Parashat Shelah – Fear Not, For God is With Us

וַי-הוָה אִתָּנוּ אַל-תִּירָאֻם

 

Parashat Shelah is composed in large part of the narrative known as Het HaMeraglim, or “The Sin of the Spies”. Twelve men, one from each tribe, are sent to scout out the land and to assess its military and social appropriateness.[1] They come back with not simply an objective report as to the nature of the land, but also with cries of danger and warning about trying to conquer it.

“And the men that went up with him said: ‘We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.’ And they spread an evil report of the land which they had spied out to the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that consumes the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.”[2] (Bamidbar 13:31-33)

Two of their own, Yehoshua and Calev, objected:

“And they spoke unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceeding good land. If the Lord favors us, then He will bring us into this land, and give it to us–a land which flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord, neither should you fear the people of the land; for they are our prey; their defense is removed from over them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” (Bamidbar 14:7-9)

As all twelve men presumably saw the same things, the difference of opinion requires explanation. A quick look at the above-quoted passages reveals something striking: the negative report makes no mention of ‘א, as opposed to the three direct mentions in the positive one. The notable theme in the words of Calev and Yehoshua, that “the Lord is with us,” is conspicuously absent in the words of the other ten spies. This explains their negativity, as they clearly don’t believe ‘א’s statement, “I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries,” (Shemot 23:22). The question this leaves us with is why?

 

Why do the spies assume that ‘א will not help them conquer the land, despite His statements to the contrary? It seems at first to be a question without an answer – the spies were just delusional. An analysis of Shemot 23:20-25 will show that, in fact, the spies had some basis for their suspicions.

“Behold, I send an angel before you, to keep you by the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Take heed of him, and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him; for he will not pardon your transgression; for My name is in him. But if you will indeed listen to his voice, and do all that I say; then I will be an enemy to your enemies, and an adversary to your adversaries. For My angel shall go before you, and bring you in to the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Canaanite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; and I will cut them off. You shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their doings; but you shall utterly overthrow them, and break their pillars into pieces. And you shall serve the Lord your God, and He will bless your bread, and your water; and I will take sickness away from the midst of you.”

Looking at this passage in its entirety shows that ‘א’s aid in helping Bnei Yisrael conquer the land is conditional. It requires the people to follow ‘א’s laws, or He will not help them. This is reinforced by the many times that Bnei Yisrael suffered at the hand of ‘א due to transgressing against His Will during their travels in the wilderness. One such event happened only slightly before the story of the spies in Bamibar 11 & 12. Therefore, the real doubt of the spies is not whether or not ‘א will remain in the people’s midst as they enter the land, but whether or not the people will be able to keep Him there. The spies believe that Bnei Yisrael will inevitably fail, and then disaster will strike.[3]

 

With that in mind, the debate, with Yehoshua and Calev on one side and the rest of the spies on the other, should be reframed as a debate over the potential success or failure of Kelal Yisrael. The spies feel that Bnei Yisrael are doomed to fail, while Calev and Yehoshua believe that ‘א is, and will remain, in the midst of the people. This debate leads to the fate of the “Ma’apilim”[4] in 14:40-45 and to the mitzvah of Tsitsit, which appears in 15:37-41. The Ma’apilim fail because they leave ‘א’s Presence behind. “The ark of the covenant of the Lord, and Moses, did not move from the camp,” (Bamidbar 14:44). The mitzvah of Tsitsit is intricately tied into the Sin of the Spies, both linguistically and thematically[5], and furthermore, it comes to remedy their mistaken view, as a brief analysis will show.

 

Tsitsit are, among other things, a constant reminder of the Priestly nature of Bnei Yisrael (Shemot 19:6).[6] Tekhelet is a symbol of the Priesthood, as is Shaatnez. Both are included in the Tsitsit. The Tsitsit are a visual reminder that each member of Bnei Yisrael is commanded to wear each day, that all of Bnei Yisrael have the status of Kohanim, those who work in the Mishkan. Thus, Tsitsit are a constant reminder of ‘א’s presence in the midst of Bnei Yisrael. The Mishkan was the location and reminder of ‘א’s Presence, and the Tsitsit remind Bnei Yisrael that each and every member of the nation is connected to it.

 

The spies assumed that, due to their performance in the wilderness, Bnei Yisrael would not be able to sustain ‘א’s Presence amongst them. Yehoshua and Calev disagreed. Right afterward, the Torah comes and gives us the mitzvah of Tsitsit to confirm the opinion of Calev and Yehoshua. The only time ‘א’s Presence leaves Bnei Yisrael is when they consciously abandon it, as in the case of the Ma’apilim. This is something that remains a problem in the modern world. ‘א is constantly with us. The only time he is not in our midsts in when we doubt His presence and therefore choose to walk away from it. We retain the same doubts about our abilities to maintain our relationship with ‘א, and these doubts often lead to our isolation. Tsitsit is connected to this parasha to remind us that ‘א is already in a relationship with us. As long as we don’t walk away, we can count on Him to remain and fight support us in all of our battles.

 

[1] Notably, the men are at no time referred to as “meraglim” in this passage (they are in the parallel in Devarim), nor is their mission specifically military. By way of contrast, see Sefer Yehoshua 1-2.

[2] Translations from www.mechon-mamre.org, with slight emendations for clarity.

[3] Rav Menachem Leibtag, http://tanach.org/bamidbar/shlach/shlachs1.html

[4] For some very interesting related-reading: http://www.scribd.com/doc/163171820/Maapilim.

[5] For more on the connection, see this article by Rav Amnon Bazak: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.64/37shelach.htm.

[6] Ideas in this paragraph are taken from Jacob Milgrom, “Of Hems and Tassels,” https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzQYdQcngakSdTVaVlhScl9PSXM/edit?usp=sharing.

 

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