Posted by: Subway Conductor | June 19, 2020

A Derasha for Parshat Shelach

From Rabbi Michael Arsers:

This week’s Torah portion, Shelach, begins with the story of the spies. The People of Israel are on the verge of crossing the Jordan to begin the conquest of the Promised Land. Moses sends twelve spies to “scout out” the land. The twelve are leaders of the tribes and they go into the land and look around to check things out. However, they come back and give a discouraging report to the people. They tell them that they are not able to conquer the inhabitants of the land who are giants. They say, “we were like grasshoppers compared to them and so did we appear in their eyes.” This statement is a striking one. To say “we were like grasshoppers” shows their low self-esteem. But, how did they know how the Canaanites saw them? This is certainly a projection of their own self-image onto others. They assume that everyone thinks about them as they think about themselves. This is a further example of the challenge that faced Moses of shaping the Jewish People into a nation that would be self-reliant and self-governing. Their low self-esteem is another product of their generations of slavery in Egypt.

Hearing the report of the spies, the people sit down and cry. This has grave consequences. G-d now decides that this generation will not enter the Promised Land, but the people will wander in the wilderness for forty years while this generation dies off. Even more consequential, the date that the spies returned was the ninth day of the month of Av. Up until this point, this date was not significant. But, now G-d tells the people that because they sat down and cried, they will cry on this date throughout history. Tisha B’Av – the ninth day of Av – is the date that the Temple was destroyed and it has been the date on which numerous calamities in Jewish history have occurred.

There is a word that occurs twelve times in the story of the spies. It is the Hebrew word tur which means “to scout out” “to look around.” What is noteworthy about this word is that it is not a common word in the Bible. Outside of this portion, it occurs only a few times. There is another story of spies being sent into the land in the Book of Joshua. This word does not appear in that episode. The twelve occurrences in this story of the spies is not a coincidence. Twelve is always a significant number. There is one occurrence of the word for each of the spies. The importance of this word in this week’s portion is that there is a thirteenth occurrence. At the end of the portion, we find a paragraph which is familiar to us as the third paragraph of the Shema. This paragraph contains the mitzvah of tzitzit -fringes on the corners of our garments. It states, “The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes to go astray.” (Numbers 15:37-39) The word here translated “follow” in Hebrew is “taturu”. This is the same word that occurred twelve times earlier in our portion. There is no real thematic connection between this paragraph and the story of the spies and yet this uncommon word is used here. I believe that this paragraph which becomes the third paragraph of the Shema uses this word deliberately. The story of the spies in which we saw this word twelve times gives us a deeper understanding of what it means here in this paragraph. What we learn from the story of the spies is that when people “scout out” or “follow” their own eyes, they can come to very wrong conclusions and “go astray.” The spies scouted out the land and came back with a completely false understanding of things. They thought that they were unable to subdue the inhabitants of the land. They said, “we were like grasshoppers in their sight.” But when Joshua sent out spies (forty years later) they are told that the Canaanites are in dread of the People of Israel. They heard what G-d had done for the Israelites in Egypt and felt they had no hope of prevailing over them. Isn’t it interesting that the spies came to exactly the opposite conclusion?

With this information, we can better comprehend the meaning of the third paragraph of the Shema. The Torah is telling us that if we go after our own eyes and minds, we can come to wrong conclusions, just as the spies did. Therefore, we need to look at the fringes and remember to do all the commandments of the Lord. We need to be guided by tradition and the teachings of the Torah which provide us with a framework in which to act. If we rely solely on our own eyes and minds to figure things out, we might go far astray. This does not mean that Judaism discourages us from thinking or from asking questions. As we know, the Talmud is filled with questions, discussions, and disagreements among the rabbis. However, their questions and discussions were within the framework of the tradition which provided them with guardrails preventing them from veering too far from what G-d wanted them to do.

Good Shabbos!

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