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Parashat Shelah Lekha
June 14, 2014 – 16 Sivan 5774

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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina


God asks Moses to send one man from each tribe to scout the Promised Land and its inhabitants. After 40 days, the spies return with luscious fruit -- and two different interpretations of what they saw. Ten spies say that the people in Canaan cannot be defeated; Joshua and Caleb insist otherwise. The Israelites panic, demanding to return to Egypt.

Moses talks God out of destroying every Israelite other than him, but God insists that this generation (other than Joshua and Caleb) would not reach the Promised Land, instead they would wander the wilderness for 40 years. The 10 negative spies are killed by a plague, and the Israelites who attempt a preemptive invasion of Canaan are routed.

Several laws conclude the portion: Various offerings must be accompanied by flour, oil and/or wine. Those who break commandments accidentally can atone via sacrifice, whereas intentional transgression is punished more harshly. A man gathering wood on the Sabbath is publicly stoned to death. The Israelites are required to wear fringes in order to remember the commandments.

Theme #1: Send Them on Their Way

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying “Send 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.” (Numbers 13:1-2)

The drama of the episode of the spies begins with a seemingly innocuous request from God.

With the command of lekh lekha, “go thou,” God had sent Abram from Mesopotamia toward the Promised Land, as well as to Mount Moriah to offer up his son. Shelah lekha (“send for yourself”) seems to echo that primal command. Just as God had commanded Abram to go to a land that his descendants would inherit and then commanded him to sacrifice the next generation, are not Moses and Israel facing, and failing, the same ordeal? The Exodus generation must die out because, unlike Abraham, they fear for their children’s future. This younger generation will indeed suffer for the sins of the fathers by wandering for forty years; but, like Isaac’s, their future is secured: they will enter the Land. -- James S. Ackerman, from The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode

This story is commonly referred to as the episode of the spies, but the men whom Moses sends are tribal leaders, not ordinary scouts. The function of their mission is not espionage but observation, to bring back a description of the land to their people. They are leaders. That is why their negativity when they return is so devastating. It is not just a disappointing bit of intelligence. It is a failure to lead and encourage. -- Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

(Said Moses to the spies): Even if the land should seem bad to you, it is good. Though it may be hidden, the sanctity of the land is always there. Hidden beneath its superficial disadvantages is all the good that is in it, and once you have entered the Land, all this sanctity that was hitherto concealed will lie revealed before you. -- Sefer HaZehut

Questions for Discussion:

Ackerman points out numerous parallels between the beginning of the story of Abraham and the start of what would be a disastrous moment in the Israelites’ early history. An additional contrast between the two stories is the matter of doubt -- while Abraham rarely, if at all, doubts God’s plan, most of the spies express their doubt even after they see the Promised Land. To what extent does doubt fuel the way we react to new situations? When are we like Abraham, suspending our doubt (or, at least, our outward expression thereof)? When are we like the negative spies, allowing our doubts to color everything?

Friedman notes that the Israelite spies are not simply surreptitious observers, but also the political leaders of the tribes, which is why their (albeit dubious) statements of doubt about the prospects of conquering the Promised Land leads the people to panic. Why is it especially devastating when our leadership speaks negatively about the prospects for the future? Do leaders have a responsibility to sugar-coat their fears if they believe them to be legitimate?

Sefer HaZehut suggests that Moses tells the spies not to be dissuaded by what appears to be signs of hopelessness in the Promised Land. If that is the case, why bother sending the spies in the first place? Is it a test to make sure that these tribal leaders are faithful in the same way that Moses and his family are? Or, perhaps, is it a way for them to learn to not always trust what the eye can see?

Theme #2: Woe Is Us!              

The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died in the land of Egypt,” the whole community shouted at them, “or if only we might die in this wilderness …” (Numbers 14:1-2)

The Israelites’ tendency to panic at the slightest hint of trouble shapes the destiny of an entire generation. What’s with the histrionic fatalism of the Israelites? Whenever Moses or his people run into even the slightest trouble, they wail the 1500 BC equivalent of, “Kill me now!” or “I wish I were dead!” … I hope my fellow Jews won’t take offense, but it seems to me that this is a distinctively Jewish form of complaint. “Kill me now” is a foundation of modern Jewish humor … I suspect the Torah is the source of this exaggerated fatalism. What began as genuine, if melodramatic, anguish in Exodus and Numbers has, over thousands of years, and by millions of irreverent yeshiva boys, been tweaked into comedy. -- David Plotz, Good Book

That the fulfillment of the Promise is delayed -- that the patience and pain of secular time come to the fore -- suggests that God is anything but a magician. Yet it also introduces a doubt (Israel’s unbelief), even if that doubt is shown as the cause rather than consequence of that delay. The Israelites in the desert are ready to stone Moses, and express themselves vividly: “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt!” Starvation does not breed trust. It is a reasonable cry that is heard, of men afraid not only for themselves but also for their families. They recall the Promise made to them and, instead of its realization, see the opposite: decimation or even destruction, rather than increased numbers in a land of their own. -- Geoffrey H. Hartman, quoted in Congregation, David Rosenberg, ed.

Literarily, the originality lies in the way the writers and editors of this text, by their incessant deprecation of complaining Israel as “stubborn” and “stiff-necked,” force the equally complaining Lord God to the fore, making Him the protagonist of the narrative that takes its own unprecedented character from Him. … By preserving the spirit of complaint -- complaint against man in the name of God, and against God in his own name -- on its full-blown appearance, the ancient editors set something portentous in motion. What they began would sow the seeds of prophecy in the Bible and, more broadly, of moral reform as a perennial possibility in Western social history. -- Jack Miles, God: A Biography

Questions for Discussion:

While Plotz’s assessment of the Israelites’ penchant for panic may be exaggerated, it is notable that our ancestors jump to extreme expressions of negativity very quickly. Would our opinion of the Israelites change if they were depicted as reaching their conclusions of doom more gradually? Or is the fact that they wish to abandon their journeys at all extreme enough on its own, regardless of how long it takes them to express it? Hartman describes the Israelites’ reaction to the negative spies as “reasonable.” We, the readers of the Torah, don’t always see it that way, especially since we already know that God would indeed make good on God's promises (at least regarding the conquering of the land). Should the Israelites be punished for panicking when they don’t know what we know? Or should they be held responsible for not trusting God so soon after the Exodus and the Revelation at Mount Sinai?

Miles seems to understand the overall theme of complaint as a beneficial aspect of subsequent Israelite life, especially since God is prone to complaint as well, and since positive change often takes place after someone complains about what ails society. Do the potential advantages of cynical complaint outweigh its potential damage to a society's morale?

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