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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT SHELAH-LEKHA - BIRKAT HAHODESH
June 20, 2009 – 20 Sivan 5769

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 Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Moses sends 12 spies, one from each tribe, to scout the land of Canaan and bring back a report of the conditions the Israelites will find there. After 40 days the spies return, bringing their report of the good land and samples of its produce. However, 10 of the spies, all but Joshua and Caleb, insist that the Canaanites are too powerful for the Israelites to conquer.

The people panic when they hear the 10 spies’ conclusion and declare that they want to return to Egypt. Caleb and Joshua try to change their minds, pointing out that with God on their side the Israelites need not fear the inhabitants of the land.

God’s patience finally is exhausted. He tells Moses He will wipe out the people and start over. But Moses argues on behalf of the Israelites, insisting that the Egyptians and Canaanites would interpret such an act as a sign that God is powerless to bring the people into the land. God relents but declares that the generation of the Exodus will die in the wilderness; it will be their children who will possess the land.

When the Israelites learn their fate, they decide that they now are prepared to fight for the land. Despite Moses’ warning that God will not be with them, they attempt an attack and suffer a crushing defeat by the Amalekites and Canaanites.

God gives Moses additional instructions about how sacrifices are to be offered once the people have settled in the land. God also explains how amends are to be made for accidental or unwitting sins committed by the entire community or by individuals. A man who is found gathering wood on Shabbat is brought before Moses and Aaron. God tells Moses that he is to be executed.

The parasha concludes with God’s command that the Israelites attach tzitzit to the corners of their garments as a constant reminder of all of God’s commandments.

1. Truth and Consequences

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. (Numbers 14:18)

  1. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “The Lord! the Lord! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness [emet – truth], extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
  2. Now Moses mentioned among the [Divine] attributes “slow to anger” and “abounding in kindness,” but he did not mention “truth,” for according to the attribute of truth they would have been guilty. (Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman), 1194-1270, Spain)
  3. Rabbi Yitzhak said, why is “truth” missing here? Rabbi Hiyya said, they (the spies) themselves caused it to be removed from here because they were liars, and a person is treated in the same way he behaves. (Zohar Sh’lah L’kha, 161b)
  4. He didn’t want to mention “truth” because he was praying that the Holy Blessed One would go beyond the letter of the law, and truth implies strict justice, as is said (Avodah Zarah 4b), “when occupying Himself with the Torah, about which it is written ‘truth,’ the Holy Blessed One does not go beyond the letter of the law. Another explanation: He did not mention ‘truth’ because he did not want the Holy Blessed One to confirm what He has said (14:12), ‘I will strike them with pestilence.’” (Hizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah), mid- 13th century, France)
  5. Why does the text here not read “abounding in kindness and truth”? The word “truth” had its proper place in the 34th chapter of the Book of Exodus, where Moses recalls the promise which the Lord gave to our fathers, to give the land to their descendents... There Moses recalled God’s attribute of truth, so that God might fulfill His promise. But in the episode described in this part of the Book of Numbers, the Jews were not willing to accept the Promised Land. Now if someone is offered a gift by another and says: “I do not want it,” he does not deserve the gift. Accordingly, the Lord was now freed from His promise and a mention of His attribute of truth would have been out of place. (Meshekh Hokhma, Rabbi Meir Simha Hakohen of Dvinsk, 1843-1926, Latvia)

Sparks for Discussion

After the sin of the golden calf, God proclaimed His 13 attributes. According to the midrash, God told Moses that in the future, when the people sinned, he should recite this passage as a prayer for forgiveness. However, in our parasha, Moses edits the text of the 13 attributes. Why? How do our commentators interpret the word “truth”? How would you define it? Are there ideals or values that you believe should be allowed to overrule truth? Under what circumstances?

2. The Lost Generation

You shall bear your punishment for 40 years, corresponding to the number of days – 40 days – that you scouted the land: a year for each day. Thus you shall know what it means to thwart Me. I, the Lord, have spoken: Thus will I do to all that wicked band that has banded together against Me: in this very wilderness they shall die to the last man. (Numbers 14:34-35)

  1. What was the reason for the terrible wrath of the Almighty in giving forth this irrevocable decree? What should it matter to the Holy Blessed One that they rejected a goodly land, a land flowing with milk and honey? Surely all these good things are only transitory! But the truth is that it was not these earthly things that they rejected but they forsook the Lord, they despised the Holy One of Israel who granted them life and its joys, circumscribed by the precepts of His law... They retreated, saying “We cannot go up,” implying that they did not desire to scale the heights of spiritual perfection, the ladder to which was the Holy Land itself, but preferred to choose a captain and go back to Egypt, descending to an impure land. (Akedat Yitzhak (Rabbi Isaac Arama), 1420-1494, Spain)
  2. God forgave them for all their sins. They sinned with the golden calf and were forgiven. They sinned by complaining against God and were forgiven. They sinned with the case of Korah and were forgiven. The only sin that was not forgiven was that of the spies, and here the people were punished by having to remain in the desert for 40 years, where they would die... Why the difference? From this, we see that if a person sins and repents, his repentance is sufficient, regardless of whether he sinned against man or against God. The only exception is when a person sins against his nation, in which case neither regret nor repentance is sufficient. (Quoted in the name of Rabbi Yitzhak Elhanan Spektor, 1817-1896, Lithuania)
  3. Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter of Gur once visited Rabbi David Goldman in Kielce, and in the course of their conversation he asked him: “As our sages tell us that the gates of repentance are never locked, why was the repentance of the Israelites after the return of the spies not accepted?” Rabbi David answered: “It is true that repentance is accepted but that is only if the person realizes he had sinned, regrets his action, and forsakes that type of action in the future. However, the Israelites of the desert generation did not say, ‘Lo, we will go up because we sinned,’ but rather, ‘Lo, we will go up to the place which God said we have sinned.’ In other words, we do not admit that we sinned, but ‘God said we have sinned.’ That is not true repentance.” (Cited in Itturei Torah, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg)
  4. Man cannot be expected suddenly to leave the state of slavery and toiling in bricks and straw and the like, wash his soiled hands at the spur of the moment, and fight with giants... It was therefore part of the Divine wisdom to make them wander around the wilderness until they had become schooled in courage. For, as is well known, a nomadic existence under Spartan conditions breeds courage, and the reverse, cravenness. In addition, a new generation of people grew up who had known no humiliation and bondage. (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Rambam), 1135-1209, Spain and Egypt)

Sparks for Discussion

Why was the generation of the Exodus condemned to die in the wilderness? Was it because they lacked faith, because they rejected the land, or because they rejected God? What do you think of Rambam’s notion that they had been so damaged by the experience of slavery that they were incapable of conquering the land?

Rabbi David Goldman believes the problem was that they had no consciousness of sin – they knew that God was angry at their panic, but they didn’t believe what they had done was wrong. We’re all familiar with politicians and celebrities who get caught doing something improper and make tearful public apologies, which are much less about regretting their behavior than regretting getting caught and being punished. How common is this attitude today? Do you think most people have a sense of sin? What behaviors do you consider sins?


 
 
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