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Torah Sparks

June 21, 2008 – 18 Sivan 5768

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 Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Moses sends 12 spies, one from each tribe, to scout the land of Canaan and bring back a report of the conditions the Israelites will find there. After 40 days the spies return, bringing their report of the good land and samples of its produce. However, 10 of the spies, all but Joshua and Caleb, insist that the Canaanites are too powerful for the Israelites to conquer.

The people panic when they hear the 10 spies’ conclusion and declare that they want to return to Egypt. Caleb and Joshua try to change their minds, pointing out that with God on their side the Israelites need not fear the inhabitants of the land.

God’s patience finally is exhausted. He tells Moses He will wipe out the people and start over again. But Moses argues on behalf of the Israelites, insisting that the Egyptians and Canaanites would interpret such an act as a sign that God is powerless to bring the people into the land. God relents, but He declares that the generation of the Exodus will die in the wilderness; it will be their children who will possess the land.

When the Israelites learn their fate, they decide that they now are prepared to fight for the land. Despite Moses’ warning that God will not be with them they attempt an attack and suffer a crushing defeat by the Amalekites and Canaanites.

God gives Moses more instructions about how sacrifices are to be offered once the people have settled in the land. God also explains how amends are to be made for accidental or unwitting sins committed by the entire community or by individuals.

A man who is found gathering wood on Shabbat is brought before Moses and Aaron. God tells Moses that he is to be executed.

The parashah concludes with God’s command that the Israelites attach tzitzit to the corners of their garments as a constant reminder of all of God’s commandments.

A Failure to Cooperate

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Send [literally, send for yourself] men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.” (Bamidbar 13:1-2)

  1. According to your understanding. As for Me, I do not command you; if you desire, send. For the Israelites came and said, Let us send men ahead, as it is stated (Devarim 1:22), Then all of you came to me. And Moses took council with the Divine Presence; He said: I have told them that it is good, as it is stated (Shemot 3:17), I will take you out of the misery of Egypt... to a land flowing with milk and honey. As they live, I shall give them an opportunity to err through the words of the spies, in order that they will not inherit it. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Who were the two spies sent by Joshua? Our sages learned: “These were Pinhas and Caleb. They went and put their lives at risk and were successful with their mission... However, those sent by Moses were wicked, as it states, Send men. (Bamidbar Rabbah). The difference between the two kinds of spies related to their character traits. The spies sent by Joshua had no personal axes to grind. They therefore “put their lives at risk” to perform their mission to the best of their ability. Those sent by Moses, on the other hand, were all “men,” i.e., people with their own personal agendas, and that was why they were unsuccessful in their mission. (Rabbi Hanokh of Alexander, 1798-1870, Poland)
  3. Each tribe sent its own representative. No tribe trusted any other, and each group chose its own person. There was no unity among them, and they were divided into separate tribes and groups. But when Joshua sent spies, he sent only two. That showed the unity of the nation and their mutual trust and that was the reason for the mission’s success. (Cited in Itturei Torah, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg)

Sparks for Discussion

How did things go so terribly wrong? Was it the decision to treat entry into Canaan as an ordinary military campaign rather than relying on God’s promise? Did the spies deliberately sow panic for reasons of their own? (According to one midrash, they were afraid that they would lose their positions of leadership when the Israelites left the wilderness and settled in the land.) Was it the Israelites’ inability to trust each other?

All too often projects that are worthwhile, even innovative, planned but never implemented, sometimes because “we never did it that way before,” sometimes because “we tried it once and not enough people came.” Why do you think there is so much resistance to change and trying new things? What can be done in the initial planning to make success more likely? How can we convince people to give something new and different a fair chance?

Through Others' Eyes

We saw the Nephilim there – the Anakites are part of the Nephilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them. (Bamidbar 13:33)

  1. The Holy One said to the spies: You don’t know what you have just let your mouths utter. I am ready to put up with your saying we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves. But I do take offense at your asserting, and so we must have looked to them. Could you possibly know how I made you appear in their eyes? How do you know but that in their eyes you were like angels? (Tanhuma, Sh’lah)
  2. This was one of the sins of the spies. We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, okay, it is possible to understand [why they thought that], but and so we must have looked to them. What of it? What does it matter to you how you appear in the eyes of others? (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 1787-1854, Poland)
  3. A person who worries about how others view him will have no rest. Regardless of what he does or does not do he will always be anxious about receiving the approval of others. Such a person makes his self-esteem dependent on the whims of others. It is a mistake to give others so much control over you. Keep your focus on doing what is right and proper... (Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, Growth Through Torah, 1988, p. 330)

Sparks for Discussion

All the commentators understand how a group of recently freed slaves would be terrified by the idea of fighting for their land and why they might consider themselves incapable of doing so. However, they define the assumption that the Canaanites shared that perception a sin. Why?

Is this simply a matter of self-esteem, how a person feels about him- or herself? Rabbi Zelig Pliskin says, “It is a mistake to give others so much control over you.” How much control does the opinion of other people (whether actual or projected) have over your behavior? Has “what will the neighbors think” ever caused you to do (or not do) something you might not have done otherwise? Do you believe other people’s opinions of you are likely to be positive or negative? Why? How do you judge other people?

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