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Home>Jewish Living

Parashat Shelah Lekha
June 13, 2015 – 26 Sivan 5775

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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

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 of them say that the people in Canaan cannot be defeated, while 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 (besides Joshua and Caleb) would not reach the Promised Land, and would instead wander the wilderness for 40 years. The 10 negative spies are killed by a plague, and the Israelites who attempt to preemptively invade 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. And the Israelites are required to wear fringes in order to remember the commandments.

Theme #1: The One

Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, "Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it." (Numbers 13:30)

Caleb's courage to stand up in the face of the ten negative spies speaks volumes about his courage and faith in God.

Why did Caleb, rather than Joshua, speak up then? The main cause for the panic that had taken hold of the Children of Israel was the prophecy of Eldad and Medad to the effect that Moses would die, to be succeeded by Joshua. Hearing this prediction, they could not imagine how, without the leadership of Moses, they would be able to conquer the giants and the great fortified cities of which the spies had told them. It was for this reason that Caleb “stilled” the frightened people by telling them that it would be an error to think that only Moses was able to perform miracles. On the contrary, he told them, they themselves, the Jewish people, possessed those qualities which made them worthy of miracles, so that actually, Moses himself derived his greatness only from their sanctity. … Caleb, and not Joshua, had to be the one to tell them that. For had Joshua said it, the people, knowing the prophecy of Eldad and Medad, would have thought he was saying this only because he knew he would take the place of Moses and because he was eager for personal honor and glory. -- Meshekh Hakhmah

[Caleb] showed a different spirit -- one in his lips and a different one in his heart. To the scouts he said, “I am with you,” but in his heart he was determined to say the truth. Because of this he had the ability to quiet the people, as it says, “Caleb hushed [the people]” (Numbers 13:30) because they thought that he would say things like the others had said. -- Rashi on 14:24

Caleb called for silence, saying, “Is this then the only thing that Ben Amram has done to us!” Everyone thought that he had something to say against Moses, so they quieted down immediately. Then Caleb said, “Why, he split us the sea, brought us the manna, gathered us the quail! If he were to ask us to build ladders and climb to the sky, should we not listen to him?!” -- Sotah 35a

Questions for Discussion:

Meshekh Hakhmah theorizes that Caleb is the truthful spy who tries to reassure the people because he doesn't have any "skin in the game" like Joshua supposedly has. When has our society reacted poorly to wise messages delivered by the wrong messenger? What prevents us from listening to words of wisdom?

Rashi depicts Caleb as struggling with his conscience, trying to stay loyal to the other scouts while simultaneously feeling determined to say what he knows to be correct. In this way, Caleb is seen as believable and genuine. To what extent do we believe that modern leaders are genuine? Do see them like Caleb, trying to please both those close to him and the larger population he must serve, or as subservient to a select few people?

The passage from Sotah indicates that Caleb utilizes a rhetorical trick to grab the public's attention, and then re-directs his message once he knows that he has a receptive audience. The Hebrew Bible is filled with speeches, some far more effective than others. What do stories like Caleb's teach us about the power of effective public speaking, and about the methods we can use to use it to our advantage?

Theme #2: Payback

Your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness, while your children roam the wilderness for forty years, suffering for your faithlessness, until the last of your carcasses is down in the wilderness. You shall bear your punishment for forty years, corresponding to the number of days -- forty days -- that you scouted the land: a year for each day. Thus you shall know what it means to thwart Me. (Numbers 14:32-34)

The episode of the spies proves to be the pivotal moment of the Israelites' journey to the Promised Land, changing the lives of every person involved.

Who deserves our sympathy during this terrible episode? The Lord is impatient and remorseless with His Chosen People. But can you blame Him? The Israelites are impossible: faithless, childish, and cowardly. But can you blame them? One lesson of America’s recent wars is that people who’ve been oppressed for generations are not immediately ready for rational self-government. They have habits of violence and intolerance that can’t be shrugged off in a moment. The Israelites were in bondage for 430 years: it’s unreasonable to demand that they immediately govern themselves and trust in God. God abandoned them for twenty generations, yet now He expects absolute loyalty after just a few months of wandering. -- David Plotz, Good Book

Our Rabbis taught: In all the forty years during which Israel was in the wilderness, there was not a day on which the North wind did not blow at the midnight hour; for it is said, “And it came to pass at midnight that the Lord smote all the firstborn …” -- Yevamot 72a

“The generation of the Wilderness has no portion in the world to come …” Our Rabbis taught: The generation of the wilderness has no portion in the world to come, as it is written, in this wilderness they shall be consumed, and there they shall die. “They shall be consumed” refers to this world; “and there they shall die” -- to the world to come. And it is also said, 40 years long was I grieved with his generation, unto whom I swore in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest (Psalms 95:10) -- this is Rabbi Akiva’s view. Rabbi Eliezer maintained: They will enter into the future world, for it is written, “Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice” (Psalms 50:5). -- Sanhedrin 110b

Questions for Discussion:

Plotz speaks about one of the chief dilemmas of the story of the spies: It is possible to understand the points of view of both God and Israel. Yet the text seems to leave us with the sense that the episode is the fault of the stubborn and unbelieving Israelites. If the Israelites were to have been put on trial prior to their sentencing, what would be some of the arguments of their defense attorney?

Yevamot indicates a potential ulterior motive for the Israelites' years of wandering: they provided constant reminders of God saving the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Would it not have been better for God to command the Israelites to wander for 40 years prior to the incident of the spies, so that the Israelites would at least know what to expect? Or would the Israelites have simply resisted following God in Egypt in the first place had they known that they would face a generation of wandering after the Exodus?

In the Talmud text, Rabbi Eliezer claims that the Israelites in the wilderness do have a place in the World to Come because they sacrifice their own lives so that their progeny can enjoy the fruit of the Holy Land. Is this an overly simplistic view of what these Israelites go through during their days of wandering? Does it whitewash the idea that they are punished, preferring to see them as a "sacrifice"?



 
 
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