Rav Tsadok and Why Jewish Continuity Discourse Re-enacts the Sin of the Spies

In recent years, and probably longer, there has been an ongoing discussion in the Jewish community about “continuity,” about which sects of Judaism will or will not produce people who are Jewish according to Jewish law (however you define that) and who actually care about living a Jewish life (once again, however you define that). A few years ago, Pew Forum released a poll showing that the only Jewish denominations gaining in size are the Orthodox ones, and they get bigger even faster the farther they are to the right. More recently, a study found that significant numbers of Religious Zionists in Israel leave religion behind as they move into adulthood. Both of these data points have given rise to panicked rethinking, on the one hand, and joyous triumphalism on the other. In this post, I want to go back over Rav Tsadok’s ideas from Dover Tsedek, Aharei Mot, #4 (If you haven’t read the last post with my annotated translation, I recommend doing so), and apply them to this Jewish continuity discourse, with the goal of pointing us in a different direction altogether.


Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 6.32.38 PM

Exhibit A. Source: http://www.aish.com/jw/s/48910307.html


Rav Tsadok starts his exegetical and creative work with the sin of the spies from Numbers 13-14. The spies came back from exploring the land of Canaan and said that it would be impossible to conquer because of the current residents, and what is more, even if they managed to conquer the land they would not last there, as it is a land that consumes its inhabitants. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, protest that God can bring the people into the land if they so choose, a claim that Rav Tsadok radically extends.

The spies saw the outer layer (levush), the skin of the snake, while Joshua and Caleb saw the inner truth that the land is good. The skin of the snake causes people to fail, regarding which the verse says, “If God desires us” (Numbers 14:8), meaning that if God wants to bring us to the land he will do so, even given that he knows about the skin of the snake.

The claim, according to Rav Tsadok, is not only that God can help them conquer the land if God so chooses, but that the functional practicality of conquering and living in the land is entirely irrelevant. God is aware of the practical issues and gave the command anyway. What should be of immediate concern to the people is what God wants them to do.

In terms of Jewish continuity discourse, I think we need to be asking ourselves: is continuity part of what God wants us to do, or is it a practical issue? I suspect it is the latter. Continuity is not a principle that should guide the direction of Jewish life, it is something you deal with as you go. But we cannot decide how to be Jewish, what it means to be Jewish, based on what that means for our kids. We have to ask ourselves, how does God want me to be Jewish right now? Continuity discourse keeps us focused on the practical issues without getting down to that question of principle, in a way that I think is really inexcusable. Continuity is certainly important, but it can’t tell us what we are supposed to be doing now.



Rav Tsadok next moves on to discussing a talmudic narrative where the prophet Isaiah rebukes King Hezekiah for refusing to have children simply because he foresaw that his son would be evil. Isaiah pushes back against this logic, arguing that Hezekiah should not be concerned about future results more than he is about the divine command.

It was said regarding this, “Why do you involve yourself with the secrets of the Holy One, Blessed be He?” And this even though he had seen through the holy spirit that his sons would not be good, as it says in Berakhot (10a).

The future outcome of fulfilling the commandments are the “secrets” of God, argues Rav Tsadok, even when a person has divinely inspired knowledge of said outcome. The use of the term “secret” therefore seems to mean “something you are not supposed to be thinking about or factoring into your decision making process” rather than “thing you cannot know.” Thus, even when Hezekiah knows the outcome of fulfilling the divine command, he should act as if from behind a veil of ignorance and perform the command as if he did not know what would come of it.

Continuity discourse wants us to act based on our understanding of what will happen in the future, our understanding of the secrets of God. The most obvious problem is that, unlike King Hezekiah, we have no way of actually knowing what the future holds. Even if assimilation and birth rates have recently trended one way in our denominations, this trend may shift. God only knows what might happen in the future, so it’s not something we can, or should, factor into our decisions.

Perhaps more importantly, continuity discourse thinks about the future in a way that ignores our role in it. In the continuation of the talmudic narrative, Hezekiah agrees to have children (in fulfillment of the divine command), but refuses to accept that his son will be wicked. Despite the prophet insisting that this cannot be changed, Hezekiah insistently tries to ensure that his son will be righteous. This brings us back to the split between principle and practical issues. After Hezekiah has committed to acting based on principle, doing what he knows he is supposed to do, he then tackles the practical issue on its own, doing whatever he can to change the outcome he has foreseen. Continuity is a practical issue, and as such can and should be tackled head on, but only after we have decided on what the proper, principled, path is to take. We should decide what denomination, if any, we ought to associate with, and then afterward we should  dedicate ourselves to ensuring Jewish continuity.



The next step in Rav Tsadok’s thought-process suggests that what we see as practical issues may really be an important part of the process. He references a parable from the Zohar about a doe who cannot give birth until a snake bites it, violently opening its birth canal.

In reference to this, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoḥai said (Zohar, Beshalaḥ, 2:52b), “There is one doe there… do not ask and do not test God–so it is precisely!”

The implication of the story is that violence and suffering may actually be part of the divine plan. Rabbi Shimon’s concludes from this that you cannot question God; once suffering and violence can be legitimate parts of the divine plan, then they stop being reasons to question or challenge God. Practical issues like continuity may be part of the divine plan, and thus certainly should not be a decisive factor in choosing how to live. This is the point at which divine providence is so expansive and undefined that human decision-making becomes impossible, so I’m mostly going to ignore this point. However, the basic idea of humility before the potential vicissitudes of the divine plan is worth keeping in mind.



The final step of Rav Tsadok’s train of thought involves radical interpretations of a hasidic tradition about the biblical book of Esther and a famed talmudic narrative. The hasidic tradition suggests takes Vashti’s refusal to come before Aḥashverosh naked as indicative of the impossibility of an unmediated (“naked”) experience of God in this world, something Rav Tsadok extends even to the idealized world to come.

Outer layers and the skin of the snake exist even in the life of the world to come [as I heard regarding the verse (Esther 1:17) “bring Vashti” naked, but she did not come, for in this world there is always clothing (levush)] and there is room there [in the world to come -LM] to make mistakes.

Nothing is perfect, nothing goes according to plan. Problems arise even in the world to come. Hence an experience of the world to come, like that of the talmudic figure Aḥer, is perforce affected by the presence of negative elements.

As they said, Aḥer tasted from the trip through the orchard (Ḥagigah 14b), a taste like that of the world to come, and he strayed.

Even the world to come, the theoretical ideal of human reality and its relationship to the divine, is not perfect. Extrapolating theology from this ideal reality can therefore lead to mistakes and even heresy.

While at this point Rav Tsadok has wandered rather far afield, I think this final step is still very important for our discussion of continuity. The basic idea that Rav Tsadok is exploring here is that nothing is perfect; try as hard as you might, there will always be problems. It is therefore a waste of time to try and decide on a way of life that won’t have any problems. You have to just decide based on principle and then do your best to alleviate the problems that inevitably arise. If a certain form of Jewish life leads to less Jewish babies or less religious adults, that does not bear on whether or not that is the right way to live Jewishly. Even if you could find a way of life with no continuity problems, there would inevitably be other problems. Ensuring that people are Jewish or religious does not mean that they will be Jewish or religious in the way that you would hope. Or there could be one of any number of other problems. Continuity is an important issue, but it is one (and not the only one) that needs to be tackled after we decide on the right way to be Jewish, rather than being a part of that decision.


There’s obviously a lot in this piece from Rav Tsadok that is challenging theologically, particularly the section on the Zohar. However, I think the basic idea that shows up throughout is compelling, and very important for contemporary Jewish discourse about denominations. Continuity is important, but it’s a practical issue, not a principle. The question of how to be Jewish has to be answered by looking for what is right, what God wants from us, etc., not by pointing to practical issues like continuity. This will still allow for hearty inter-denominational debate, but at least the discussion will center around actual points of debate. Moreover, when we ask ourselves why we live Judaism the way that we do, the answer will be because be actually believe in it.

I do expect some pushback on this. Some of this may need some nuancing; perhaps the distinction I drew between principle and practical is not as sharp as I made it out to be, or perhaps there is some other issue I haven’t imagined yet.

Rav Tsadok Hakohen, Dover Tsedek, Aharei Mot, #4: An Annotated Translation

Below is the original Hebrew of a piece from Rav Tsadok Hakohen of Lublin’s “Dover Tsedek,” followed by an annotated translation. In a future post I will apply the piece to some of the ongoing discourse surrounding the different Jewish sects, particularly the issue of continuity.


רבי צדוק, דובר צדק, אחרי מות, אות ד, עמ’ 187:
ומרגלים ראו הלבוש דמשכא דחויא, ויהושע וכלב ראו הפנימיות דטובה הארץ. ומה שהלבוש דמשכא דחויא מכשיל מאוד על זה נאמר ״אם חפץ בנו ה׳״ וגו’ פירוש אם ה׳ יתברך חפץ להביאנו והוא יודע גם כן מהמשכא דחויא. על זה נאמר בהדי כבשי דרחמנא למה לך. ואף על גב דחזי ברוח הקודש דהוה ליה בנין דלא מעלי כדאיתא בברכות. ועל זה אמר ר’ שמעון בן יוחאי אהא דחד איילתא דתמן… לא תשאל ולא תנסה את ה’, והכי דייקא. וגם בחיי עולם הבא יש משכא דחויא ולבוש [כמו ששמעתי על פסוק להביא את ושתי ערומה ולא באה כי בעולם הזה אי אפשר בלא לבוש] שיש בו מקום לטעות. וכמו שאמרו באחר דטעם הטיול בפרדס הוא טעימה מעין עולם הבא, ואחר טעה.



Rav Tsadok Hakohen, Dover Tsedek, Aharei Mot, #4:

The spies saw the outer layer (levush),[1] the skin of the snake,[2] while Joshua and Caleb saw the inner truth that the land is good. The skin of the snake causes people to fail, regarding which the verse says, “If God desires us” (Numbers 14:8), meaning that if God wants to bring us to the land he will do so, even given that he knows about the skin of the snake.[3]

It was said regarding this, “Why do you involve yourself with the secrets of the Holy One, Blessed be He?” And this even though he had seen through the holy spirit that his sons would not be good, as it says in Berakhot (10a).[4]

In reference to this, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoḥai said (Zohar, Beshalaḥ, 2:52b), “There is one doe there… do not ask and do not test God–so it is precisely!”[5]

Outer layers and the skin of the snake exist even in the life of the world to come [as I heard regarding the verse (Esther 1:17) “bring Vashti” naked, but she did not come, for in this world there is always clothing (levush)][6] and there is room there [in the world to come -LM] to make mistakes.

As they said, Aḥer tasted from the trip through the orchard (Ḥagigah 14b), a taste like that of the world to come, and he strayed.[7]


1.  The “levush” (literally “garment”) is a common idea in hasidic thought with its roots in the Zohar, referring to aspects of a thing that obscure and prevent access to the inner truth of a thing, just as clothing obscures and prevents access to the body. See, for example, Zohar 3:152a where the Torah is divided up into outer layer, body, and soul, parallel to narratives, laws, and mystical secrets respectively.

2. “The skin of the snake” is a common kabbalistic trope going back to the Zohar, referring to the mystical evil that has attached to holiness since the primordial sin, drawing power from it and corrupting it.

3. Rav Tsadok is working here with the narrative of the spies from Numbers 13-14. When most of the spies claim that the land will consume them, two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb respond with the referenced verse: “If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us” (Numbers 14:8). Rav Tsadok is pointing out that Joshua and Caleb at no point suggest that the spies were lying and incorrect, instead claiming that God wants them to enter the land despite the spies being correct about the land “consuming its inhabitants” (13:32). God knows about this, and commanded it anyway; it’s the people’s job to listen to the command.

4. Rav Tsadok is referring to an aggadah that depicts a back-and-forth between King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah, and it’s worth quoting in full:

What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do to effect compromise between Hezekiah and Isaiah? He brought the suffering of illness upon Hezekiah and told Isaiah: Go and visit the sick. Isaiah did as God instructed, as it is stated: “In those days Hezekiah became deathly ill, and Isaiah ben Amoz the prophet came and said to him: Thus says the Lord of Hosts: Set your house in order, for you will die and you will not live” (Isaiah 38:1). This seems redundant; what is the meaning of you will die and you will not live? This repetition means: You will die in this world, and you will not live, you will have no share, in the World-to-Come.

Hezekiah said to him: What is all of this? For what transgression am I being punished?

Isaiah said to him: Because you did not marry and engage in procreation.

Hezekiah apologized and said: I had no children because I envisaged through divine inspiration that the children that emerge from me will not be virtuous. Hezekiah meant that he had seen that his children were destined to be evil. In fact, his son Menashe sinned extensively, and he thought it preferable to have no children at all.

Isaiah said to him: Why do you involve yourself with the secrets of the Holy One, Blessed be He? That which you have been commanded, the mitzva of procreation, you are required to perform, and that which is acceptable in the eyes of the Holy One, Blessed be He, let Him perform, as He has so decided.

Hezekiah said to Isaiah: Now give me your daughter as my wife; perhaps my merit and your merit will cause virtuous children to emerge from me.

Isaiah said to him: The decree has already been decreed against you and this judgment cannot be changed.

Hezekiah said to him: Son of Amoz, cease your prophecy and leave. As long as the prophet spoke as God’s emissary, Hezekiah was obligated to listen to him. He was not, however, obligated to accept Isaiah’s personal opinion that there was no possibility for mercy and healing. (Koren-Davidson Translation)

This aggadah plays with the same tension Rav Tsadok highlighted in the narrative of the spies between the divine command and negative future consequences of following that command. Hezekiah doesn’t want to have children because he knows that his son Menashe will be the worst king of Judah, marrying a foreign princess and bringing her nation’s idolatry into the heart of the temple itself . Isaiah rebukes him for getting involved with the “secrets of God,” meaning the potential future consequences of obeying the divine command.

5. Rav Tsadok is referencing a passage from the Zohar:

Rabbi Shim’on said, “There is one doe on earth, and the blessed Holy One does so much for her. When she cries out, the blessed Holy One hearkens to her anguish. And when the world is in need of mercy, for water, she cries aloud and the blessed Holy One listens and then feels compassion for the world, as is written: As a hind longs for streams of water… (Psalms 42:2).

“When she needs to give birth, she is totally constricted; then she puts her head between her legs, crying out and screaming, and the blessed Holy One feels compassion for her and provides her with a serpent who bites her genitalia, opening and tearing that place, and immediately she gives birth.”

Rabbi Shim’on said, “Concerning this matter, do not ask and do not test את י׳הוה (et YHVH)–so it is precisely!” (Pritzker edition, trans. Daniel Matt, Vol.4, pp.265-266)

Continuing the theme of childbirth from the narrative about Hezekiah, the Zohar speaks of God enabling childbirth by way of violence. While there are more esoteric interpretations (see the commentary in the Pritzker edition, ibid.), Rav Tsadok seems to be working with just the surface level of the parable, focusing on the idea that the divine plan might include, or even hinge upon, violence and suffering. It is concerning this that it was said, “do not ask and do not test God;” it’s not there are no problems and therefore you shouldn’t unreasonably ask/test God, rather even though there are problems that might encourage asking/testing God, you still should not do so, as this is simply how the divine works. There is always the skin of the snake, as Rav Tsadok said before.

6. This bracketed comment is a later insertion by Rav Tsadok himself. He is referring to a teaching from his teacher, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica. This is the relevant passage from a larger piece in the book of Mordechai Yosef’s teachings, Mei ha-Shiloa:

The Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory, said about “naked and she did not come” that this matter of naked has not yet come, end quote. The idea is that God gave Israel the Torah and the commandments, which are outer layers (levushim), and it is through them that Israel can grasp God’s essence. In this world, humans are incapable of grasping God’s essence except through crude [literally, “corporealizing” -LM] outer layers, so that ultimately everything that we receive comes via outer layers. […] Therefore when the men of the Great Assembly say that Aashverosh commanded that Vashti come before him naked, they understood that God wanted to give Israel true revelation, without any outer layer, such as there will be in the future when God will reveal his light without any outer layer… (Mei ha-Shiloa, Vol.1, Bavli Megillah 12b, s.v. vehakarov, p.259)

Rav Mordechai Yosef is getting at the same idea as his student, Rav Tsadok, regarding the presence of outer layers that mediate between people and the divine. However, Rav Mordechai Yosef is arguing that the mediated relationship with God characterizes our ordinary, banal, existence, there can potentially be an unmediated relationship with God, in an eschatological future period, or even in the here and now if God decided to reveal himself in that way. Rav Tsadok, on the other hand, is arguing that even the eschaton, “the world to come” is characterized by a mediated relationship with God. There is no escaping the skin of the snake or the outer layers. (This is not the only time we find Rav Tsadok arguing with the text of the Mei ha-Shiloa. The Mei ha-Shiloa suggests that Zimri, and not Pinhas, was the hero of Numbers 25 (Vol.1, Pinhas, s.v. vayera, p.164), whereas Rav Tsadok claims that Zimri really did sin (Tsidkat ha-Tsadik, #43). Interestingly, Rav Tsadok attributes this opinion to his teacher, seemingly contradicting the opinion attested to in the text of the Mei ha-Shiloa).

Rav Tsadok, at this point in the homily, is moving past the simple argument that the divine command or plan may involve some sort of problem, on to saying that even the most ideal situation imaginable is still going to have problems. There is no ideal, perfect, experience of God, clean of all imperfections, and we need to stop thinking that there is.

7. Here Rav Tsadok is referencing the aggadah about four individuals who “entered the orchard.” The exact nature of this experience is debated, with one major line of interpretation being that it was a mystical experience of the divine, which is why Rav Tsadok likens it to the world to come. Of the four, one left unscathed, while one died, one went crazy, and the last, Aḥer, “cut saplings,” traditionally understood as a metaphor for some form of heresy. Rav Tsadok claims that Aḥer did not stray upon experiencing the orchard so much as he strayed because he experienced the orchard. Even mystical experiences of the divine, as close to unmediated as possible, contain some elements of crude superficiality and mythical evil.

Parashat Devarim 5774 – The Oral Torah and The Things That Moshe Said

אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה


Parashat Devarim opens the final book of Humash, marking a radical departure from the previous books. It’s uniqueness is encapsulated in the name by which it is referred to in Midrashim and the Gemara, “Mishneh Torah”, meaning “Repetition of the Torah”. This title is probably a reference to the many narratives and laws from previous books of the Torah that are repeated in Sefer Devarim. However, the narratives and laws[1] of Sefer Devarim also include many things not found in previous books, lack many things found in previous books, or outright contradict the laws and narratives of previous books. Parashat Devarim includes a few excellent examples of all of these, such as the appointment of judicial system (Devarim 1:9-18; originally found in Shemot 18) and the incident of the spies (Devarim 1:19-46; originally founding in Bamidbar 13-14). Perhaps the most striking changes from the previous books of the Torah to Sefer Devarim are in the writing style and the perspective of narration. The language and sentence structure used are strikingly different from the other books, to the point that switching from one to the other is actually difficult. Most of the books of the Torah are narrated from a third-person perspective (“And Moshe said…” “And Moshe struck the rock…”), but Sefer Devarim is dominated by first-person narration (“I said…” “We did…”). This final detail, as we shall see, actually contains the explanation for all of the other discrepancies of Sefer Devarim.

Sefer Devarim opens with the phrase, “These are the words which Moses spoke to all of Israel” (Devarim 1:1). Just a few verses later (1:6), Moshe begins a speech that spans for about 4 chapters of Sefer Devarim. Immediately thereafter, Moshe begins his second speech (5:1), which will span 22 chapters. This is followed immediately by the beginning of a third speech (27:1), filling chapters 27 and 28, and then chapters 29 and 30 are a fourth speech (beginning with 29:1).  The last four chapters of Sefer Devarim (31-34) are a narration of Moshe’s Last Acts and Farewells, much of which is still him speaking or singing, though not all of it. This breakdown demonstrates that Sefer Devarim is almost entirely a recording of Moshe’s speeches! 30 out of 34 chapters of Sefer Devarim, give or take a few verses, are entirely his speeches, and the other four chapters include a hefty amount of his speech as well. The sudden switch from third- to first-person narration is therefore obvious and understandable, as Moshe would not narrate from a third-person perspective. Fascinatingly, this also suggests that the style switch is also a matter of Moshe’s narration, meaning a switch from the previous, presumably Divine, perspective, to Moshe’s human perspective.

This raises an immediate issue in terms of our conception of the giving of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva says that the entirety of the Torah, in its general principles and its minor details, was given to Moshe on Har Sinai[2]. If this is true, then Sefer Devarim was given to Moshe on Har Sinai, from ‘א, and for it to be narrated by Moshe, phrased in his own perspective, would be strange at the very least. However, this is not the only opinion in Hazal. Rabbi Yishmael says that the general principles of the Torah were given on Har Sinai, and then the minor details were given in the Mishkan and in the Plains of Moav (where Moshe delivers the speeches found in Sefer Devarim)[3]. Even this does not quite say that Moshe himself said over, of his own volition, the speeches recorded in Sefer Devarim, but it is a step in that direction. The next step is taken by Abarbanel in his Introduction to his commentary on Sefer Devarim.

In truth, Moshe our teacher stated the words of this book and explained the mitzvot mentioned therein as he prepared to part from the people of Israel.  After he completed his words to Israel, God desired that they be included in the Torah as Moshe stated them.  Perhaps God added elements to those words at the time that they were committed to writing.  Thus, although the words may have been stated by Moshe, the authority to include them in the Torah’s text did not derive from him.  Moshe did not decide to commit these words to writing, for how could he compose even a single thing in God’s Torah without Divine sanction?  Rather, all of these words of the Book of Devarim were by the mouth of God, together with the rest of the Torah’s text, for God agreed with his formulations and favored the words of the ‘faithful shepherd’ Moshe.  Thus, God restated them to Moshe and ordered them to be written by him, and Moshe therefore composed them by God’s authority and not by his own

Thus the speeches of Sefer Devarim are actually Moshe’s own narration[4], which then received the Divine imprimatur when ‘א decided to make them part of the Torah[5]. The significance of this idea is powerfully expressed by Rav Tsadok HaKohen of Lublin[6].

The latter version of the Decalogue, that in Sefer Devarim, was said by Moshe, on his own account. Nonetheless, it is part of the Written Law. In addition to the mitzvot themselves that Moshe had already received at Sinai, by the word of God, these words as well [in Sefer Devarim], which were said on his own account, which are not prefaced with the statement, “And God said…”, these, too, are part of the Written Law. For all of his (i.e. Moshe’s) are also a complete “torah”, just like the dialogues of the patriarchs and other similar passages are considered part of the Written Law. But the material that begins “And these are the things” (i.e. the first verse of Sefer Devarim and the rest of the book that follows), material that was said on his own account, represents the root of the Oral Law, the things that the sages of Israel say of their own account.

Rav Tsadok is saying that as part of the ‘א’s Divinely commanded text, Sefer Devarim is part of the Written Torah, but as the words of Moshe Rabbenu, Sefer Devarim is the beginning of the Oral Torah. Therefore it is not strange that Sefer Devarim should depart from previous books of the Torah in retelling past events. As part of the Oral Torah, it is a completion and an interpretation of the Written Torah. It is Sefer Devarim’s nature as interpretive retelling that explains its divergences from previous recordings of laws and narratives in the Torah.

The first great example of that in Parashat Devarim is the Appointment of the Judges. This first occurs in Shemot 18, when Yitro arrives at Har Sinai and suggests the appointment of judges as a way to lighten Moshe’s burden. Yitro tells Moshe that he should take “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens” (Shemot 18:21). Moshe does as Yitro recommended, and goes from being the sole judiciary authority to being the final authority when lower judiciary authorities were not enough. In Sefer Devarim, Moshe initiates the appointment of the leaders, due to his inability to lead the people.

And I spoke to you at that time, saying: “I am not able to bear you myself alone; the Lord your God has multiplied you, and, behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven in multitude. The Lord, the God of your fathers, made you a thousand times so many more as you are, and blessed you, as He has promised you! How can I myself alone bear your trouble, and your burden, and your strife? Get you, from each one of your tribes, wise men, and understanding, and full of knowledge, and I will make them heads over you.’ And you answered me, and said: ‘The thing which you have spoken is good for us to do.’ So I took the heads of your tribes, wise men, and full of knowledge, and made them heads over you, captains of thousands, and captains of hundreds, and captains of fifties, and captains of tens, and officers, tribe by tribe. And I charged your judges at that time, saying: ‘Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him. You shall not favor persons in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike; you shall not be afraid of the face of any man; for Justice is God’s; and the cause that is too hard for you you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.” And I commanded you at that time all the things which you should do. (Devarim 1:9-18)

There are many differences between this passage and the passage in Shemot. First off is the lack of any mention of Yitro is Sefer Devarim. More interesting, however, is the description of the judges, both in terms of their innate qualities and their assigned duties. Whereas in Shemot the men are described as “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain,” in Devarim they are referred to as “wise men, and understanding, and full of knowledge.” Moshe appoints the men in Shemot as “rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens,” whereas in Devarim they are additionally appointed as “officers.” In Shemot Moshe chooses the men, whereas in Devarim the nation chooses them. These differences all flow from differences in the initial cause for the appointment in each passage. In Shemot the men are appointed to create a necessary Judicial structure, whereas in Devarim Moshe is appointing ‘heads” over the tribes, to help him lead a nation that has grown to large for his singular leadership. Therefore only Shemot mentions Yitro, while he isn’t part of the story in Devarim. The traits of the men chosen in Shemot are appropriate for judges, while the traits of the men chosen in Devarim are more generally useful for leadership. That’s why in devarim they are “officers” as well as judicial “rulers”. Shemot emphasizes the issues of jurisprudence, right before the giving of ‘א’s Law, where Devarim emphasizes matters of leadership. These two issues came up simultaneously, and we only get the full picture due to their being split apart textually.

The second such example that appears in Sefer Devarim is the Sin of the Spies. The first recording of this narrative occurs in Bamidbar 13-14, instigated by ‘א commanding Moshe to send men to scout out the land. The men bring back a misleading and evil report that causes Bnei Yisrael to rebel. Despite the protestations of the good spies, Yehoshua and Calev, Bnei Yisrael refuse to enter the land, leading to ‘א condemning the entire generation to die in the desert. The departures from this representation in Devarim are few, but significant.

And I said to you: “You have come to the hill-country of the Amorites, which the Lord our God gave to us. Behold, the Lord your God has set the land before you; go up, take possession, as the Lord, the God of thy fathers, has spoken to you; do not fear, nor be dismayed.” And you came near 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 to which we shall come.” And the thing pleased me well; and I took twelve men of you, one man for every tribe; and they turned and went up into the mountains, and came to the valley of Eshcol, and spied it out. And they took of the fruit of the land in their hands, and brought it down to us, and brought us back word, and said: “Good is the land which the Lord our God gives to us.” Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God; and you murmured in your tents, and said: “Because the Lord hated us, He has brought us forth out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. To where are we going up? Our brothers have made our heart to melt, saying: The people is greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; and moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.” Then I said to you: “Dread not, neither be afraid of them. The Lord your God who goes before you, He shall fight for you, according to all that He did for you in Egypt before your eyes; and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God bore you, as a man bears his son, in all the way that you went, until you came to this place. Yet in this thing you do not believe the Lord your God, Who went before you in the way, to seek you out a place to pitch your tents in: in fire by night, to show you by what way you should go, and in the cloud by day.” And the Lord heard the voice of your words, and was angry, and swore, saying: ‘Surely there shall not one of these men, even this evil generation, see the good land, which I swore to give to your fathers… (Devarim 1:20-35)

Of the many differences here, a few stand out in particular. Where in Bamidbar 13, ‘א commanded the sending of the scouts, in Devarim the people asked to send spies. In Bamidbar the spies bring back a false report that incites the people, which is ineffectually countered by Calev and Yehoshua, while in Devarim the report of the scouts appears only in the words of the people after they have already rebelled. The people rebel of their own initiative and are rebuked not by Calev and Yehoshua but by Moshe himself. While here too there seems to have been two different things occurring simultaneously, two different missions performed by the same twelve men at the same time[7], depicted separately in two different places, this is not the reason for the differences here. Instead, here it seems to be simply a matter of a different perspective. By focusing on the initiatives and failures of Moshe and Bnei Yisrael, by excluding ‘א and the spies from the story, emphasis is placed on the actions and responsibility of the Nation and their Leader. Thus this retelling does not contradict or change the story, so much as it simply presents the narrative from a different point of view, emphasizing different things.

Sefer Devarim is a retelling of much of the laws and narratives of the Torah, but it is a complex retelling. It has additional information, intentional lacks of information, and apparent contradictions. However, far from posing a problem for the Torah’s integrity and for the religious reader, these complexities open up the Written Torah by anchoring it to our most precious gift, the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah is the god-given ability for the wise of Bnei Yisrael to interpret and apply the Written Torah, and it started with Moshe. Moshe took events and laws from the 40 years that Bnei Yisrael traveled in the wilderness and presented them in new ways, in order to convey the aspects he felt were most important for Bnei Yisrael to appreciate before entering the Land of Israel. Throughout the entirety of Sefer Devarim, many different aspects are emphasized, but a few themes, such as have been presented above, are dominant. The laws and events of Sefer Devarim highlight the ability, and corresponding responsibility, of Bnei Yisrael. Upon entering the land, everything will change for Bnei Yisrael. They will have to be responsible for themselves on a much greater level. They are losing Moshe, their faithful shepherd through the wilderness, and ‘א will begin to reduce His miracles and open Presence among them. The people can’t rely on Moshe or ‘א to take charge and save them. They will have to lead themselves, and they will have to take responsibility for their own mistakes. Correspondingly, the texts emphasize the ability of the people to do so. All of this is a function of Oral Torah. The Oral Torah allows for the expression of whatever aspects of the Torah are most relevant at any given time. “Since the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash, ‘א has no place in this world outside the 4 Amot of Halakhah.”[8] When the Bet HaMikdash was destroyed, the Oral Torah took us from the community-centered worship of the Bet HaMikdash to the individual-centered life of Halakhah. And when Bnei Yisrael were preparing to enter the Land of Israel, Moshe spoke to them the speeches of Sefer Devarim, that would take them from a people entirely dependent on ‘א to a people able to create a godly society, according to His laws, in His land.

[1] This composition will not discuss legal contradictions with previous books, as that is a separate topic. In brief, halakhic midrashim have their own method of solving it in relation to determining halakhah, and in terms of understanding the internal contradiction of the Torah text, it revolves around the institution of common law. For more on that and the specific case of Sefer Devarim, see essays 5-8 by Prof. Joshua Berman of Bar Ilan University, here.

[2] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Zevahim, 115b.

[3] Ibid.

[4] While some struggle with the idea of a human hand in the composition of the Torah, it is important to remember the level of Moshe in his prophecy, to the point where the midrash describes his as half man and half elohim (Devarim Rabbah 11:4).

[5] This is actually suggested by the gemara: One does not pause [to call up another reader] in [the reading of] the curses, but one person reads them all.  Abaye said: This applies only to the curses in Torat Kohanim [Vayikra], but in Mishnah Torah [Devarim], one may pause.  Why is this so? The former are in plural form and Moshe spoke them in the name of Hashem, and the latter are in singular and Moshe spoke them on his own. (Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Megilla, 31b).

[6] Pri Tzadik, Kedushat ha-Shabbat, article 7. Translation from Professor Joshua Berman, here.

[7] One of the missions was about military intelligence, while the other was more about surveying the land. The first indicator of this is the different verbs used for what the “spies” will do in each case, “לרגל,” “to spy,” or “לתור,” “to scout”. For more on this see Rav Elchanan Samet’s excellent essay, here.

[8] תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף ח עמוד א

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.