Parshat Shelakh-Lekha is the 4th in the Book of Numbers covering Chapters 13-15. It begins with the appointment of 12 spies, missioned to tour the promised land of Canaan. Forty days later they returned with samples of its produce and a 10-2 decision to the negative – the land couldn’t be conquered. Shocked, the people cried in despair and complained to Moshe and to G-d. Only Joshua and Caleb defended the campaign.
Their cries triggered a punishment from G-d that all men 20-years and older would die off in the Wilderness during the ensuing 40 years, and only their wives and children would merit entering Canaan. Deeply remorseful the following day, a band from Bnei Yisrael attempted to ascend without G-d’s help and were struck-down by the Amalekites and Canaanites.
The parasha continues with Laws of Sacrifices brought once the people enter Canaan, and the meal offerings & wine libations that accompanied each animal. This was followed by the laws of Taking Hallah from dough before bread was baked and giving it as Terumah to G-d; and by Laws of the Inadvertent Sin offering brought by the community or by an individual.
Shelakh-Lekha ends with the story of the man who gathered wood on Shabbat and was put to death by stoning, and with the command to put wool- and blue-dyed threads on the fringes of your four-cornered garments.
Comment: The enormous remorse which sometimes follows a sin can be as bad if not worse than the original transgression. An example can be found in Parashat Shelakh-Lekha where Bnei Yisrael slander the Land of Canaan and are punished to die in the desert.
The first reaction of Bnei Yisrael the morning after hearing G-d’s decree, was despair. The remorseful among them decided immediately to attempt ascent into Canaan, even though it was against G-d’s wishes. Ignoring Moshe’s warnings, and taking matters into their own hands, they died by their own initiative in a violent battle with Amalek and Canaan.
Some may argue that it’s better to challenge the odds than to wait for the inevitable. Perhaps they intended their remorse as a form of repentance before G-d and expected to be forgiven. For what would be the sense of living in the desert, if there was no chance to inherit the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?
Indeed, seen through this lens, the incident of Korah’s rebellion in next week’s parasha also makes sense. Relying on Moshe was no longer viable if all they could expect was to wander aimlessly in the desert ‘killing time’ until ‘their time’ would come. Choosing new leadership would seem a way to resolve their troubles.
Perhaps this is a subtle viewpoint, but there are two powerful messages that resonate with truth. First, up until now Bnei Yisrael committed a number of transgressions, including the sin of the Golden Calf, but it was only slander that undid them. How immense is the power of words to cause pain and suffering to others!
Second, Bnei Yisrael’s sin in slandering the Land of Canaan was compounded by their expressed-wish to return to Egypt, showing an all-too-familiar pattern that when a situation gets difficult, we react by looking backwards and laying blame on our leaders.
In a week when we’ve seen this country mired in regret, with a return to terrible incidents of racial hatred and verbal assault, perhaps we can remind ourselves, that our only choice is to move forward in Hope, rather than to look back, lament the past and try to scapegoat those weaker than ourselves.
A More Detailed Look at the Parasha
G-d told Moshe to send men to tour the land of Cana’an, one representing each tribe. Moshe dispatched them from the Paran Wilderness. They were:
Reuven – Sha’mu’ah ben Zakur Shimon – Shafat ben Hori
Yehudah – Kaleb ben Yefuneh Yisakhar – Yigal ben Yosef
Ephraim – Hoshea ben Nun (Yehoshua) Binyamin – Palti ben Rafu
Zevulun – Gadiel ben Sodi Menashe – Gadi ben Susi
Dan – Amiel ben Gemali Asher – Setur ben Mikhael
Naftali – Nakhbi ben Vofsi Gad – Ge’u’el ben Makhi
Moshe told them to enter from the Negev and ascend to the mountains; to spy out the land, to see whether the people were strong or weak, few or many; whether the land was good or bad, whether the cities were fortified or open; was the land fertile or not; were there trees and that they should bring back of their fruits. They went during the grape harvest season.
They ascended and toured the land from Desert Sin to Rehav and Hamat. From the Negev they reached Hebron where the giants Akhiman, Sheishai & Talmai lived. At Eshkol Valley they cut a cluster of grapes plus pomegranates and figs; returning finally after 40 days to meet Moshe, Aharon and the congregation of Bnei Yisrael who were at Kedaisha.
Showing their fruits, they reported it was a land flowing with milk and honey and these were samples of its fecundity. However, the land’s inhabitants was strong and its cities fortified. The Amalekites were in the south, the Hittites, Jabusites and Amorites dwelt in mountains and the Canaanites occupied the coast and riverbanks.
Kaleb tried to rally the people by charging them to ‘ascend and inherit the land; it was possible’. But the other spies, denied it possible to defeat the current occupants. Instead, they slandered the land saying it ‘consumed its inhabitants’; the people were strong-natured and ‘descendants of giants’ lived there.
That night, the nation lifted its voice in wailing, complaining to Moshe and Aharon, ‘it would have been better for us to die in Egypt or in the Wilderness, why did G-d bring us here so that our wives and children would waste away? It would be better to return to Egypt.’ Some decided to appoint a new head and head back to Egypt.
Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces; Joshua and Kaleb tore their clothing and rebuked the people claiming it was a good land. ‘Should G-d wish, we would take it! Rather, beware not to rebel against G-d, the inhabitants will be our bread, their shield has been removed and G-d is with us – do not despair.’ But, the nation wanted to stone them, until suddenly G-d’s presence appeared.
G-d spoke to Moshe asking ‘how long will this people vex Me; will they refuse to believe in Me after all the miracles they’ve seen? Let me destroy them with pestilence and make of you a great nation!’ Moshe replied if the Egyptians heard G-d took this people from their midst – who beheld G-d eye-to-eye, and were escorted constantly by pillars of cloud and of fire – smiting them as one, they would conclude it was G-d’s inability to bring have them inherit the land that caused them to be slaughtered in the desert.
Moshe evoked the formula for repentance (taught to him by G-d) seeking forgiveness for Bnei Yisrael. And G-d forgave them. But ‘those who witnessed the miracles of Egypt and tested Me 10-times in the wilderness’, they wouldn’t see the Promised Land. Only Kaleb would be worthy. Because the Amalekites and Canaanites were in the valley, the following day Bnei Yisrael would turn back to the wilderness and travel by way of the Reed Sea.
G-d told Moshe and Aharon that Bnei Yisrael would be punished measure-for-measure for their complaints. Other than Kaleb ben Yefuneh and Yehoshua bin Nun, all men 20-years and older would die in the Wilderness, not meriting to enter the Land of Canaan. Only their wives and children, would know the land their father’s despised. One year for each day of touring, they would wander 40-years in the desert until the last had died-off. As for the spies that brought the bad report, they would die by plague immediately.
Regretting their fate, some rose early the next morning to attempt entering the land. Moshe warned them not to transgress G-d’s decision and risk falling into the hands of their enemies since G-d would not be with them. But they persisted and were struck down by the mountain-dwelling Amalekites and Canaanites.
[Abruptly the Torah changes topics]
G-d tells Moshe that when the people eventually enter the land and offer sacrifices; a lamb should be accompanied by a meal offering of 1/10th eipha fine flour mixed with a quarter hin of oil, along with a quarter hin of wine as a libation for their Olah or Zevakh offerings. Each ram should be accompanied by 2/10th eipha fine flour mixed with a third hin of oil, along with a third hin of wine as a libation. If the offering was a bull, the meal offering would be 3/10th eipha fine flour mixed with a half hin of oil, along with a half hin of wine as a libation
These quantities were to be brought for each offering. Both the permanent resident and the long-term stranger were obliged by the same laws; for citizen and non-citizen alike.
When entering the land and baking your bread, just as you separate a portion while the grain is on the threshing floor, so too must you take from the dough and give it to the Almighty.
Should you collectively err and not perform all the mitsvot Moshe taught you, if the congregation faltered, they would bring a bull as a burnt offering and a goat for a sin offering along with their meal offerings and libations. The Kohen would affect atonement for the people and for the strangers in their midst.
If an individual were to sin, they’d bring a one-year-old goat as a sin offering. Here too, the law was the same for the resident as well as the stranger. But, if one deliberately sinned against G-d, they’d be cut off from the nation. For they despise the word of G-d, flaunting the mitsvot.
A man gathered wood on Shabbat and was brought before Moshe and Aharon by those who saw him. He was placed in prison until judgment was passed. G-d told Moshe the man should be stoned to death outside the encampment. The congregation did to him as G-d had commanded.
G-d spoke with Moshe to tell Bnei Yisrael to place fringes on the four corners of their garments in perpetuity. And, among the strings should be a blue thread. When you see them it will remind you of all G-d’s commandments, preventing you from following the passions of your heart and perversions of your eyes. In order that you remember G-d’s commands and remain holy to G-d. ‘For I am the Lord your G-d who took you from Egypt to become your G-d.