PARASHAT SHELAH-LEKHA - BIRKAT HAHODESH
June 24, 2006 – 28 Sivan 5766
Annual: Numbers 13:1 – 15:41 (Etz Hayim, p. 840; Hertz p. 623)
Triennial: Numbers 14:8 – 15:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 845; Hertz p. 626)
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1 – 24 (Etz Hayim, p. 857; Hertz p. 635)
Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director
God commands Moses to send spies into the land of Canaan; they are asked to bring back a report about the land to the people. Moses chooses 12 spies, one from each tribe. The spies travel throughout the land for 40 days and return to the camp with pomegranates, figs, and a cluster of grapes so large that it takes two people to carry it. The land is flowing with milk and honey, they report, but the people who live in it were powerful. The spies say that they looked to themselves like grasshoppers and so they must have appeared to the people of the land.
The people begin to wail, saying that it would be better to go back to Egypt. Two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, speak positively about the land and call on the people to go forward. But the other 10 spies bring a negative report about their chance of entering the land. The people rebel in anger and God becomes angry with them, and Moses pleads with God for forgiveness. Moses suggests that if God kills the people, the nations will think God lacks the power to save His people.
God forgives the people but does punish them. The people will wander in the desert for 40 years, one year for each day the spies were in the land. Of that generation, only Joshua and Caleb will be allowed to enter the land. The generation that left Egypt will die in the desert, only their children will enter the holy land. The people regret their action and try to conquer the land but are turned back.
The portion ends with a series of laws about various offerings. A man is caught gathering wood on the Sabbath day and is placed in custody. God says to Moses that such a man should be put to death. The portion concludes with the law that people must place tzitzit or fringes on the corner of their garments.
Issue #1 - Love Yourself
“We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33)
- The 10 spies reported to the Israelites that the Promised Land is a beautiful land, but the Israelites were too weak to be able to conquer it. They end with the words, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” If we see ourselves as grasshoppers, soon other people will see us in that way too. In today’s language, the spies had serious issues of self-image and self-esteem. If we put ourselves down, how can we expect anyone else to respect us? If we have no dignity, how can we see the dignity in others? If we fail to love ourselves, how can we ever learn to love anyone else?
- Self-love has been called the greatest love of all. Why? The Torah teaches “love your neighbor as yourself.” If you do not love yourself, how will you possibly love your neighbor? Is there a point where a person might demonstrate either too much or too little self-love?
- There is a great concern with teaching our children self-esteem. Some people suggest that eliminating all competition because competition necessarily involves someone losing, and losing will be bad for self-esteem. How can we teach a healthy self-esteem in a competitive world? Should we hold competitions and contests in our synagogues although some win and others lose? Is there a way to make competitions and contests growing and learning opportunities, even if there are those who win and those who lose?
- There is an ancient Jewish teaching that every human being ought to carry two pieces of paper in his or her pocket. When we feel haughty and conceited, we should pull out the paper that says “I am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). When you feel low and lack self-esteem, you would pull out the paper that says “Thou has made him but little lower than the angels, and have crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalms 8:6). We humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation and worthy of honor and esteem. How can we learn to love ourselves?
Issue #2 – A Minyan
“The Lord spoke further to Moses and Aaron, How much longer shall this wicked community keep muttering against me?” (Numbers 14:26-27)
- Nearly everyone involved in Jewish communal life has experienced waiting in synagogue or in a house of mourning, hoping the tenth Jew would show up to make a minyan. Nearly everyone involved in Jewish communal life also has received this phone call: “Drop everything, don’t worry about what you are wearing, hurry down, we need you for the tenth.”
- In this week’s portion we are introduced to the notion of a minyan. Twelve men were sent to spy out the land. Two praised it; ten spoke highly of the land but disparaged the Israelites’ chances of ever conquering it. God said, “How much longer shall this wicked community keep muttering against me?” From this we learn that a community is made up of ten. Traditionally, a minyan was ten Jewish men over the age of 13. Most Conservative synagogues also will count women toward the requisite ten. However you count it, a minyan represents the community.
- When Abraham bargains with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, he asks God to save the cities for the sake of 50 righteous people. Because there are not 50 the bargaining continues as Abraham lowers the number, finally ending with 10. Why does Abraham not go lower? Could it be that 10 people form a community; fewer than 10 are just a formless group of people?
- Why are some of ourmost important prayers, including kaddish and the kedusha, only said in the presence of a minyan? Why is the Torah read only if there is a minyan? What is wrong with saying these prayers privately? Many Conservative synagogues struggle to keep a minyan for daily services in the morning, the evening, or both. Is this important? Do the minyan regulars represent a kind of community within the synagogue communities?
- Being Jewish is not something we do simply as individuals. (Consider again the issues of religion versus spirituality raised earlier in Parashat Bamidbar.) Rather, Judaism is practiced in the midst of community. The great sage Hillel taught, “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Avot 2:5).