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Torah Sparks

June 12, 2004 – 23 Sivan 5764

Annual: Numbers 13:1 – 15:41 (Etz Hayim, p. 840; Hertz p. 623)
Triennial Cycle: Numbers 15:8 – 15:41 (Etz Hayim, p. 851; Hertz p. 631)
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1 – 24 (Etz Hayim, p. 856; Hertz p. 635)

Prepared by Rabbi Howard Buechler
Dix Hills Jewish Center, Dix Hills, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Sedra Statistics

The Torah reading of Shelakh contains 119 verses. It is also the basis of 3 of the 613 mitzvot.

Torah Topics

The first spy thriller in all of literary history! Each tribe has a designated representative sent to scout out and explore the Promised Land. Their forty day mission: to boldly go and ascertain the nature of the land and her inhabitants. The tribal representatives return and issue their report, and in a seemingly classic sense, cannot agree on how to interpret what they have witnessed. They provide both a majority and minority report to the assembled Israelites, anxious to hear news of the Land that they are to enter.

The report of the Ten Spies is a most pessimistic assessment accentuating the negative and creating fear and hysteria amongst the people as with this news, they yearn to return to Egypt! The minority report of Joshua and Caleb highlights the positive and affirms that it is the will of God that the people enter the Land of Canaan.

The people of Israel do not react favorably to Joshua and Caleb's report as they have been convinced of the veracity of the Ten Spies and their assessment that entering the land is doomed to failure. God then threatens to obliterate the entire people. Only with the active intervention of Moses is this devastation averted. In powerful and dire terms, God relents of His initial intent and determines that the generation that believed in the majority report will now die (of natural causes) during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Joshua and Caleb and the youth are not included in this decree -- and the forty years of wandering corresponds to the forty days in which the spies framed their impressions which led to this tragic outcome. In defiance, and in response, of this decree, some Israelites attempt to enter the Promised Land but are severely defeated by the Amalekites and the Canaanites (14:44-45).

The final segment of B’ha’alotekha is familiar to us from our prayers, the third paragraph of the Shema which teaches us about the mitzvah of wearing the fringes.

Word of the Week

Tzitzit, or fringes and the mitzvah to wear them are expressed in this Torah reading (15:37-40). The narrative speaks of these fringes as being a visible sign to remind us of our covenantal relationship with God. In ancient days, individuals wore four cornered garments and the fringes were twisted onto the corners of the garments. Today, as garment styles have changed over the millennia, this mitzvah is fulfilled as some wear a special garment under their clothes which has the four fringes attached to them (arba kanfot) while others wear a tallit during prayers to fulfill this mitzvah.

The fringes become an ultimate expression of remembering and observing all of the precepts of the Torah. In fact the Hebrew word tzitzit has the numerical equivalent in gematria (Jewish numerology) of 600. With the recognition that each fringe has eight strands and five knots, we realize that 600 + 8 + 5 = 613 and the vehicle to remind us of all of the mitzvot! Similar to the proverbial saying of tying a string around one's finger (to remember) -- we gather the fringes together around a finger prior to the Shema Yisrael each morning to remember the predicates of Jewish living. Each time we bring the fringes to our lips as we recite the word tzitzit (fringe) we actualize our beliefs as we demonstrate to ourselves, our community and in the presence of God that we strive to imbue our lives with holiness by deed and action as the fringes exemplify the mitzvot of Judaism.

Sedra Spark #1 - Majority Rules: Fact or Fiction

The Torah reading commences with a most unusual construct: God spoke to Moses saying: shelakh lecha – “send for yourself” -- spies to scout out the land. Implied by this artful use of language is that God gives permission to Moses to send the spies -- that is the intent of the wording, for yourself (which sometimes does not even appear in translations).

Therefore, this Torah reading is structured as a mission to explore the Land precisely because the people desire to have an advance team reconnoiter the land. It is as if there is a certain disbelief, or lack of faith, that the people do not trust enough in the Divine Promise and need a tangible human report from the scouts sent to the Land.

Furthermore, Rashi, the great Ashkenazi Torah scholar and Rabbi (born in 1040 in Troyes, France) connects this incident with the final theme in last week's Torah reading which was the account of Miriam, and Aaron, speaking ill of Moses. Rashi infers that as Miriam and Aaron spoke ill of their brother, here, the spies are going to speak ill of the Land of Israel, as is evident in chapter 13:32.

The core question, amongst many unsettling aspects of this incident, is what distinguishes the majority and minority reports? Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman born in 1194 in Gerona, Spain) indicates that the tribal representatives are listed in order of honored importance. In that respect, Caleb is mentioned third and Joshua fifth to signify that there are even more distinguished leaders who return with a negative report of the land. A question to focus upon this Shabbat is the reality of people often interpreting and perceiving realities very differently, and how this transpires.

Reflect upon chapter 13 and the reports brought back by all of the meraglim (scouts/spies). Each group clearly advances that the land is heavily fortified and also rich in natural blessings, a land flowing with milk and honey (13:27). Many commentators react to the similarity of the reports and note that the pivotal difference can be found in how each interpreted the facts.

Ten of the spies perceive that this is a mission impossible as "for it is too strong for us" (13:31) and "we are like grasshoppers in their eyes" (13:33). Joshua and Caleb counsel, affirming their optimism "we can surely do it" (13:30) and "if God desires us, God will bring us to the Land and give it to us (14:8).”

The issue then becomes one of a critical failure in analysis - of failing to synthesize the realities and then determine the right course of action. For the first time in Jewish history, our ancestors were faced with a tangible obstacle (conquering the Land) which they were supposed to achieve on their own. Unlike the Sea of Reeds when God intervened and opened a passage to freedom, the maturation of the Israelites was one in which God was trusting them to become a more potent partner. God had hoped that the Israelites would evaluate this physical challenge -- conquest -- and with faith in themselves and in God, be able to overcome the obstacles and enter the Land. The Midrash teaches that slanderers begin by speaking well and then speaking ill as the Ten Spies spoke well of the land and then added the proverbial "but" we cannot overcome those inhabitants living there. Was it a failure of faith, of nerve, of confidence? The results of these events lead our people to wander for 40 years in the Wilderness. Is the majority always right? Clearly the Torah is teaching that morality and justice are the foundations in the decision making process and peer pressure, even by leaders, can create havoc when facts are misinterpreted!

Sedra Spark #2 - MTV Time

The Hebrew word for exploring or to spy out is la-tur. Moses sends the scouts 'la-tur' to “spy out the land” (13:17). In the concluding verses of the parasha, which are also the words which comprise the final paragraph of the Shema, we are told, v'lo taturu – “not to be led astray” (not to explore after our heart) in Numbers 15:39. Both the incident with the spies and the role of the fringes (tzitzit) are connected by the verb la-tur -- to be careful and not to be led astray by what we see and perceive. Rashi makes this link explicit by noting that the heart and the eyes are the spies of the body and (can be) the agents of transgression when the eyes see and the heart desires, and then the body commits the sin.

The role of the fringes and the centrality of rituals and mitzvot craft our souls in moral and ethical (religious) fashions. Temptations abound in our world and we can be led astray in a myriad of fashions. The spies were led astray by their eyes and hearts. That is precisely why in verse 39 we are explicitly told to look upon (the tzitzit) and remember all the commandments of God, and do (observe) them. As the Talmud states in regards to the fringes, we are taught that seeing ought to lead to remembering, and remembering to observing. The fringes become a catalyst and witness for all of the mitzvot in order to maintain our Jewish equilibrium of values and not be led astray.

A question to ponder: name a mitzvah or ritual and then discuss the moral imperative that this mitzvah can teach. Or to borrow a phrase from our very visual culture, MTV -- Mitzvot Teach Values. From keeping kosher to the mitzvah of just weights and measures, each mitzvah teaches values which keep us on the right path and prevent us (hopefully) from being led astray in the seductions of our world.

Torah Q & A

  1. We are told that the Land of Israel is a “land flowing with milk and honey” (eretz zavat halav u'd'vash) -- what milk and honey is referred to in this verse?>
  2. What bounty of the land did the spies return with -- and what does it represent in modern Israel?

(1. The halav is goat milk -- as they are indigenous to the land of Israel while cows are not. Devash is actually not honey, or the honey of bees, but rather nectar, and in reality, the sweet nectar of the date palm trees, which grow in abundance in Israel. 2. The spies returned with a cluster of grapes (carried on double poles) along with pomegranates and figs (13:23). The Ministry of Tourism in Israel uses the image of the grape clusters on poles as their emblem.

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