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Torah Sparks

June 16, 2012 – 26 Sivan 5772

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 Joseph Prouser

At God’s instruction, Moses dispatches 12 spies, each representing his tribe, into Canaan to reconnoiter and report back on the prospects of conquest: “See what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?” They return with samples from the land and a pessimistic estimation of Israel’s tactical prospects. They fearfully describe themselves as mere “grasshoppers” compared to the “giants” indigenous to the Promised Land. Infected with the spies’ faithlessness, the Israelites tearfully lament their condition to Moses and Aaron. Of the spies only Joshua and Caleb deliver a positive report on their observations; they are met with a violent public response. Disappointed, God threatens to disown and destroy His chosen people, and to begin anew with Moses. Moses appeases God on the nation’s behalf, securing His pardon for their iniquity with a prayerful petition. God’s verdict is not absolute forgiveness: the current generation is condemned to die in the wilderness, in which they will wander for forty years. All the spies except Joshua and Caleb die in a plague.

Against Moses’ express instructions and in violation of God’s command, the Israelites attempt to enter Canaan, leaving both their long-suffering prophetic leader and the Ark of the Covenant behind. They meet with disaster in battle at Hormah, where they are soundly defeated by a force of Amalekites and Canaanites. The parashah continues with a variety of laws. Meal offerings, accompanied by a wine libation, burnt offerings and peace offerings also are prescribed, as is the requirement of setting aside a portion of dough in what the rabbis later call “challah.” Sacrifices to expiate sins, willful or inadvertent – whether perpetrated by an individual or by the community – also are detailed.

The principle that a defiant sinner is to be cut off from the people – that “he bears his guilt” – is followed immediately by a case study. A hapless Israelite is discovered flagrantly violating the Sabbath by gathering firewood. The miscreant is placed in custody while Moses seeks God’s instruction about how to address the case. God’s verdict is severe: The man is taken outside the camp and stoned to death by the community.

Parashat Shelach Lecha concludes with the prescription of tzitzit – the requirement that fringes, intended to remind us of God’s commandments, are to be placed on the corners of our garments. The passage is familiar; it is the final paragraph of the Shema.

Theme #1: “Minority Report”

“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 – those who spread such calumnies about the land died of plague, by the will of the Lord.” (Numbers 14:36-37)

Study: Derash

“All Israelites over 20 years of age were condemned to die in the desert, even those who silently disagreed with the majority and favored Joshua and Caleb. Why? Because they did not speak up.” (Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah)

“The 10 scouts who incited the rebellion with their negative report die in a plague sent by God. Their sin is too grave to mitigate. That they get no second chance is a reflection of just how seriously the Bible treats the responsibilities of leadership; indeed, these scouts demonstrated the huge impact that a leader can have.” (Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Andrea L. Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)

“It might be asked why the ten spies who returned from Canaan with the recommendation to cancel Operation Promised Land are treated so harshly. As we Israelis learned the hard way in the Yom Kippur War, it is a poor intelligence service that is prepared to hear only good news. The 10 spies came back with the facts. The biblical story does not dispute this. What did they do that was wrong? …The spies, realizing that like it or not they have a responsibility to mold public opinion, have for the first time been tempted to -- well, let us not say that they lied or exaggerated; let us say that they failed to check their notes. The people panic, God loses His temper, and the rest is biblical history.” (Hillel Halkin)

“How might this story have turned out happier? When the spies returned from their mission, they should have reported their findings to Moses in a closed meeting. The pessimists and the optimists could have made their cases. Moses could have been the realist who fashioned the report in such a way that it reflected the concerns of the pessimists while also expressing the confidence of the optimists. The entire group could have presented the people with a balanced report, honest about the dangers ahead but confident that God would bring them victory.” (Rabbi Marc Angel)

"We do not need experts to tell us that something is impossible. Anyone can say this. We need experts who can tell us how to accomplish the impossible!" (David Ben-Gurion)

Questions for Discussion

Wherein lies the failure of the 10 spies – “their sin too grave to mitigate”? Was it their pessimism? Their lack of faith in God’s care and promises? The attempt to influence Israelite public opinion? Fomenting discontent and rebellion against Moses? Their defaming of the Land of Israel?

What are the limitations to Rabbi Angel’s paean to “realism” and “balanced reporting”? When is it entirely proper for leaders to speak in absolutes and with strident and immoderate rhetoric? When, if ever, is extremism a virtue?

Was Moses guilty of gross mismanagement during this incident? How does this possibility help explain why Moses – or any “prophet” – would have made an inappropriate leader for the conquest?

How are Jews and Jewish leaders to express concern misgivings and constructive and loving criticism of specific actions and policies of the state of Israel while avoiding undue “calumnies about the land”?

Theme #2: “On Stranger Tides”

“There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the Lord; the same ritual and the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you.” (Numbers 15:15-16)

Study: Derash

“The influence of the ideal of the equality of all humans can be felt in the laws of the Torah, even though the laws therein are intended for the people of Israel alone. They envision Israel living in its own land – the Land of Israel… and form the constitution of the new state of the Israelites. Rabbi Haim Hirschensohn, an early 20th-century Orthodox Zionist thinker, taught that the Torah is democratic in viewing all citizens as equal before the law, including the Jew and the stranger – the non-Jew – in their midst. As paraphrased by the philosopher Eliezer Shweid, ‘In principle, the Torah advocates complete social, political and moral equality between Jews and Gentiles, in the sense that any demand based on human morality applies equally to all. The differences in religious and ritual considerations do not in the slightest impinge on the full equality between Jew and Gentile in the eyes of the Torah.’" (Rabbi Reuven Hammer, The Torah Revolution: Fourteen Truths that Changed the World)

“The stranger is placed on an equal footing with the Israelite citizen in matters of civil law, but there are differences between them in religious law.” (Etz Hayim)

“Another assertion of the identity, in respect of civil, moral, and religious rights and duties, of the home-born and stranger or proselyte.” (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

“Great perils have this beauty, that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers.” (Victor Hugo)

“The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the diverse liveries they wear here make them strangers.” (William Penn)

Questions for Discussion

How do the differences in religious status, perquisites, and obligations that do distinguish Israelites (Jews) from non-Israelites (for example, having to do with the Paschal offering) actually bespeak respect for those of different religious and national backgrounds, enhancing rather than limiting the goal of equality under one law? How does this concept apply to non-Jews who have close ties to our congregations and are present, for example, during communal worship?

How does Jewish tradition reflect the universalist sentiments articulated by the Quaker William Penn?

How has the “fraternity of strangers” born of peril found expression in Jewish law? In the historic experience of the Jewish people (both by Jews toward others and in the treatment of Jews by “strangers”)?

What unique challenges do our verses present to both the democratic and the Jewish aspects of the state of Israel? In what ways does the spirit of these verses find vivid expression in the life of the Jewish state, perhaps more fully than at any previous point in the history of the Jewish people?

Historic Note

In Parashat Shelach Lecha, read on June 16, 2012, Israelite spies return to Moses and the awaiting tribes with a divided report about the prospects of conquering the Promised Land. When Joshua and Caleb offer an optimistic assessment to contradict the negative view of the majority, the Israelites prepare to stone them. On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln (with implicit reference to the same phrase in the Synoptic Gospels) memorably said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Halachah L’Maaseh

Numbers 15:20 prescribes the mitzvah of challah. Rabbi Israel Mayer Ha-Kohen Kagan (the Chofetz Chayim) explains that if you are working with dough made from wheat, barley, spelt, oats, or rye in a quantity of at least the bulk of 43.2 eggs (around 1200 grams), you “have the duty of separating challah, a portion of the dough. In countries other than Israel, the requirement of separating challah is of rabbinic authority, so that the procedure of challah should not be forgotten, and the separated portion is burned. By the law of the Torah, there is no set measure for challah; separating any piece of dough whatsoever fulfills the obligation” (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot Ha-Katzar, Positive Commandment #57; See also Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 325:1). According to the Chazon Ish, the blessing for separating challah is recited only if the dough exceeds about 2250 grams. The significance of the 43 eggs is related to the numerical value (gematria) of the Hebrew word “challah” – 43. The braided loaves commonly referred to as challah acquired that designation because pious Jewish women would purposely bake enough bread in preparation for Shabbat to incur the requirement for the mitzvah of challah. Rabbi Shammai Gross rules that if a large quantity of challah is not required, it is better to bake once in several weeks (placing the excess challahs in a freezer to keep them fresh) than to bake every week and forgo the mitzvah.

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