TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Shelah lekha


TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

Parashat Shelah lekha Shabbat
Mevarekhim Hahodesh June 29, 2019 | 26 Sivan 5779
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 ( Yehoshua 2:1-24): Etz Hayim p. 856; Hertz p. 635

D’var Torah: When God is Not God
Dr. Shaiya Rothberg, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

There is a secret in this week’s Torah portion. At first, it’s shocking but in the end, I think you’ll conclude that you already knew it. There is a character in this week’s Torah portion called Y-H-V-H who tells Moshe that he wants to kill the Israelites (Bemidbar 14:12): “I will hit them with a plague and eliminate them and make a bigger greater nation from you!” The secret, revealed by the Zohar, is that this character is not God.

But before we get into the secret, a clarification: For the Zohar, everything is God. The aspect of God that the Zohar calls Ein Sof / Infinity contains all things. So not only the character Y-H-V-H who wants to kill the Jews is part of God, so are the spies, the grapes they brought back, and if a spy stubbed his toe on a rock on the way home, as Rabbi Moshe Cordovero says (quoted in Daniel Matt’s The Essential Kabbalah), “Don’t say ‘this is a rock and not God’ – God forbid! – Rather, all existence is God.” But if everything is God, how can the character in question not be God? The answer is that when we as Jews today use the word “God”, we don’t generally mean the Ein Sof of the Zohar but rather something more in the spirit of Maimonides like “the One we love and imitate.” For the Zohar, too, we are meant to love and imitate God. But the Zohar uses different names to capture different aspects of God, and what we are supposed to love and imitate is not called Ein Sof but is symbolized by attributes (also called sefirot) like Wisdom, Love, and Justice. The character “God” who wants to kill us is part of Ein Sof like all things, but he is something broken; not to be worshipped or imitated. He is not the true God of Wisdom, Love, and Justice.

The Zohar (III 144a IR) reveals this secret in its commentary to Bereishit 6. This chapter tells the story of how God (the character) became sad, regretted creating human beings and so killed them all except Noah and family. The Zohar explains that this cannot be the transcendent God because then it would be inappropriate to speak of God experiencing sadness and regret. The character “God” who destroys humanity is symbolized not by Wisdom, Love, and Justice but by Rage, Pain, and Destruction. This is not “the One we love and imitate.”

The Zohar further explains that this (not-) “God” of Rage, Pain, and Destruction is responsible not only for the flood but also for the ongoing desire to kill the Israelites. The point of these stories, in which “God” is not really God, is to teach us the dynamics of Rage, Pain, and Destruction in heaven and on earth. Moshe is the ultimate servant of the true God who knows how to awaken the divine attributes of Wisdom, Love, and Justice by evoking the thirteen attributes of mercy (Shemot 34:9; Bemidbar 14:17-18). We are meant to learn to do the same.

So, the secret is that “God” in the Chumash is not always God. But you already knew that. Anyone who reads the simple meaning of the story understands that Moshe was not supposed to say, “Hey God, great idea, let’s kill all the Israelites except me.” Moshe was supposed to resist “God” and the reader is meant to identify with him. Think about it for a minute and you’ll see that the Zohar is just stating the simple meaning of the text using more complex mystical-philosophical-psychological symbolism. The message is the same.

And it’s a radical message. Each time the Bible says that God did X or said Y, you need to ask yourself: the character “God” or God “the One we love and imitate”? For instance, would the God in which you believe command that we exterminate the seven nations that lived in Eretz Yisrael (Devarim 20:16)? By revealing this secret to you, Jewish tradition has entrusted you with a powerful interpretive tool. You and I are the living link in thousands of years of Jewish interpretation. May it be God’s will that we use this tool wisely.

Parashat Shelah Lekha Self-Study
Vered Hollander-GoldfarbConservative Yeshiva Faculty

Moshe sends a delegation (often referred to as ‘the spies’) to tour the land of Israel prior to entering it. Their report causes a panic, at the end of which the people get 40 years in the desert, and only the next generation will enter the land. In the second part, there are several Mitzvot that might have some connection to what happened.

1) Moshe sends a 12-person delegation of tribal representatives. For the tribe of Ephraim, he sends Yehoshua son of Nun (13:8), whom we have met as Moshe’s assistant. What difficulty might this dual role cause Yehoshua?

2) Moshe directs the delegates to investigate several things, among them whether there are trees there (13:20). Why do you think that Moshe asks about this, having already asked if the land is fat or lean?

3) The delegation’s report to the people apparently creates turmoil. Caleb quiets the people and tells them they can conquer the land (13:30). While Yehoshua will be at his side later (14:6), he is absent from this first counter-assessment. Why do you think that he did not speak up there?

4) After being told that they will wander 40 years in the desert and not enter the land, some of the people decide to go ahead anyway, despite warnings that God is not with them (14:40-45). What do you think that these people wanted to say by their actions?

5) The parashah ends with the well-known passage requiring us to put tzitzit on 4 cornered garments as a reminder of the mitzvot. Why do you think that a mitzvot-reminder is placed in the realm of clothing?

D’var Haftarah: When God Awakens
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

People are often confounded when reading the Tanakh on account of its choice of language to describe God’s interaction with the world. For instance, this week’s haftarah describes the response of the nations of the world when God will come to rescue His people: “Hush, all flesh before the Lord, for He has stirred from his Holy abode” (2:17 Alter translation). Zechariah uses the term ne’or – which means to stir, rise up, or awaken. But what could it mean for the nations of the world for God to “wake up”? And what does it say about God?

Targum Yonatan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, renders this verse: “All of the wicked will be destroyed from before the Lord when God reveals Himself from His sacred dwelling peace.” God’s stirring/waking means that the nations of the world will be punished; it is not so much that they will be silent when God awakens, but that God will silence them. Two French contemporaries of Rashi take a similar approach. Rabbi Yosef Kara comments: “that God will awaken from the Heavens to exact punishment on the nations [who have mistreated Israel].” Rabbi Eliezer from Beaugency offers a similar explanation, “that He will awaken to save His people.”

But unlike these commentators who take the wording of Zechariah at face value, the Targum seems uncomfortable speaking about God as “waking up.” It uses the language of God “revealing” Himself instead. Rabbi David Kimche (13th century Provence) echoes this when he writes: “This [verse] is [expressed] by way of a parable. It is like a person who awakens from his sleep.” In this same vein, the linguist and philosopher, Rabbi Yosef Ibn Kaspi (14th century Provence) invokes the famous rabbinic principle that “Dibrah Torah kileshon bnai adam” when he writes, “[This is expressed by way of the expression] – ‘the Torah speaks the way people speak’, namely, it is as if he was asleep and then awoke from his sleep, for most certainly, ‘The Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers’ (Psalms 21:3-4).” For Ibn Kaspi, the contradiction can only be resolved by understanding Zechariah figuratively.

Since language arises out of human experience, it is necessarily limited in its ability to describe God. We are forced to use metaphors that, if taken literally, can lead to deep theological misunderstanding. We are the inheritors of a tradition that recognized already many many centuries ago that there is a gap between God and how we, and our holy texts, talk about God. May we merit to continue in their path.

Related Blog Posts