Shelach Lecha

Parsha SHELACH LECHA – (send for yourself)

The Torah portion for this Shabbat from Numbers takes place as the Israelites are about to enter the land of Canaan which God has promised to give them. It begins by God telling Moses to send the chieftains from each of the twelve tribes to scout the land of Canaan, Moses tells the chieftains to go from the desert to the hills to assess the numbers and strength of the people, their fortifications, the quality of the soil, etc. and to bring back some fruit – it was grape harvesting season.  

So the chiefs went and scouted the land for 40 days – an important number – and brought back a branch with grapes, pomegranates and figs from a place to be called Eschol, named after the grapes.  

When they returned, they showed Moses, Aaron and all the Israelites the fruit they had collected and reported that the land did indeed flow with milk and honey. They also reported that they saw Anakites in the large, well-fortified cities, Amalekites in the Negev, Hittites, Jebusites and Aniorites in the hill country and Canannites by the Sea and along the Jordan.

Caleb, Chieftain of the tribe of Judah, urged the Israelites to go to Canaan, saying they would, with God’s help, be able to overcome it and it would become theirs. But all the other chieftains, except for Caleb and Joshua, discouraged the Israelites, saying the people in Canaan were too strong, saying things such as “the country devours its settlers” and “we looked like grasshoppers to those men of great size.”  

The Israelites wept and cried out that they wished they had died in Egypt or that they preferred to die in the wilderness than by the sword, even that it would be better to go back to Egypt and slavery than to see their wives and children carried off.  

Joshua and Caleb tried to encourage the Israelites by telling them that Canaan was a wonderful land and not to fear the people of Canaan because the Lord would be with them and protect them as he had before. As the Israelites threatened Caleb and Joshua with stones, God appeared to them and threatened to strike them down with pestilence for having no faith in God even after all the signs God had sent them.  

But Moses intervened on their behalf once more, reminding God that if he killed them, other countries would think their God was too weak to bring them into the land he had promised them and Moses prayed to God to forgive them once again. So God did pardon them, but declared that none of the men over 20 years of age who had seen God’s presence and signs would enter the land of Canaan, except for Caleb and Joshua. They and their children shall roam the wilderness for 40 years - a year for each day the scouts were gone – and suffer for their faithlessness. And those particular scouts who spread false charges died of the plague, by the will of God.  

The Israelites were overcome with grief at this punishment. The next day they decided to go to Canaan to do as they should have before, but Moses told them it was too late now, that they were disobeying God’s commandment again, and that they would be beaten because God was not with them now. Yet they defiantly marched on without the Lord’s Ark or Moses and were dealt a “shattering blow.”  

The next sections describe God’s instructions on what to do when they entered Canaan in 40 years, various burnt offerings, the treatment of strangers, the setting aside of a piece of bread from each loaf as a gift to God and the wearing of the fringe and blue cord to remind them of all God’s commandments. It also describes the punishments for unintentional and willful failure to observe the commandments, with those acting defiantly being cut off from their people. A story is told of how a man who cut wood on the Sabbath was ordered by God to be put to death which was done by stoning.  

The parsha ends with “I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I, the Lord your God.”  

Big Ideas

Through the sins of the spies, we gain a glimpse of the complexity of human nature and we become painfully aware that no matter how many miracles God performs, no matter how much kindness He extends, man remains skeptical.

The Sin of the Spies is actually the sin of the folks back home who, exerted enormous pressure on Moshe to send the spies into the land to check it out. This shows an incredible lack of faith and trust – but the question is, Why didn’t Moses talk them out of it? According to Rav Levi Ben Gershon (known as the Ralbag) Moses’ hesitation goes back to his original admission at the burning bush that he is “heavy of mouth and speech”, a dysfunction not just in pronunciation but an inability at times to communicate. I’m not sure at this point that that is a relevant argument – Moses has been effective in communicating despite his impediment.

So, what’s up?

The Generation of the Exodus was not able to trust. You may argue, they were ill-treated, beaten slaves, they learned to survive but not to trust. Now in freedom, however, they are held fully responsible for their attitudes. They could not see how God could have any influence in their case and couldn't trust God, so they got exactly what they feared: they died somewhere in the desert and never reached the goal. In fact, God had wanted to destroy the whole people immediately, but Moses intervened on their behalf. Only that generation died, but the new generation stayed alive. The Jewish tradition of hope and trust continued with their children.

Ironic isn’t it? In our own experience as a shul built by holocaust survivors, their tradition of hope and trust was passed to their children in much the same way. How disappointing it must be for so many of these survivors to see that their children did not continue the Jewish traditions that were so important to them.

So, what was the crime of the spies? In many ways it was interpretation. The spies turn the positive into a negative. A result of not being able to shake off an inbred slave mentality, nor according to Lithuanian sage Yisroel Ordman of Telshe, of possessing the humble ability to seek out virtues rather than faults. “We were given two eyes,” goes the Chassific adage: ”One very powerful for introspections, so we should find our smallest faults; the other very weak, for viewing others. Only too often we switch their functions.”

This week I studied a commentary by Dr, Ephraim Yitzhaki, from the Department of Talmud at Bar Ilan Unviersity.

Dr. Yitzhaki writes -

“Almost every commentator has dealt with the sin of the spies, yet the nature of their sin remains unclear.

Any military commander about to set out on a mission of conquest needs intelligence to shape his military strategy. He needs to know where the enemy is strong and where weak, where access is easy and hence from where to attack, etc. Therefore, every good intelligence officer sends spies to the target country. The spies that are dispatched are given explicit instructions which targets to spy and what details they are to observe.

Moses did likewise when he sent twelve spies from the elite of the nation, "all the men being leaders of the Israelites" (Num. 12:3), and assigned them well-defined tasks (13:17-20):

When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, "Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land."--Now it happened to be the season of the first ripe grapes.

When the spies returned from their mission they related with great precision to the tasks that had been assigned them (13:25-29):

At the end of forty days they returned from scouting the land. They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, and they made their report to them and to the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land. This is what they told him: "We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan."

After this expeditious report, Caleb intervened and hushed them (v. 30): "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.'"

Let us compare, one against the other, the tasks assigned the scouts and the answers they brought back:

What kind of country is it?

Assignment: Is the country good or bad? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?

Answers: It flows with milk and honey.

Assignment: And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.

Answer: They showed them the fruit of the land.

What about the people who dwell in it?

Assignment: Are they few or many? Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak?

Answer: The people who inhabit the country are powerful, and we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.

What about the towns they live in?

Assignment: Are they open or fortified?

Answer: The cities are fortified and very large.

We can see that the scouts gave a precise report on what they had seen. Why, then, does Caleb, who was one of them, shut them up? Wasn't the commander who sent out scouts interested in hearing the whole truth? Did Moses only want to hear "good news," that there are no Anakites in the country, that the cities are not fortified, etc., even if that would have been a lie? What sin is there in the commander receiving a true report?

Moreover, Moses himself said the same things to the people, and that was not considered a sin on his part, as we see in Deuteronomy (9:1-2): "Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and more populous than you: great cities with walls sky-high; a people great and tall, the Anakites, of whom you have knowledge; for you have heard it said, 'Who can stand up to the children of Anak?'" (Cf. Abarbanel, question eight, which relates to this subject.)

On the contrary, one should actually be surprised at Caleb for hushing them, for Caleb does not deny the facts, rather he says, "Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it." Now Caleb was a spy, not a general. Whether they will be able to prevail or not is a decision to be made by the commander, not a mission assigned the scouts; it is a tactical and operational call, whether the forces at the commander's disposal will be able to conquer the objective or not.

Only after Caleb departed from the dry businesslike report--which followed the original assignment--and made his subjective assessment, "Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it," did his fellow spies present their contradictory assessment, "We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we."

What caused Caleb to depart from an objective report, and to burst forth with the words, "We shall surely overcome it!" thereby turning the report into a subjective evaluation? From Caleb's interjection we must infer that the rest of the spies had already stepped out of line during the original, businesslike report.

If so, wherein lay their sin?

Close analysis of Scriptures shows that the sin of the spies was two-fold:

  1. Before reporting to Moses, word had been deliberately leaked to the people, instigating them to rebel and against Moses and against conquering the land, and thus also against G-d.

  2. After reporting to Moses, they instigated open rebellion against conquering the land. Intelligence workers and spies must give their commanders an accurate account of what they saw, without doctoring or enhancing their report. But they are also obliged not to leak intelligence information to unauthorized persons. Leaking information (especially on sensitive matters such as the strength of the enemy or new armaments at the enemy's disposal) to the people or to lower ranks of the army can dishearten fighters and serve as a psychological weapon helping the enemy. For the people do not know the operational plans, or the weapons and forces at the disposal of the supreme command, or the techniques and tactics that will be used against the enemy in the light of the intelligence information received.

Of course, one cannot expect the supreme command to tell the people the plan of attack, battle tactics, and surprise maneuvers that have been planned in order to capture the objective; for doing so would aid the enemy insofar as these are precisely the things that enemy intelligence wishes to know.

When the spies sent by Moses returned from their mission, they did not come directly to Moses and report what they saw; rather, first they leaked their report to the people (13:26):

They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, and they made their report to them and to the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land.

Twice the Torah emphasizes that all the people heard the sobering report on the Anakites, the Amalekites (whom the people already knew from Joshua's battle against Amalek) and the heavily fortified cities. The people became frightened and began to grumble and have doubts whether they were truly up to the task of conquering the land.

At this point Caleb intervened: "Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, 'Let us by all means go up, ... for we shall surely overcome it.'" Caleb did not address the spies (who thus far had given Moses an accurate, factual report), rather the people who had gathered around Moses and heard the report along with Moses and, as we have said, became frightened and began to grumble. Therefore, Caleb hushed the people, not the spies. For at this stage Caleb had no argument with the spies; he too agreed that Canaan had Anakites and fortified cities. Caleb addressed the people in an attempt to calm the storm that had been stirred up by the report the spies had leaked, for he feared the beginnings of a revolt against the Lord and against Moses. Therefore, Caleb departed from factual reporting and directed the discussion towards an assessment of their abilities: "for we shall surely overcome it" (see Abarbanel on this verse).

At first the Bible does not say explicitly that the spies leaked information before reporting to Moses. Indeed, it might seem that the people themselves, seeing the spies return laden with the fruit of the land, gathered around Moses to hear their report. But after Caleb silences the people, the truth is revealed: the spies leaked information deliberately in order to stir up rebellion against conquering the land (13:31-33):

But the men who had gone up with him said, "We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we." Thus, they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, "The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; 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."

The Torah stresses that "they spread calumnies among the Israelites," not to Moses. It was only to the Israelites that they spoke ill of the land, calling it a land "that devours its settlers," etc.; they did not say this to Moses. Therefore, we may conclude that the spies indeed leaked selective information to the people, with their own interpretation, before coming to Moses. Hence all the people gathered around Moses to hear the spies' report and Moses' response. The spies did not wait until the crowd dispersed, but delivered their report for all the people to hear in order to add fuel to the fire of rebellion: "At the end of forty days they returned from scouting the land. They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, and they made their report to them and to the whole community."

At the end of the affair, when the Lord punishes the spies, the Torah indicates explicitly that their sin had been to stir up rebellion among the people against conquering the land (14:36)

As for the men whom Moses sent to scout the land, those who came back and caused the whole community to mutter against him by spreading calumnies about the land...

The spies were punished because they "caused the whole community to mutter against him"; in other words, because they incited the people against Moses and the Lord and took a stand against going up to the land. They were not punished because of what they reported to Moses. The people, on their part, were punished because they went along with the spies in rebelling.”

Other themes:

This portion gives us the famous line - (Va-yomer adonay salachti kidvarecha): these words are said at the end of the Selichot Services in the High Holy Day Period and are one of two proofs for God's pardon. Abraham ibn Ezra explained, the word סלחתי (salachti) does not mean that the sins are wiped out, but that God holds back his frustration to make a complete teshuvah possible.   Besides this key verse in the liturgy of the High Holy Days, our parsha ends with another very important liturgical text.  “That you may remember and do all My commandments. . .” (Num 15:40). The story of the scouts leads to the third passage of the Shema. “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them they should make themselves tzitzit – fringes – on the corners of their clothing throughout their generations and give the tzitzit of each corner a thread of blue. And they shall be tzitzit for you, and when you look at them you will remember all of the Lord’s commandments and do them and not follow after your heart and after your eyes which lead you astray. In order to remember and do all My commandments, and be holy for your God.”

People in antiquity used the borders of their clothes as proof of their identity. Documents were sealed with a print of one’s fringe. The third passage of the Shema teaches us, the descendants of those people in the desert, to make the Torah our proof of identity.

Another important observation about Shelach Lecha - Significance of the number 40 in Torah - The number forty has significance throughout the Torah, and the Talmud.

For example, when a person becomes ritually impure, he must go to a ritual bath, a Mikveh. The Talmud tells us that a Mikveh must be filled with FORTY measures of water, and a person, must completely submerse himself in it. After being submersed, he leaves the Mikveh ritually pure. It is no accident, that in the story of Noah, the rain poured for FORTY days, and surrounded the world with water. And just as a person leaves a Mikveh pure, so too when the waters of the flood subsided, the world was pure.

According to the Maharal (16th century, Prague), the number FORTY has the power to raise up something's spiritual state. Just as FORTY measures of water purifies a person, and FORTY days of rain purified the world, so too Moses being on Mt. Sinai for FORTY days also had a purifying effect, in that the Jews arrived at Mt. Sinai as a nation of Egyptian slaves, but after forty days they were G-d's nation.

In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Jewish people that he had "led them FORTY years in the wilderness," (29:3-4) after he told them that "G-d has not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, until this day." So we see, it took the Jewish people FORTY years in the desert before they could understand the things that took place. Accordingly, the Mishna in Ethics of Our Fathers explains that "a man of forty attains understanding." (5:26) (Ethics from Sinai).

Another important theme from Parsha Shelach is the detailed description of the attributes of G-d – we find in Moses’ plea to G-d to not destroy the people after the sin of the spies. Moses says: “The Lord! Slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and fourth generations.' Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt."

Moses calls God "slow to anger," and yet God has just threatened to destroy the entire people of Israel. Why would Moses say that God is slow to anger? This verse, the listing of God's attributes, is recited before taking the Torah from the Ark on the High Holy Days and festivals.

Moses infers that God's reputation is at stake.

If we are created B'tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and God is slow to anger, what can this verse teach us about handling our emotions? The rabbis took a close look at human nature, stating many times in different ways what makes up a person's character.

Here is one example:

Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 65b

A person's nature can be recognized through three things: his cup, his purse, and his anger." In Hebrew, the language is alliterative: the Hebrew words

are koso (cup), kiso (purse), and ka'aso (anger).

Why would the rabbis choose these three criteria--one's cup, purse, and anger--as the most important traits?

Jewish tradition teaches that we are often judged by others based on how we act when we drink liquor, how much tzedakah (charity) we give, and how well we control ourselves when we are provoked. And, just like God, our reputation depends on it. The Talmud also adds a fourth criterion to the other three, saying that our nature is recognized "by what we do for pleasure."

Like God, we have guidelines. And like God, we often need to be reminded that being slow to anger is better than acting immediately and brashly. We need not hide our emotions, but merely pause a moment before we do something that might destroy our reputation. May we each remember to be like God slow to anger, abounding in kindness.