Parshat Shelah-Lekha

Summary: The Book of Numbers, fourth of the Five Books of Moses, spans the 40 year period in which Bnei Yisrael wandered in the wilderness. Shelah-Lekha is the 4th parasha covering chapters 13:1–15:41.

It begins with the Almighty commanding Moshe to appoint 12 representatives, one from each tribe except Levi, to surreptitiously tour the land of Canaan and report on its strategic assets. They travelled 40 days and returned with over-sized samples of its produce. Caleb proposed immediate entry, but 10 others provided a discouraging report, leading to a night of anguished tears and the spreading of fear amidst Bnei Yisrael.

For their ingratitude, G-d wanted to destroy the nation with a plague, but Moshe interceded, and instead, the generation who left Egypt (20-years-old and above), were condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years until their demise. Regretting their sentence, a group awoke early the next morning attempting to ascend the nearby mountains and enter Canaan against G-d’s will. But they were struck down by the Amalekites and Canaanites.

The Parasha looks forward to a time when the land would be inhabited by Bnei Yisrael and describes the procedure for making offerings to G-d – oaths and pledges, thanksgiving, guilt and sin, and giving part of the dough as Terumah to the Kohen.

Finally, Shelah-Lekha ends with the incident of the man who gathered sticks on Shabbat, was arrested and stoned to death. It concludes with the commandment of Tsitsit, the 3rd paragraph of Shema.

Please look here for an Aliyah-by-Aliyah summary.

Comment: Parshat Shelah-Lekha paints an unflattering view of Bnei Yisrael. The central story is the negative report, from 10 of the 12 spies, that it was impossible to conquer G-d’s Promised Land.

Reading this parasha, one can’t help feel a deep sense of tragedy and dread. Rashi famously states the nation’s ‘needless’ crying on that night would prove ‘necessary’ in future nights – referring to Tisha B’Av when allegedly both the 1st and 2nd Temples were destroyed. Other calamities on that date included the Spanish expulsion in 1492, the outbreak of WWI and more. How could one particular date be so inauspicious for Jews? It goes against reason.

The Generation who left Egypt – having first-hand experience witnessing the 10 plagues, Pharaoh’s entire army drowned in the Red Sea and the Revelation at Sinai – surely, should have believed G-d would also help them defeat the Canaanites. This may justify why they were deemed unworthy to enter the Land of Canaan. Yet we still must ask why the Almighty would visit further punishment on successive generations.

One view is to identify their failure as an inability to maintain hope. Rather than using imaginative powers to anticipate success, fear led to backward regression; in their own words, ‘better had we not left Egypt … let’s appoint a leader and return’!

If only they’d conjured up a more positive vision! Instead, trying to re-imagine the past proved their undoing. Their empty lives in the wilderness were less a result of G-d’s punishment than their own infighting and obstinacy!

Whether all of Jewish history can be addressed this way is debatable. But today the lesson of Shelah-Lekha is no different. When leaders succumb to fear, are stuck in regressive ideas, only seeing negativity and failing to look ahead, the results must follow a similar pattern. It’s up to us to create a new cycle of hope.