Sermons and Parsha'iot        Parshat Sh'lach Lecha:  Numbers 13:1-15:41

Sh’lach Lecha tells the story of our people’s worst crisis in in the desert (after the sin of the golden calf). It begins with God’s telling Moses to send – Sh’lach Lecha twelve men, a leader from each tribe, to scout the land of Canaan. Moses gives the scouts ( or in Hebrew “spies”) explicit instructions: First, they were to go to the Negev and then to proceed up into the hill country. They were to determine the quality of the land, the strength of its inhabitants, and whether these people lived in fortified cities or out in the open. Moses also asked the scouts to bring back samples of the native fruits.

They headed off and toured the country for forty days. On their return, they brought back a cluster of grapes so large that it took two men to lift it. They also brought back figs and pomegranates. They reported that the land was indeed very good and described it as flowing with milk and honey. But they also reported that the people who inhabited it were giants, who lived in well fortified cities. In the words of ten of the scouts: “… we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” Two of the scounts, Caleb ben Yefuneh and Joshua ben Nun, tried to encourage the people, telling them that despite the apparent obstacles, they could surely overcome the inhabitants of the land. But most of the Israelites were greatly alarmed and in anger turned on Moses and Aaron. They questioned God’s judgment in bringing them to die in battle and have their wives and children carried off by the inhabitants of the Promised Land. They declared that they wanted to go back to Egypt, and seemed ready to stone Caleb and Joshua on the spot.

God was very angry at the Israelites and threatened to strike them down. Moses pleaded with God to spare the people. God relented, but announced that, except for Joshua and Caleb, no Israelite over the age of twenty would live to see the Promised Land. They would wander for forty years, one year for each day the scouts were in the land. Only their children, whom they thought were going to be carried off, would survive to enter the land that God has promised. Upon hearing their punishment, the Israelites were overcome with grief. The next morning they told Moses that they were now ready to go up and take the land. Moses told them not to go, that Adonai would not be with them and they could not succeed. The Israelites defiantly went into the hill country without either the Ark (the symbol of God’s presence among them) or their leader Moses. They were badly defeated by the Amalekites and Canaanites, and are forced to retreat.

Chapter 15 ends with three separate items: A man is caught gathering wood on Shabbat. He was locked up because it was not known what was to be done to him. God orders that he be stoned to death, and he is executed. The second is the precept concerning challah. Originally, challah was to be given to the priests.  According to Biblical law, this rule applied only to the land of Israel and only if a majority of the Israelites were living there.  The rabbis, seeking to preserve this commandment, created a symbolic observance.  A small portion of each batch of dough is to be twisted off and burned in an open flame.  From this act of twisting a piece of the batch comes the custom of braiding the Shabbat loaf as a reminder that challah was taken.  (Hence, also, the name of the Shabbat loaf .  This became one of the three positive, time-bound mitzvot which women were traditionally obligated to fulfill.) God also commands the Hebrews to wear tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of their clothes. Each tzitzit would include a string of t’chelet, the royal purple-blue color (like the stripes on the flag of the modern-day State of Israel). The tzitzit were to serve a reminder to observe all the commandments and to be holy to Adonai.

Some Thoughts and Questions:

1. The opening event of this parasha involves the sending of men to spy out the Promised Land.  Numbers 13:2 states that God instructed Moses to send the spies, but Deuteronomy 1:22 relates that it was at the people’s urging that the spies were sent.  Rashi harmonizes these two accounts by interpreting that in Numbers, God gave permission for the spies to be sent.  The Talmud explains the motivation for God’s permission: “By the lives of the Israelites! I swear that I will give them the opportunity to make a mistake because of the spies reports so that they will not merit possession of the land” (B.T. Sota 34b). In effect, God wanted a reason to deny that generation access to the Promised Land! Why might the people want to send spies to the Promised Land? In what ways did this generation of Israelites show their unworthiness for the Promised Land? In what ways do you show that you are or are not ready to accept certain responsibilities or privileges?

2. Numbers 14:27 quotes God as saying, “How much longer shall this wicked community (in Hebrew “edah”) keep muttering against me?” – referring to the ten spies who returned  with a negative report about the Promised Land. The Talmud (B.T. Megilla 23b) claims that the number in a minyan comes from this verse. (Others attribute the origin of the number ten for a minyan to Genesis 18:32 – Abraham’s plea to spare Sodom if only ten righteous men could be found there.) Aside from ten, what numbers have significance in Jewish custom and practice? What numbers have special significance for you? 

3. The logo of the modern-day Ministry of Tourism in Israel depicts two people carrying a staff over their shoulders with a huge cluster of grapes hanging from it. What is this reference? Do you feel that it is an appropriate use of a symbol in this parasha

4. Why would the Israelites want spies to be sent to scout out the land? Do you think they lacked faith or were they being cautious? Why do you think it might have been difficult for the people to believe in the promises they had been given? Based on your understanding of the text do the Israelites have enough to go on to enter the Promised Land? Would you have been able to continue on the journey to the Promised Land without having the land “checked out” first? How does your family approach a move, a trip or a new experience? Does your family plan, investigate, ask questions or just go ahead? How much information is needed to make a decision in those areas? Does faith in a positive outcome influence what your family chooses to do? 

5. Moses told the spies to begin their investigation of the land with the Negev, which is desert, then move on to the hill country which has water, fertile soil and vegetation. Why do you think Moses had them see both sides of the land? And why the desert first? Have you ever been in a situation that called upon you to look at both sides of an issue? Choose a Jewish issue or any issue on which you have different opinions. Describe the issue. Argue the issue from someone else’s point of view. What does this do to your original opinion and feelings? How does it help to see an issue from more than one point of view? 

6. In Sefer Ha-aggadah, God says to the spies, “You don’t know what you have just let your mouths utter. I am ready to put up with your saying, ‘We were in our own eyes as grasshoppers.’ But I do take offense at your asserting, ‘And so were we in their eyes.’ Could you possibly know how I made you appear in their eyes? How do you know but that in their eyes you were like angels?” It seems as though the spies thought that they were like insects, inferior and easily squishable. How does our self-concept affect the way we see and understand things? Do you think that people always see us as we see ourselves? Ask your friends and family to describe your talents and abilities. Does your image of yourself match that of the people around you? 

7. The parasha ends with the commandment about the tzitzit, which were to serve as a reminder to observe all of God’s commandments. The midrash illustrates this with a story: A person is thrown from a boat into the sea. The captain stretches out a rope and tells him to take firm hold of it, for his life depends on it. The rope is like the tzitzit, and the captain is like God. The tzitzit provide a lifeline. What are your “lifelines” to Judaism?