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Torah Sparks

Parashat Sh'lah L'kha
June 1, 2013 – 23 Sivan 5773

Annual: Numbers 13:1-15:41 (Etz Hayim p. 840; Hertz p. 623)
Triennial: Numbers 15:8-15:41 (Etz Hayim p. 851; Hertz p. 631)
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24 (Etz Hayim p. 835; Hertz p. 635)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

At God's instruction, Moses dispatches twelve spies, each representing his tribe, into Canaan to reconnoiter and report back on the prospects of conquest: "See what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?" They return bearing samples of the land's fruit and produce, but also with a pessimistic estimation of Israel's tactical prospects. They fearfully describe themselves as mere "grasshoppers" compared to the "giants" indigenous to the Promised Land. Infected with the spies' faithlessness, the Israelites tearfully lament their condition to Moses and Aaron. Only Joshua and Caleb, who were among the spies, deliver a positive report on their observations, but they are met with a violent public response. A disappointed and disheartened God threatens to disown and destroy His chosen people, and to begin anew with Moses. Moses appeases God on the nation's behalf, securing His pardon for their iniquity with a prayerful petition that we repeat each Yom Kippur eve. God's verdict is not one of absolute forgiveness. The current generation of Israelites is condemned to die off in the wilderness, which they will wander for forty years, and the spies themselves, except Joshua and Caleb, die in a plague.

The Israelites, against Moses' express instructions and in violation of God's command, attempt to enter Canaan, leaving both their long-suffering prophetic leader and the Ark of the Covenant behind. They meet with disaster in battle at Hormah. The parashah continues with a variety of laws about sacrifices, including the requirement of setting aside a portion of dough in what the rabbis later call "challah."

The principle that a defiant sinner is to be cut off from the people – that "he bears his guilt" – is followed immediately by a case study. A hapless Israelite is discovered flagrantly violating the Sabbath by gathering firewood. The miscreant is placed in custody while Moses seeks God's instruction about how to address the case. God's verdict is severe: the man is taken outside the camp and stoned to death by the community.

Parashat Shelach concludes with the prescription of tzitzit – the requirement that fringes, intended to remind us of God's commandments, are to be placed on the corners of our garments. The passage is familiar; it is the final paragraph of the Shema.

Theme #1: "Just Joshing"

"Moses changed the name of Hosea son of Nun to Joshua." (Numbers 13:16)

Derash: Study

"Moses thus prayed for him: May God save you (Yah yoshiacha – a play on Yehoshua – Joshua -- JHP) from the counsel of the spies." (Rashi)

"The name Hosea is suggestive of the character of Joshua, who would turn his eyes toward Heaven and pray: ‘Hosha na!' (Save us!). So Moses called him Joshua, for within this name itself is hidden salvation... For prayer for salvation is itself a form of salvation." (Chashvah L'Tovah)

"When Moses saw how humble he was, Moses changed the name of Hosea to Joshua." (Targum Yonatan)

"Our Teacher Moses called him by this name to honor him, and to pray on his behalf that he be saved and that he save others." (Sforno)

"Hosea signifies, ‘He has helped.' Moses, by prefixing to it a letter of the Divine Name, changed it to Joshua, Heb., Yehoshua, i.e. ‘He will help', at the same time indicating the Source of salvation." (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

"When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth." (Sir Walter Scott)

Questions for Discussion

Hosea/Joshua's name change places him in rarified company. What does he have in common with Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, Jacob/Israel, Joseph/Tzafnat-Pa'aneach?

What motivated Moses to change Joshua's name? To elevate Joshua's public standing? To endorse him as successor? To honor him? To encourage him? To articulate his expectations for his "attendant"? As a term of endearment and sign of affection?

How do you understand Targum Yonatan? Was Moses rewarding Joshua for an admirable humility... or attempting to counter a diffidence that might have threatened Joshua's future as leader? Moses himself was celebrated for his personal modesty. Does that change your reading of Targum Yonatan... and of Moses' thinking in changing Joshua's name?

Parents selecting names for their children, like converts to Judaism choosing a Hebrew name... have a powerful opportunity give expression to values, prayerful hopes and aspirations. If you were to change (or add to) your own name, what statement would you want to make? How might you do that?

Chashvah L'Tovah suggests that Joshua's new name reflects his spiritual bearing, his personal piety... framing him as a suitable successor to Moses. Does the Biblical text support this view? In what ways was it important, to the contrary, for Joshua to distinguish himself from his mentor, Moses' style of religious and national leadership?

Theme #2: "Spurn Notice"

"As I live and as the Lord's Presence fills the whole world, none of the men who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed Me, shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers; none of those who spurn Me shall see it." (Numbers 14:21-23)

Derash: Study

"All Israelites over twenty years of age were condemned to die in the desert, even those who silently disagreed with the majority and favored Joshua and Caleb. Why? Because they did not speak up." (Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah)

"'None of those who spurn Me shall see it.' They will be unable to perceive the beauty of the Land; they will reject it." (Mikra Meforash)

"Except for Joshua, Caleb, and the Tribe of Levi, the current adult generation will not inherit Canaan; instead, they will perish in the wilderness according to their wish expressed earlier (v. 2). In essence, the wilderness becomes a vehicle for cleansing the sin of the older generation and preparing the younger Israelites to become the new inheritors of the Promised Land." (Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, The Torah: A Women's Commentary)

"Are we a generation, like the generation of the Exodus, that has witnessed great miracles during our lifetimes (the establishment of the State of Israel, the Six Day War, etc.), but fail to sufficiently express our gratitude? ...Perhaps, the Almighty is looking down upon us and asking: Have you not learned from history? ...Could it be that redemption has not yet come because we are not prepared to play a serious role in Jewish destiny? Could it be because we should know better and do not sufficiently consider the long-term consequences of our decisions and our actions? If so, we must mend our ways, accept responsibility and do what needs to be done." (Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald)

"What shall we think of a God who gave his entire time for 40 years to the work of converting three millions of people, and succeeded in getting only two men, and not a single woman, decent enough to enter the Promised Land?" (Robert Green Ingersoll)

Questions for Discussion

Consider Rabbi Buchwald's comment. How is the current generation of Jews (that is, how are we) comparable to the ill-fated generation of the wilderness? What other miracles have we witnessed? What are the looming consequences of our inability, our reluctance, our refusal to recognize the miraculous nature of the times? How does the insight of Mikra Meforash apply to today's Jews?

To what contemporary issues and moral crises is Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah's discussion of the sin of silence applicable? When is it simply wise to keep one's own counsel and when is it a moral imperative to speak out?

Historic Note

Parashat Shelach Lecha, read on June 1, 2013, records that a force of Israelites attempted to enter the Promised Land, notwithstanding instructions from God and Moses not to do so. They were defeated in battle by their Amalekite and Canaanite foes. On June 1, 1948, the newly founded State of Israel and its Arab neighbors reached a ceasefire in the War of Independence.

Halachah L'Maaseh

While Torah scrolls, sacred texts (sheimot), tefillin and tefillin bags, when worn and unusable, must be disposed of reverently through storage in a enizah and ultimate burial, talitot and tzitzit may be discarded. A talit or talit katan with tzitzit still attached, or detached tzitzit strings themselves, may be discarded in a dignified manner: wrapped up, not simply placed in the garbage, but discarded with "clean" trash, recycled or even burned. (See BT Megillah 26B; Rabbi S. Y. Elyashiv, Ginzei Ha-Kodesh 17:13.) A talit without tzitzit attached, as well as a talit bag of any material, may be discarded in any manner... though many authorities urge a dignified disposal – as distinguished from burial. (See also: Mishnah Berurah 154:7, 9, 14; Sha'ar ha-Tziyun 7; Minchas Elazar 1:27; Beiur ha-Gra, Yoreh Deah 282.)

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