the wilderness of Sinai by way of the Red Sea. We wonder why the L-rd needs to point out which alien tribes of people live where, since the decision to keep the Jewish People, who had been directly effected by slavery in Egypt – save for Caleb and Joshua – from entering the Land of Canaan had already been made. If there is not going to be an invasion of the Land of Israel, then why tell us which tribes are in close proximity and where they are? Perhaps these elements are mentioned to provide for the reader the relative position of the players in this unfolding drama and to thereby provide a kind of background or standard against which the actions and happenings can be more clearly seen and better appreciated.
The next section deals with how the L-rd will carry out his punishment of those Jews who lacked faith in Him. But, at this juncture, the two Jews who did demonstrate their faith in the L-rd, Joshua and Caleb, and who are to inherit the Land are standing by with the good news for them that they are going to reach the Promised Land but left with the questions as to when and how will they do that? If the Jewish People as a whole are to be moving next into the wilderness of the Sinai Desert, then what will become of these two heroes? Will they not be traveling with Moses and the Jews? It seems as if their reward may be in word only. Perhaps their offspring will enjoy the Promised Land, but they, if and when they get there, will probably be too old to enjoy it.
In Chapter 14:26 – 35 the L-rd turns to the specifics of what is to happen to those among the Jewish People who He has decided to “pardon” from being killed right then and there for their lack of faith in Him and, as He describes, their “murmuring” or “whispering” against Him. (There are those who interpret the phrase “this evil group of witnesses” הָעֵדָה הָרָעָה הַזֹּאת as being the ten Spies who spoke so antagonistically of the Land of Israel, which they had scouted out. But then He refers to the “murmuring s” of the Children of Israel, which would or might indicate the rest of the people took up the “drum beat” that had been started by the ten Spies).
In a sense, the L-rd takes what the Jewish People said in their “kneejerk” reaction to the frightening report brought back by the ten Spies who had searched out the Promised Land as fabulously beautiful but inhabited by unbeatable giants, which was to bemoan what they thought was about to become their fate; i.e. to be slaughtered in a hopeless battle against a fearsome and desperate people defending their homes and their homeland against a G-d they know by reputation to be extremely powerful and sheepherding a people who had been slaves for as long as anyone could remember.
The Jewish People, who were contemplating the battle to come, were also well aware of their lack of readiness to the task since they were indeed slaves with no training in the art of war. Their lament includes the fearful realization that they would have been better off to have lived and died in the wilderness than to die at the brutal hands of an enemy fiercely defending itself and what they considered their homeland against them; the invaders. The newly freed slaves being terrified at the prospects of invading the Land of Canaan is clearly a normal and expected reaction for them to have had. Why they would have believed Joshua and Caleb over the message brought by the other ten Spies can also be seen as expected given their miserable history as slaves and their lack of readiness for any kind of proactive conflict; i.e. war.
We can see where the L-rd would have wanted them to have had the depth of faith that Caleb and Joshua had, but He must have also been aware of how high a hurdle He was expecting them to scale when one looks at the realities of the situation they faced.
From that point of view, one must ask how Caleb and Joshua were able to see things differently; as if through rose colored glasses. What made those two men able to maintain a positive spin on what they saw when gathering the facts over their forty days of reconnoitering the Land of Canaan? Was it just their faith in the L-rd that made things appear as they reported them to be or were the facts actually there to back them up? Were they merely being “cheerleaders” for G-d or did the logistical and strategic perceptions they described really exit?
The opposite questions can be asked about the ten Spies who spoke against the possibility of success in battle for the Land of Canaan.
What really happened here in the mixed reports from the Spies?
The L-rd, as judge and jury, pronounces a sentence of one year for each of the forty days that the Spies spent spying out the land. Forty years during which time each and every one of those Jews above the age of twenty years, save for Caleb and Joshua, will die and be buried in the desert. In Chapter 14:34, the L-rd talks about those people bearing their iniquities during that forty year period and that they will know the L-rd’s displeasure; but it is also translated as they will know the “revoking of my promise.”
In Chapter 14:37, we learn that the ten Spies whose negative report triggered the tears and complaints of the people by bringing back a bad report about the Land died in some kind of plague brought by the L-rd. Moses told the people of these happenings and of what would transpire and the reaction of the people was to mourn greatly. “Mourn greatly” requires some explanation. There is a phrase: “Desperate people do desperate things.” Clearly, the Jewish People, who had been slaves, felt desperate facing what looked like certain death so they complained and cried to Moses and made plans to go back where thy felt they would be safe; i.e. to slavery in Egypt.
Then, when they learned that the L-rd was to punish them, they felt equally desperate just like a fish on a dock that thrashes about looking for a way to save itself. “You want us to go to the Land of Canaan; OK, we’ll go.” And, they run off with no plan whatsoever; no leader; nothing, saying, “הִנֶּנּוּ וְעָלִינוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר יְהֹוָה כִּי חָטָאנוּ "We are ready to go up to the place of which the Lord spoke, for we have sinned.”
Does that make any sense at all? It does when you are desperate. These people had been pushed and shoved by all kinds of death threats, wandered in the wilderness, went up against Pharaoh, who to them was like a god, saw miraculous events but, at the same time, saw thousands of people just like themselves killed by the very G-d who loves them because those people did not measure up, and here they are at the threshold of the Promised Land and the vast majority of those among them who scouted out the Land come back with a much more negative report then a positive one. The negativity of that part of their report might have well been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. So, they make up to leave. Period. But, no. They are made to stay and forced to suffer death in the wilderness because they have no faith; or the faith they had had has been tested once too often or by too great a requirement. So, they figure, “If you want faith, here’s faith.” And, they move into the Land of Canaan to attack and take it. But, again, they are wrong.
It is hard to expect these poor downtrodden souls to have been any more faithful than they were. That being the case, how much more difficult would it have been or is it now for anyone who did not witness all the miracles and wonders that they, of that generation, had witnessed to have faith in the L-rd? Even though things did progress for their descendants, one can see where faith might be hard to summon up, especially when times got tough.
Moses jumps in to try and ward them off from going to battle with the Canaanites without the L-rd on their side; but, to no avail. The People pressed on to the fight. The Ark of the Covenant remained in the Camp. Weare told that the Amalekites and the Canaanites, who lived in that hilly area, won; pushing the Jews back to or into Hormah, which means destruction and may not have been referring to a particular place but just that they, Amalekites and the Canaanites, won decisively.
The Israelites were not completely wiped out; but were pushed back to where they had been more recently and from that point were apparently no longer militarily strong enough to be a meaningful force until some thirty-eight years later. And that may be the answer to the question of where Hormah is; it is nowhere.
This juncture of our Sedrah is like the part of the rollercoaster ride when the coaster has been plummeting and then grinds its way down to a level area. Another very scary part has just ended and we are given a brief moment to take a breath.
Chapter 15:1-15 is a combination “flash back” and “flash forward” stating unequivocally that when you are at last living in the Promised Land you will offer the following sacrifices. We are then given what amounts to a continuation of the sacrificial code found in the Book of Leviticus. Why are these sacrificial codes interjected here; right after the Sin of the Spies; after what might be called “The Battle that Should Not Have Taken Place;” and after the banishment of the Jews to the desert for the next forty years where those who were condemned to die will die?
Also interesting is the series of sentences from Chapter 15:13-16, which deals with keeping the same sacrificial laws for כָּל הָאֶזְרָח all those who are “home born” or “native born” as well as for the strangers living among you. The question that arises is, “What would people who are not Jewish be doing living among the Jews in the first place?” Why are they or why would they be there at all? What kind of life is that or would that be for anyone other than descendants of the former slaves now condemned to live out their lives in the wilderness? Who on earth would join them and why? Let us return to that in a little while.
Our rollercoaster ride now takes what amounts to a quick turn when, with no warning, the Torah switches gears to outline the laws of “Trumah” dealing with “Challah” bread, which would have to be cultivated and grown over time while dwelling long-term in a particular local, thus those laws would come into play only when their wandering would have ended and when the Israelites would have finally settled; presumably in the Promised Land.
These forward thinking topics are much more than just notes of optimism coming in such close proximity to the Sin of the Spies and the sea change that nearly took place, which would have resulted in the L-rd starting all over again in the creation of His Chosen People with Moses. In a way, they are reminiscent of the upshot of what happened as a result of the Sin of the Golden Calf. At that juncture, one would have thought the L-rd would have wiped out everyone. But, though there was widespread decimation following the Sin of Golden Calf when direct participants in the actual worshiping of the Golden Calf had been killed by a plague, other less-than-direct participants were swallowed by the earth and certain others were hunted down by Kohanim, members of the Priestly family of Aaron, and slain by the sword for their faithlessness. But, then, just when all looked lost, things just went on as if nothing had happened.
So too, here in our Sedrah with regard to the Sin of the Miragleem, the Sin of the Spies, even after that incident, what was done was done and plans and instructions were given for the future, for when the forty years of wandering through the dessert would be over, for when the last of the generation of Jewish Slaves, who knew slavery first hand, would be gone, in order to keep things and the Jewish People moving towards the L-rd’s ultimate goal. The reference to “the strangers living among you” was surely for when in the future there would be such people who would be living amongst the Jews of that time; as is the case in our time; today.
The rollercoaster now rumbles along and gives us a chance to take in some of the details of the scenery around us and to think of the future by directing our focus on the narrow area of Sin offerings, which are described in two ways. The first are sins committed in error; by accident; unintentionally. This idea of “accidental” and “unintentional” sins is of crucial importance. So much so, that one particular sentence in our Sedrah, Chapter 15:26, has earned its way to a very special location on the annual Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the day-long community-wide prayer experience. Immediately following the tremendously moving and soulful “Kol Nidreai” pronouncement, this sentence is recited three times first by the Cantor, Chazzan, the leader of the prayers and then by the entire congregation another three times.
.וְנִסְלַח לְכָל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם כִּי לְכָל הָעָם בִּשְׁגָגָה
“The entire congregation of the children of Israel and the proselyte who resides with them shall be forgiven, for all the people were in error.”
Talmudic scholars are of the belief that the incident referred to in this part of the Torah is one that involves a situation where the Sanhedrin, the Highest Court in the Jewish legal system comprised of seventy-two judges, makes a ruling, wrongfully, and that an act of idolatry is permitted and that the Nation, which follows this interpretation of the law, commits the sin of idolatry; albeit inadvertently. In such a situation, a sin offering is to be brought upon the part of the entire Nation and, upon offering that sacrifice, the Nation would be forgiven.
The connection to Yom Kippur here is profound and needs to be understood in light of the particular and almost unthinkable situation just described; where an entire nation is led astray by its own and trusted leadership. To do what they say and be judged to have sinned … and not just a medium sized sin, but the sin of worshiping idols instead of the one and only G-d. (How that could ever come about is nearly unimaginable. And, yet, it is brought as the example of how sins can be done inadvertently; by accident and by everyone at the same time).
The main theme of Yom Kippur is that there can be forgiveness for all sins not merely for those done by accident. Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz, the late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, explains, therefore, that “by the sincere repentance that Yom Kippur demands, the sinner shows that his willful sins also were largely due to ignorance; and, hence they are treated by G-d as if they were done ‘in error’ or, in Hebrew, BishGaGah.
Our spiritual rollercoaster has taken us to a great height at this juncture. Learning that there is a way out for sinners has got to be seen as one very good piece of news.
But, the next lesson comes right on the heels of the last one and all the good news is over and done with in a heartbeat. Numbers 15:30 – The other kind of sin on which the Torah focuses our attention is that of the person who willfully blasphemes the L-rd and for which there is no sacrificial atonement possible.
The Torah then tells of an instance that occurred while the Jewish People were still in the wilderness and a man who transgressed the rules of the Sabbath was taken before Moses, who turned to the L-rd to ask what should be done to the transgressor. The L-rd said the man was to be stoned to death by the people. The execution was carried out the people.
Our rollercoaster plummets again. Who wants to ponder the prospects of being a blasphemer? And, perhaps even worse, the prospects of having to be charged with stoning such person to death are nothing one would want to imagine either. If the Sedrah ended at this point our emotional state would be near one of complete mortification.
The Sedrah had started on a great high with the prospect and preparation for the Israelites entering the Promised Land. It descended rapidly instead to the depths of a virtual revolution with the Sin of the Spies augmented by the disastrous realization that the Jewish People, at least the generation of that day, had exhausted whatever faith they had in the L-rd and cried out against Him in favor or returning to slavery in Egypt. The L-rd angrily decides to start all over again without “that” Jewish People and make a “new” People with Moses as the progenitor, which catapults us to new heights potentially at the very thought of that. But, Moses pleads the case of the Jewish People to where the L-rd forgives them, which brings us down again to the depths when we learn of the banishment to wander the wilderness until the remains of that entire generation would be gone.
The up and down swings, the furious fear of falling, the wildly undulating twists and turns with nearly complete derailments finally ceases as the rollercoaster ride that is Shlach Lecha לְךָ שְׁלַח begins to rumble its way to its conclusion.
Chapter 15:37-41 introduces the commandment of Tzittzes צִיצִת, which is translated as “fringes,” and describes them in some detail and outlines how they are to be used and by whom. We are told the fringes are to have a thread of blue amongst the threads. We are told that they are to be a fringe and that when we see them they are to remind us of all the Commandments of the L-rd; so that we would do or perform those Commandments and so that we will not follow our own hearts and our own eyes that we would (by our nature) tend to follow and, in doing so, would go astray. The Commandment of Tzittzes צִיצִת, is to be done so that we will remember and perform all the Commandments of G-d so that we will be Holy to Him. The section about the Commandment of Tzittzes צִיצִת, and thereby the Sedrah itself ends with a kind of signature sign off which ties the entire Sedrah together for us:
“I am the L-rd your G-d who brought you out of the Land of Egypt to be your G-d. I am the L-rd your G-d.”
Monumentally, the entire paragraph dealing with the Commandment of Tzittzes צִיצִת (Chapter 15:37-41) has been incorporated into what we refer to as “The Shema” which is the quintessential Jewish declaration of faith in the L-rd G-d Almighty, which begins by echoing the words spoken to father Jacob, also known as Israel, who, while on his death and fearful that his sons would, after his death, follow the ways of other peoples and worship other gods (small “G”) queried his sons accordingly while they were gathered around him in his final moments.
Their response, “Hear, Oh Israel, the L-rd or G-d, the L-rd is One” and the three paragraphs of “The Shema” taken from various places in the Chumas, the Five Books of Moses, The Torah, that follow it are recited twice a day by Jews all over the world during morning and evening prayer services and are the words a Jew is supposed to say just before retiring for the day. The paragraph dealing with the Commandment of Tzittzes צִיצִת is the third and final part of “The Shema” declaration. The importance of the words in this paragraph is immeasurable.
As we prepare to step out of the rollercoaster car, the highlights of the ride we took through the Sedrah of Shlach Lecha come back to us in a rush.
The Sedrah of Shlach Lecha tells the pivotal tale of the Sin of the Spies, which is that of the very last of the Jews who knew slavery first hand in Egypt and how, even though they experienced ten amazing plagues both in terms of scope and perhaps even more so in terms of their miraculous timing, brought to bare on the Egyptians, witnessed the giving of the Ten Commandments by the L-rd Himself and the splitting of the Red Sea, still lacked faith in G-d to chose to believe in Him when faced with taking the Land of Israel, the Promised Land, from the inhabitants. Instead, they cried to the L-rd, which infuriated Him and which drove Him to condemn them to wander in the wilderness for forty years until the last of them was dead.
The Sedrah then looks forward and backward at the same time by telling of how the sacrifices will be performed and used once the Children of Israel finally reach the Land that was promised to them. The sacrifices leads directly to why they are to be used; i.e. to absolve one from sins he might have committed. The two types of sins are brought to mind: ones that can be pardoned by offering sacrifices and ones for which no sacrifice could be brought to absolve such as the sin of idolatry. In what amounts to the briefest of episodes in this Sedrah, the subject of what is done to those who blaspheme the L-rd is related in the quick tale of the Sabbath transgressor who gets stoned to death the rest of the Jewish People. That takes us to the introduction of the Commandment to wear Tzittzes צִיצִת , fringes, which the Torah seems to use, you should pardon the expression, to tie a bow around the Sedrah by establishing Tzittzes צִיצִת as a tool to be used by us to keep ourselves in line; on track; remembering and observing all Commandments of the L-rd, so as to hallow ourselves to the L-rd, and, thereby, remain in His favor.
According to “The Shema,” keeping G-d’s Commandments is what will keep the Jewish People in the L-rd’s good graces. The Commandment to wear Tzittzes צִיצִת, fringes, on one’s four-cornered garments is intended to remind each of us of the full range of the L-rd’s Commandments, and, hopefully, keeping us on track to observing them; i.e. doing, them.
But, it is the quick and seemingly minor issue of what happens to blasphemers threaded neatly and almost insignificantly between the laws of sin-related sacrifices and the Mitzvah, Commandment, of Tzittzes צִיצִת, the wearing of fringes, where in the Sedrah delivers its most poignant and perhaps most important message to Jews of every generation from then and onward right up until today and forever after.
Judaism is all about life and living it to its fullest. The L-rd created the world and placed mankind on it to help perfect or repair it; Tekun Olem. Our ticket to ride basically is: believe in the L-rd enough to do His bidding without question. The members of the generation of the Exodus road along as best they could but all along the way and, finally, in the end lacked the faith required to accomplish or even effectively work towards Tekun Olem, repairing the world, and effectively removed themselves from the process. But, that faithless group of Jews will forever be remembered for their unique if less than glorious place in our history.
The rules of sin-related sacrifices, which follow the story of the Sin of the Spies, are reiterated here to serve as a clear reminder that as long as we are fighting the good fight; i.e. trying our very best to accomplish the objective of Tekun Olem, perfecting or repairing the world, that even if we slip we are able to take redemptive measures and get back on course through the process of offering a sacrifice; which after the demise of the Holy Temple, became the prayers we recite either communally or individually .
The tale of the blasphemer and how he gets stoned to death by his fellow Jews sets in place for us the absolute limit beyond which there is no chance for redemption or forgiveness and demonstrates unambiguously that all of us have a choice at every single moment of our lives to be either a blasphemer or to be one who believes in the L-rd and demonstrates that belief.
Finally, with the “rules of the road,” if you will, definitively outlined and graphically depicted, the Mitzvah of Tzittzes צִיצִת is introduced, defined and prescribed as a kind of antidote to a tendency that we all have in our very nature and, which, if not continually kept in check, can erupt and derail us, or, rather, allow us to derail ourselves, by letting our natural curiosity to permit ourselves to become, first, just interested in, then, later, attracted to and, before we know it, and after it is too late, followers of other gods.
Do not think for a moment that it can not happen, because it certainly can. The Sedrah of Shelach Lecha is here to give us everything we could ever need to protect against such an eventuality. The placing of Tzittzes צִיצִת fringes on our four cornered garments might be compared to the safety bar the rollercoaster operator places in front of us to keep us from falling out. We know that if they felt there was even the slightest chance of our falling out of that coaster, we would be strapped in there like a racecar driver in the Indianapolis 500 with a helmet on our head and all kinds of gear. The Tzittzes צִיצִת or fringes we hold on to remind us of the full range of the L-rd’s commandments, which He established to help each of us remain mission centric regarding Tikun Olem, repairing the World, as we live our lives each day.
The Haftara of Shelach Lecha
The Haftara of Shelach Lecha is taken from Joshua II:1-24
The Haftara’s connection to the Sedrah is that it deals with spies tasked with searching out the land of Canaan in preparation for Israel to conquer it with the Jews now being under the leadership of Joshua only some forty years later.
The details of the part of the story related seem, at least on the surface, fairly perfunctory. The Spies are selected and dispatched on their mission. But, unlike in the Sedrah, they get found out. They hide at a woman’s home, which some commentaries say may have been a tavern she operated and some others say she may have been a harlot. The woman hides them successfully, throws their pursuers off the scent sending them in the direction she said the spies had gone. She then directs the Spies to a vantage point and a haven from which they could observe all hey needed to and to remain safe and virtually undiscoverable. She does exact a promise of protection from the spies to insure safety for her and her family when the Israelites finally invade and conquer Canaan.
Taking a closer look at the differences and the similarities between the Sedrah and the Haftara may help us appreciate the message of the Sedrah all the more.
Twelve spies in the Sedrah verses two spies in the Haftara. The Jews coming out of Egypt seemed to need a certain amount of aggrandizement, recognition and parity. That there was a priestly class may have made those who were not of that group feel inadequate by comparison. G-d ordered Moses to appoint one “Prince” from each of the twelve tribes, which would give each tribe its due, even though a smaller number of spies could have accomplished the mission as effectively; witness that there were only two spies used by Joshua, who of course had the great advantage of having spied out the land the first time.
But more than that, by the time Joshua is dispatching his Spies, who are not even mentioned by name, the appreciation of the majesty of the L-rd had grown in the world in general so much so that Rahab, the woman who shelters and aids the Spies sent by Joshua, tells them that their work is virtually done for them. The powers of the L-rd as evidenced by what was done to extract the Jews from Egypt and what was done against those, such as Amalaik, who had tried to oppose them, had, by then, over the last forty years, become common knowledge if not legendary.
Clearly, from the words of Rahab herself, it was believed by those who inhabited Canaan that it would be just a matter of time before the Jews would be back to take over the land.
There is a certain irony in that. When the story of the Exodus began the only person who believed in what was happening was Moses. The Jews themselves were, to say the least, skeptical and constantly demonstrating their lack of faith in the L-rd and His plan for them, so much so that periodically, more and more of the Jews got taken out of the equation by being summarily dealt with by G-d until, finally, none of the Exodus generation, save for two, Calab and Joshua, remain. The irony is that while the Jews of the generation of the Exodus, who were immersed in the amazing story as it unfolded, had an almost complete lack of faith that things would happen as the L-rd had said they would. But, at the very same time, the nations or peoples all around the Jews, people who were not Jews, were learning the power and inevitability of the G-d of the Jews and accepting it; just as simple as that.
Perhaps the Jews of the generation of the Exodus were too close to the situation to be able to see things for what they were, where the people of the nations around the Jews had the advantage of being able to observe what was happening regarding the Jews from a broader perspective, which allowed them to see more clearly the reality of what was transpiring; that the L-rd was making good on His word as given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and delivering His Chosen People to the Promised Land.
The differential seems again to be faith or the lack of faith. As the Jews demonstrate their faith in the L-rd, things go well for them. As the Jews demonstrate a lack of faith in the L-rd, things turn against them even unto death.
The message to us in today’s world may be seen to be centered in one word: demonstrate. Having faith is one thing, but demonstrating one’s faith is, or can be, quite another. The L-rd seems to be more interested in the constant and continual demonstration of our faith in Him as the One and Only G-d than in just hearing about it. He does not want us to allow ourselves to become involved with and worship any other god. He has given us the heritage and the tools with which to fight what apparently is a natural tendency in us to become interested in and eventually enamored with other gods.
Overcoming and holding our tendency to worship other gods in check becomes, by default, the foundation of what our lives must be in order to maintain our focus on and our faith in the L-rd and, in doing so, securing for ourselves a life with all that is needed to enjoy it. It is the central and pivotal part of the L-rd’s declaration and promise as delineated and offered to us as the way to live in the “Shema Yisroael” (Hear Oh Israel) declaration. It seems to be a very easy choice to make. But, as seen in our Sedrah and Haftara, it is anything but easy.
Believing is simple. Acting on that belief to demonstrate it effectively is a much more difficult and a much more important thing entirely. Each of us, in every waking moment of our lives gets to demonstrate our own faith in the L-rd by the many deeds we do as we face the ups and downs, the twists and turns and joys and woes in what is the ride of a lifetime. Let us each do what we can to make the ride of our own lifetime be for a blessing.