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Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Shelach                                June 29, 2019 - 26 Sivan 5779

06/27/2019 10:34:35 AM


Dear Congregants,

While I am away serving my Active Duty Tour with the US Navy Pacific Fleet, I want to share the words of my colleague, Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik, in place of my Torah commentary:

You don’t have to be an expert in espionage strategy or a James Bond film fanatic to know that sending twelve spies on one mission is not a smart decision.  If the success of the mission depends on discretion, sending a full dozen assures a calamitous ending.  Forty years in the wilderness, one year for each day of the mission (Num. 14:·4), is the serious consequence of a badly sketched out plan executed even more poorly, such as it appears in this week’s Torah portion, that it almost brought about the end of the emerging history of our people.

According to the beginning of our portion, the proposal to send twelve spies to cover the Promised Land came from God (Num. 13:1-2):  “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:  'Send men that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I give to the children of Israel; of every tribe of their fathers shall you send a man, every one a prince among them.”  When they returned, ten out of twelve gave an extremely negative report, increasing the frustration of the people.  On the other hand, Joshua ben Nun, from the tribe of Ephraim, and Caleb ben Jephunneh, from the tribe of Judah, believed in the feasibility of the conquest.  Their words could not prevent a new seditious outbreak amongst the Israelites.

Forty years later, speaking to the new generation born in the wilderness, Moses recounts a different version of the origin of the mission. There, he points out that the initiative to send spies came from the people and that he took on the responsibility for executing it (Deut. 1:22-23): “And you came to me every one of you, and said: 'Let us send men before us, that they may search the land for us, and bring us back word of the way by which we must go up, and the cities unto which we shall come.' And the thing pleased me well; and I took twelve men of you, one man for every tribe…” The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 16:8) harmonizes both versions, punctiliously interpreting the first words of our portion: Shelach Lecha, “send on your behalf,” that is, God says: “On your behalf (and not on Mine), I have told you that the land is good and that I will deliver it to you.  If you need human confirmation, go on, send spies.”  For the sages, it is clear that the idea came from the people, and also that it was not good.  Twelve spies going unnoticed is not an easy task and require divine help. In that direction, another Midrash (Tanhuma Shelach 7) affirms that God sent a plague to the land of Canaan so that its inhabitants, busy burying their dead, would not pay attention to the Israelite delegation.

Another way our teachers expressed their criticism of Moses’ plan emerges from the selection of the Haftarah that complements our portion.  Taken from chapter 2 of Joshua, it recounts the unexpected events the two spies (only two) sent to Jericho had to endure in order to obtain information and achieve local logistic support for the subsequent conquest. The contrast between both stories captures Moses’ less than intelligent decision.

We could ask ourselves what was it that led the great leader, Moses, to execute this ill-conceived proposal.  The beginning of the march through the wilderness was not a bed of roses. On the contrary, it turned out to be a path riddled with thorns. As we read in the last portion, the logical difficulties of the journey provoke protests from the people, jealousy against Moses, and even a feeling of homesickness towards returning to Egypt.  Perhaps, tired of this situation, disillusioned and disappointed by the lack of understanding on the part of the people, Moses, as any leader, is tempted to resort to demagogy.  So, what could be better than to win over the respect from the tribe leaders, to strengthen popular support?

To suit everyone, he sends one spy from each tribe (a good idea for survey polls but very bad to put into practice) to the Promised Land (where “milk and honey” flow but which is inhabited by other nations who will have to be conquered).  We already know the outcome.  That very Tisha B’Av night (according to Mishnah, Taanit 4:6), the forty year wandering through the desert was decreed, time required to produce the generational roll over indispensable for attempting the conquest.  Moral: Demagogy is a bad counselor, even if you are Moses.  Joshua, his successor and participant in this story, learned the lesson and, forty years later, with the assault on Jericho, started the conquest of the Promised Land.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780