PARASHAT SHELAH-LEKHA - BIRKAT HAHODESH
June 9, 2007 – 23 Sivan 5766
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. 857; Hertz p. 635)
Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen
Summary of the Parashah
Moses sends scouts to look at the Promised Land on behalf of the Israelites. Twelve scouts are sent, one from each tribe. (It seems the confederation of tribes had not yet been sufficiently firmed up, so each tribe needed its own representative.) The scouts spend 40 days checking things out, and then they return with a less-than-unanimous evaluation. While the land was acknowledged to be flowing with milk and honey (13:27), and the scouts brought back fine examples of its produce, 10 of the 12 scouts are pessimistic about the feasibility of conquering it. Out of the 12 scouts, only Joshua and Caleb assert that the task of conquering the land surely could be accomplished.
The people hear the executive summary and note that 10 scouts were reporting negatively, while only two were reporting positively. (How often do we count heads, without examining the substance of the case that has been put forth?) The people react to the scouts’ reports by rebelling openly against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. By implication, they are also questioning the value of their allegiance to God. Joshua and Caleb are quick to grasp this implication (14:8-9).
God takes note of the disloyal spirit among the Israelites, including their complaint (14:3) that women and children were being placed at risk. He responds by decreeing that all of this rebellious generation except Joshua and Caleb will be excluded from the Promised Land, while their children -- whom they had said were being placed at risk (14:31) – would inherit the land. Briefly put, the Israelites would wander in the desert for 40 years, corresponding to the 40 days of the scouts’ exploration of the Promised Land 14:34).
Failing to grasp the significance of the withdrawal of God’s supporting Presence from their midst, the next morning a group of Israelites seeks to sally forth to take immediate possession of the Promised Land. Moses warns them that without divine support such a campaign was doomed to failure. When the group persists in their plan, they are roundly defeated (14:40-45).
The balance of our parashah deals with a variety of topics. First, we are given some laws about the sacrifices to be observed when the Israelites finally take possession of the Promised Land. Included in this section is the practice of setting aside a portion of the dough used for baking bread for the kohen. There is also a discussion of sacrifices for atonement, both communal and individual. Next, an incident of Sabbath desecration is recounted, along with the punishment meted out for this offense. Finally, in 15:37-41, we read the commandment to tie fringes on the corners of our four-cornered garments. (This passage is familiar to us because it is also used as the third paragraph of the Sh’ma.)
Topic #1: Slandering the Promised Land
The 10 scouts’ negative reports include some positive comments, highlights that acknowledge the land’s beauty and its desirability. The clear drift of their remarks, however, was that the goal of taking possession of the land was unattainable. Upon hearing this report, most Israelites were disheartened.
Whether or not the 10 scouts intended to undermine the people’s resolve, the result of their report was to harm the Israelites’ determination to take possession of the Promised Land. It is possible to argue that in slandering the Promised Land, they were slandering the promise, and even the Source of the promise.
Before we can form an opinion on this issue, we must examine the scouts’ mandate. Moses assigns tasks to the scouts in the following passage:
When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them: “Go up there into the Negev 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.” (Numbers 13:17-20)
What were the elements of the mission that Moses assigned to the scouts?
Compare the scouts’ report to their original mission as Moses outlined it. In what ways did the scouts exceed their mission? In what ways did they fall short of fulfilling their mission?
Topic #2: Verses of Forgiveness
Several verses from this week’s Torah-reading are classic passages that have found their way into our communal prayers. Both of the following passages have become part of our liturgy for the High Holy Days.
14:19-20 - [Moses said,] “Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.” And the Lord said, “I pardon, as You have asked.”
15:26 - The whole Israelite community and the stranger residing among them shall be forgiven, for it happened to the entire people through error.
Jewish liturgy often seeks to cite models of divine forgiveness from the Torah as a vehicle for obtaining divine forgiveness, especially on a communal level, in later times. Why not simply ask to be pardoned based on the depth of our own sincerity? Does citing a biblical passage enhance the effectiveness of our plea? How (and why) did the framers of our liturgy think this works?