The three chapters of parsha Sh’lach are challenging, detailing the drama that ties the People of Israel to the Almighty, in very different ways.
In this famous Torah reading we begin by hearing the challenge from the Almighty to Moses: “Sh’lach l’chah,” “Send forth” the leaders of the 12 tribes, to spy throughout the land we are about to enter. There are questions to be answered: Is it safe for us to go there? Is it a fruitful land? Can we conquer the inhabitants? The 12 tribal leaders follow the request and check out the land.
Spending 40 days (yes, that favorite biblical number) crisscrossing the land, checking out the fields and the landscape and developing an understanding of the people whom they would face in battle, they return a report to Moses.
It was 10 to two against entering the land. Only Caleb and Joshua were the outliers. Those two brought back the famous grape bough — so luscious and full that it was necessary to carry it between two poles, as a sign of the vitality of the land. (Even today we see that insignia on government vehicles in Israel.)
The majority claimed that, “We saw the Nephilim there … and we looked like grasshoppers ... ” (Num 13:33). The people were terrified by that report. The mass response was an outcry, “Let us head back to Egypt!” for at least there the threats were known.
Menachem Mendel of Totzk, pondering this point, speculated that the Almighty should have questioned the minyan of naysayers, “Why are you so concerned with how the Canaanites see you, so much so that it distracts from your sacred task?” here on Earth.
In the Torah text, the Almighty is furious at the Israelites’ reply, but after Moses’ pleadings, the anger is assuaged and the famous words repeated in our High Holy Days Mahzor are offered: “Salachti kid-varechah,” “I have forgiven you as you have requested.”
Next the Sidrah begins addressing not earthly issues, but sacral duties. The details of the sacrificial system to be employed by the Israelites as tokens of their evolving spiritual connection to the Almighty, a bridge from the secular, earthly realm — people’s fears, sustenance, conquering land, etc. — up toward godly and spiritual heights, conclude the Sidrah.
Following the details of these sacrifices, there is an interjected anecdote of a fellow “gathering wood on the Sabbath day” (Num 15:32), for which he paid the ultimate penalty. Why here? Why jump from penitential offerings to a reference about Shabbat, the fourth Commandment? There are more rungs up the ladder from earthly matters to sacred ones.
In the very next paragraph, the Sidrah specifically connects earth with heaven. Moses is told to “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes (tzitzit) on the corners of their garments … let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe of each corner” (Num 15:38). The revered Rav Kook comments that the thread of blue is our link to the very Source of Life. And Rabbi Jonathan Sacks adds, “tzitzit with their thread of blue remind us of heaven … ”
Sh’lach therefore explains how our people Israel evolved from earthly, secular struggles, into holy interactions with the Creator of all. Ken yehi ratzon, and so may it be. JN
Rabbi Robert L. Kravitz, D.D. is past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix, senior chaplain with the Scottsdale Police Department, a columnist for City Sun Times and hospital chaplain with Jewish Family & Children’s Service.