These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Parshat Shelach – Don’t Miss the Signs!

Posted on June 11, 2015 by David Wallach

לעילוי נשמת יהושע מנחם בן משה ז״ל. In memory of Menachem Wallach z”l. 

Imagine, for a moment. You’ve been travelling from Egypt, through the desert, eyes always looking toward Cana’an, the Promised Land. You’ve seen the Sea of Reeds split before your eyes, you’ve seen Manna fall from the sky to sustain you. And now, finally, you’ve reached it, you’re finally at the Promised Land. So, what do you? Celebrate? Jump for joy? No, silly, go and check out if the Land is good, obviously! Wait…what? That doesn’t seem right….

This week, we read Parshat Shelach. The Parsha begins with what is described in our tradition as Chet Ha’Meraglim, the Sin of the Spies. Moshe, commanded by God, sends spies out into the land before them to investigate it. He instructs them to see what is has to offer, where it may be lacking, and come back with a report. In his own words,

17When 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, 18and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? 19Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? 20Is 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)

Well, the report doesn’t come back so great. Ten of the spies come back and the picture doesn’t look so good. They report

“We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.28However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. 29Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.” (Numbers 13: 27-28)

Or in other words, “Ya, sure, the land is great and all…but have you seen you lives there? We don’t stand a chance!” But these ten were not the only ones to bring back a report. Two others, Calev and Yehoshua weren’t pleased with that report and added one simple statement,

“Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” (Numbers 13:30)

“Ya, sure”, they said, “there are scary inhabitants, but we can do it anyway!”

Long story short, this report landed Bnei Yisrael in the desert for another forty years, killing off the generation who was alive for the report. Further, our tradition claims that the spies report came back on none other than Tisha B’av, which was to become a day of national calamity, and mourning for perpetuity (Ta’anit 26b).

But, the  question that we’re left with here is, why is this such a big deal? Okay, okay, I get it, the spies lacked faith, and doubted God. So I guess that’s pretty bad. But I mean, we’ve seen worse in the last little bit, haven’t we? Bnei Yisrael complaining about wanting to go back to Egypt…not enough meat…you know, they seemed to lack faith there too. So why did this event seal the deal, as it were?

I think to answer this question, we need to look at two important aspects of our Parsha: First, God’s response, and second, Parshat HaTzitzit (which comes at the end of our parsha).

After the report comes back, Bnei Yisrael have given up all hope. They want to go back to Egypt, they wish they would have died in the desert. Essentially, they just want nothing to do with their current situation. Calev and Yeshoshua try the pep talk route, and Moshe and Aharon approach God. God hears them out and responds,

“How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (Numbers 14:11).

What was God’s real concern with the report and the people’s reaction? From God’s own words, it seems clear that the core issue was more than just a lack of faith in the moment. No, that wasn’t the only problem. Rather, God couldn’t understand how the people who saw such amazing miracles up until now would suddenly give up hope because the land is a little scary. Didn’t God, the same God who promised Can’an to the Avraham, take them out of Egypt? Didn’t he split the sea for them? Rain down manna for them? And now, now, they can’t believe that they’re going to get in? Well, heck, that doesn’t make much sense at all to me either.

So, what did God really want from them in that moment? And I think the answer to this  can be found in parsha that describes the mitzvah of tzitzit that comes at the end of our parsha. The Torah commands us to attach tzitzit to our four-cornered garments. In these tzitzit will be a blue thread, a ptil techelet. The Talmud in Menachot identifies this blue of the techelet with the image of the sky and the sea (Menachot 43b). We could say that white, the colour of the remaining tzitzit, by contrast, represents purity, simplicity, and clarity.

Rav Moshe Taragin sees thetechelet as representing the larger perspective. The deep, ever reaching sea and sky. You could get lost in it, it is anything but simple or clear. (Credit to my friend, Judah Kerbel for quoting this insight in his own Dvar Torah:

I think that this piece is exactly what God is asking of Bnei Yisrael, and us as well.

You see, the Land was indeed scary. In the moment, in a vacuum, the spies were indeed 100% correct. Let’s say, they were “white” correct. But what God wants is a different kind of view. God is asking Bnei Yisrael to live life with a little thread of “techelet” truth. Look at the bigger picture! Look where you’ve come from. If you widen your perspective, you’d be silly to fear and doubt. If you look at where you’ve been, and noticed you’ve been surrounded by miraces, you’d be a fool to miss the opportunity right in front of you.

This Shabbat marks the second Yartzheit of my Saba, Menachem Wallach z”l. This week, my dad mentioned to me that my Saba would always say that when an opportunity arises, you must take it. Yes, of course, you’ve got to weigh out the pros and cons. But you can’t forget to look at the bigger picture. See how your life led you to the opportunity, and that is the next stop for you in the bigger picture of life. If only Bnei Yisrael would have listened to that message, maybe they could have entered Israel that day. And how many times in our own lives have we missed a great opportunity that was right in front of us, ripe for the taking, just because in the moment, in a vacuum, it seemed too scary or daunting?

So, when opportunities come your way, think about your life at large. Consider what amazing miracles have come to you, and what amazing miracles life is presenting you with. Who knows, maybe that new opportunity will lead you to our own “Promised Land.”

Shabbat Shalom!