Shabbat Shalom: Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

RSR Head Shot Gershon Ellinson creditEfrat, IsraelAnd the Lord spoke to Moses saying ‘send forth for yourself men to explore the land of Canaan…” (Numbers 13:1-2)

The great sin of humanity was Adam’s disregard of God’s command not to eat the fruit of knowledge; the great sin of Israel was the Israelites’ disregard of God’s command to conquer the land of Israel.  The result of both rebellious actions was Paradise lost; redemption unrealized.

A proper understanding of the sin of the scouts will serve to illuminate our true mission in the world, and the role played by Torah and the land of Israel in fulfilling that mission. 

First, three questions: (1) If indeed the sending out of the spies was to result in such a disaster, why was it initially commanded by God?  (2) Rashi links the sin of the scouts to the last incident of last week’s Torah portion when Miriam slandered her brother Moses for sending away his wife Zipporah, for which she was punished by leprosy. What does the sin of the Scouts have to do with the sin of Miriam?  (3)  How is the commandment of the ritual fringes at the end of our portion connected to the sin of the scouts?

Rav Soloveitchik explained that Miriam was upset with Moses for divorcing Zipporah after the Revelation at Sinai, because she thought he was disobeying God’s command to all of the Israelites to “return to their tents” (Deuteronomy 5:30); that is, to resume their usual sexual relationships. Miriam and Aaron both maintained that this command applied to everyone, including the prophets, because, as they both said, “Was it only to Moses that God communicated?  Did he not communicate to us as well?” (Numbers 12:2)

But Miriam and Aaron were wrong.  Moses is a qualitatively different prophet than they or any other prophets were or will be. God speaks to Moses “mouth to mouth… in a clear vision, not in riddles: he gazes upon the image of the Lord” (Numbers 12:6-8).  And indeed, God Himself tells Moses not to return to his tent with the rest of Israel, but rather to express his unique prophetic status by always being “on call” to receive God’s words: “Let the rest of the Israelites return to their tents and wives) but you (Moses) are to remain standing here with me…” (Deuteronomy 5:30; see Maimonides, Laws of the Foundations of Torah 7:6 and Avishai David, Discourses, Shelah, p.317).

Miriam did not recognize the uniqueness of Moses’ prophecy, and the scouts did not recognize the uniqueness of the Land of Israel.  The mission of Israel is to be God’s witnesses (Isaiah 55); and God communicated His word to all of Israel at Sinai and through Israel (eventually) to the entire world. 

But God still had an exclusively and uniquely intimate relationship with Moses.  God loves the entire world and He created every human being from His womb (Job 31:15); but nevertheless, He enjoys an exclusive relationship with Israel – His witnesses, the carriers of His Torah.

Similarly, God’s command, “you shall love your friend, created – like you – in the Divine Image, as you love yourself,” (Leviticus 19:18) still allows for a unique and exclusive relationship between husband and wife. According to the Talmud, this emanates from the very same verse (BT Kiddushin 44a).

This combination of universal love and exclusive intimacy applies as well to the land of Israel.  “The earth and its fullness belongs to the Lord” (Psalms 24:1), but there is a unique portion of the earth, the land of Israel, which must express the will of God in its very earth (shmitta), in its produce (tithes, pe’ah), in the teachings of peace and redemption for all humanity which will emanate from the Jerusalem Temple at the end of the days. 

God told Moses to “explore” the land, not to spy it out (le’ragel).  The Hebrew word used to explore is la-turTur means to love, even to lust after, as we learn from the command of the ritual fringes (Num.15:37-41).  Just as the Talmud teaches that a man must first see his bride before becoming engaged to her so that he may be certain that he loves her (BT Kidushin 41a), so must Israel the people see and love Israel the land (even through the eyes of their agents, the tribal princes) before conquering it, before becoming engaged and wed to it.  The desert generation did not understand God’s command.

Our task is to make earth a sanctuary for God’s Presence, so humanity will finally accept God’s definition of good and evil rather than humanity’s subjective and self-serving self-justification. Heaven kissed Earth when God uniquely informed Moses of His will, Heaven kissed Earth when God chose Israel as His agents; Heaven will kiss Earth eternally when Israel lives on its land and builds a sanctuary to encompass all of humanity and God together, “His house a House of Prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7). We must strive for Paradise to be regained, for the great and sacred marriage between God and the world to be consummated.

Shabbat Shalom


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