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Torah Sparks

June 25, 2005 - 18 Sivan 5765

Annual: Numbers 13:1 - 15:41 (Etz Hayim, p. 840; Hertz p. 623)
Triennial: Numbers: 13:1 - 14:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 840; Hertz p. 623)
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1 - 24 (Etz Hayim, p. 857; Hertz p. 635)

Prepared by David M. Eligberg
Congregation B'nai Tikvah, North Brunswick, NJ

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


God commands Moshe to send a reconnaissance team, made up of one leader from each of the twelve tribes, to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the land of Israel. Upon their return, the scouts display samples of the land's bounty and praise its abundance. The majority of the scouts detail the strength of the inhabitants of the land and offer a negative assessment of the Israelites' prospects for success. Calev and Yehoshua interrupt the other scouts, reject the negative opinion and assert that the Israelites can be successful in claiming the land of Israel if they remain faithful to God. The Israelites refuse to listen and complain to Moshe, suggesting it would have been better had they died in Egypt or in the wilderness rather than in the upcoming battles.

The scene is interrupted by the appearance of God who is angry that despite all the miracles the Israelites have witnessed they still doubt God. As punishment, the Israelites will wander in the wilderness one year for each day that the spies visited the Promised Land until the entire generation who had witnessed God's miraculous acts in Egypt die. The next day, many Israelites declare themselves ready to go to the Promised Land, and, without God's permission, attack the Amalekites and Canaanites in the region only to be utterly defeated.

The parasha continues with instructions for the proper presentation of fire offerings whether in fulfillment of a pledge or in celebration of a festival. Proselytes are to act and be treated as full members of Israelite society.

Inadvertent acts of idolatry committed by the entire nation are atoned for by the Kohen Gadol acting on behalf of the nation. Any individual's inadvertent acts of idolatry require a personal atonement sacrifice. Brazen and intentional acts of idolatry are considered blasphemy. The offending individual is cut off spiritually from the people.

The parasha concludes with the mitzvah of placing a tsitsit with a blue strand on each of the four corners of a squared-off garment. This tsitsit was to serve as a mnemonic device reminding the wearer to perform God's commandments.

Discussion Topic 1: Living Up to Expectations

"And you shall see them and remember all of God's mitzvot." (Numbers 15:39)

Derash: Study

  • This teaches us that seeing triggers memory remembrance and remembrance brings us to act. (Menahot 43)
  • I am Adonai, Your God." At the beginning of Sh'ma we say "Hear Israel, Adonai our God" because we are honored that the Holy One is our God. However, after having accepted the rule of divine kingship over us, and loving God and performing the mitzvoth of t'fillin, tzitzit, and mezuzah, then the Holy One is honored by us and therefore the text states, "I am Adonai, Your God" in the sense of the verse "Israel, from whom I will be adorned" It is noteworthy that in the passage [about] tzitzit in the Torah the word "emet" (truth) is not written, just the phrase "I am Adonai, Your God" for it is not a given but a conditional statement if you become holy then "I am Adonai, Your God." During the recitation of the Sh'ma when we are wearing tzitzit, and wrapped in t'fillin, and have accepted the rule of divine kingship with love, then we add emet (truth) and "I am Adonai, Your God" becomes a statement of certitude. (Hatam Sofer)
  • That is what is written in the books of pietistic literature, that it is preferred that a person create a sign, a reminder, for what s/he needs to do and not rely on memory alone. This is an obligation and a mitzvah in matters of heaven and in ordinary matters and this is the basis of the mitzvah of tzitzit, you see them, you remember, and you act. (Rabbi Baruch Epstein)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. In what way(s) do we feel a sense of pride in our special connection with God?
  2. What do we do in our lives that would be sources of pride for the Holy One?
  3. What do we have in our day planners and Palm pilots that are Jewish mnemonic devices?

Discussion Theme 2: Raising Children

"From the first dough shall you give to God." (Numbers 15:21)

Derash: Study

  • "From the first dough" means from the beginning, while the child is still young one should educate him/her in Torah and instruct them to be in awe of God. While the child is still young, one should plant in his/her heart a love for and commitment to all that is holy. (Tal Orot)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How can one teach these very complex concepts to young children?
  2. Why does Tal Orot create a differentiation between "educate in Torah" and "instruct awe" on one hand and "love and commitment to holy" on the other?

Discussion Theme 3: Community, Continuity and Change

One law shall govern the whole community and the resident alien who dwells with you, a singular law forever, for future generations, a singular law forever, for future generations, the same [law] shall be for you and the resident alien before God (Numbers 15:15)

Derash: Study

  • This is the challenge today in the Jewish community. The Jewish community that was exiled from Spain and came to Italy; they pray using different prayers and practice different customs, to the point where it has brought enmity between them (the newcomers and the existing community). It is as if the holy community is not from one and the same trunk. And that is what the Torah is warning us about. The community should observe one practice, both residents and newcomers, and if you desire this then it will be "a law forever, for all generations" and for your descendants after you. Intermingle and draw closer to each other for "thus shall you and the resident alien be in the presence of Adonai," so that you do not pray different prayers before God. (M'lechet Mahshevet)
  • This comes to warn us that the whole community should follow one minhag (custom) and should not become factionalized with everyone building a shul for themselves, as happens daily in our [day]. The author of Ohr HaMeir quoted the Maggid of Mezerich who said "Since the day that the kingdom of David was divided there is no one who can make a statement on Torah or on liturgy without having someone disagree with him." However, when God sends a spirit from the heavens, one shepherd will [lead] us all and then Adonai will be acknowledged as One and his Name as One. (Korban HeAni)
  • True story: Many years ago I was invited to give a presentation to a class studying for conversion to Judaism. The topic was "The Four Religious Movements in the American Jewish Community." My talk highlighted the philosophical, theological, halachic and practical differences among the various movements. At the end of my talk, one of the students asked, "So what do they have in common that makes them one people?" Ever since than I always make sure to emphasize first what unifies us as Jews before calling attention to what distinguishes each movement. (Rabbi David M. Eligberg)
  • The gravest sin for a Jew is to forget what he represents. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel The Earth is the Lord's, p. 109)
  • Judaism is not only the adherence to particular doctrines and observances, but primarily living in the spiritual order of the Jewish people, the living in the Jews of the past and with the Jews of the present. It is not a doctrine, an idea, a faith, but the covenant between God and the people. Our share in holiness we acquire by living in the Jewish community. What we do as individuals is a trivial episode; what we attain as Israel causes us to become a part of eternity. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel Quest For God, p. 100)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Is uniformity the only way to ensure continuity?
  2. Can there be a dynamic balance between tradition and change? Diversity and cohesion?
  3. What role should creativity play in the community?
  4. Why is there such strong resistance to change, halakhic or liturgical, in most communities?

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