You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Shelach.
Excerpt from my book, Holy Beggars: A Journey from Haight Street to Jerusalem.
CHAPTER 22 – TZITZIT
April 1, 1969 – Oakland, California
© 2010 Aryae Coopersmith
I’m standing naked in a long straight line with 200 other naked young men. We’re at the
Armed Forces Examining and Induction Station in Oakland. There’s an orange stripe on
the gunmetal gray floor, and we’re all facing the stripe, with the other guys to our right
and our left. Following orders, we each have our clothes folded in a bundle and placed on
the floor to the left of where we’re standing….
Actually I’m not completely naked. I’m wearing my kippah on my head, and my tzitzit,
which is the fringed undergarment worn by religious Jewish men. To get an idea of what
it looks like, picture a piece of thin white cloth with a silk texture, about six feet long and
two feet wide, with a slit in the middle for the head to go through. It has little stripes
embroidered along its length. At each corner there is a set of white strings that are tied in
a series of complex knots, which leave the ends of the strings to hang in fringes. There
are 613 knots in the tzitzit, which stand for the 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the
Here’s how Shlomo taught us about tzitzit. The word mitzvah is much deeper than
commandment. The Hebrew root is tzav, which means to tie, to connect. A mitzvah is
action in this world, right action that connects us to our deepest truth, and to God.
Shlomo said, why are the knots of the tzitzit tied to the corners? What is it about corners?
The Torah says, don’t be led by the impulses, the lusts and fears of your heart and your
eyes, which will get you lost; when you see the tzitzit, remember all My mitzvot and do
them. When we say those words in the morning prayers, we hold onto the tzitzit. So
Shlomo says, when do we most need something to hold onto? It’s when we’re backed
into a corner. It’s when I’m trapped and have no where to go; when I can’t find a way
out. That’s when I need to let go of my own eyes and heart and mind, and hold onto
Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention, besides the tzitzit, I have my guitar strapped over
my shoulder, and I’m holding a stack of antiwar pamphlets from the American Friends
Reb Avraham Greenbaum
SPYING OUT THE LAND
The theme of vision is paramount in SHELACH LECHA. The parshah begins with G-d telling Moses to send men who “will SPY OUT the Land of Canaan which I am giving to the Children of Israel”. The parshah ends with the passage recited by every Israelite in the SHEMA morning and evening: “They will make for themselves TZITZIS on the fringes of their garments. and you shall LOOK at it and remember all the commandments of HaShem and you shall do them, AND YOU SHALL NOT GO SPYING AFTER YOUR HEARTS AND AFTER YOUR EYES that you went astray after them.” (Numbers 15:38-39). The same word for spying occurs in the opening and closing verses of the parshah, highlighting the importance of the theme of vision throughout the parshah. The Tzitzis are the remedy for faulty and sinful vision.
In the words of Rashi’s comment on the latter verse (Numbers 15:39): The heart and the eyes are spies for the body, and they act as the body’s agents in sinning. The eye sees, the heart desires and the body carries out the sins.” The fringes of the Tzitzis surrounding us on all four sides, are a visual reminder of G-d’s presence everywhere. The blue TECHEILES thread in the Tzitzis is the color of the sea, which is a reflection of the color of the heavens, the seat of G-d’s glory.
Tzitztis is the first mitzvah to which a young boy is introduced (customarily at the age of 3), because this mitzvah comes to remedy the vision of the eyes, which caused Adam’s downfall. “And the woman SAW that the tree was good for food and it was desirable to the EYES. and she ate and she gave also to her husband with her” (Genesis 3:6).
Likewise, it was deceptive vision that led to the fall of the Children of Israel forty days after the revelation at Sinai. “And the people SAW that Moses’ was delayed in coming down from the mountain.” (Exodus 32:1). According to the sages, Satan deceived the people with a “desert mirage” of Moses being carried up dead to heaven. They didn’t want an invisible leader. They wanted one they could see with their own eyes. “And the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, Rise, make us gods who will go before us.” (Exodus 32:1). They couldn’t stand not being able to see G-d. They felt impelled to violate the Second Commandment against making graven images. They wanted a visual representation of the divine — the demanded to see the unseeable — but their representation turned into an idol, giving a license to lust.
In the sin of the Golden Calf, the heart went astray after the image before the eyes. The sin took place at the very height of TEKUFAT TAMUZ (season of Vision), on the 17th of the month. The sin of the Golden Calf led to all the subsequent trials and tribulations of the Children of Israel, represented in the Forty Years of Wandering in the Wilderness (for it is only after 40 years that a person attains BINAH, “understanding” — Avot 5:21). Although the decree of forty years wandering was specifically incurred through the sin of the spies, Rashi (on Numbers 14:33) tells us that “From the moment they made the calf, this decree arose in His Thought. Except that He waited for them until their measure was filled, as it says (Exodus 32:34): ‘On the day of my visitation I will visit upon them their sin’ “.
The forty-year penalty corresponded to the forty-day journey of the Twelve Spies from the Wilderness around the Land of Israel. This also took place during TEKUFAS TAMUZ, one year after the sin of the golden calf. The spies left at the end of Sivan, they were travelling around Israel during the entire month of Tammuz, and they arrived back at the Israelite camp in the Wilderness only on the 9th day of the month of Av.
On their tour of the land, the spies saw exactly what they wanted to see. With the exception of Joshua and Kalev, they rejected the vision of the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They did not want to accept the traditional report that their ears alone had heard: that G-d promised to take them to a land “flowing with milk and honey”. They could not take it on trust. They wanted to check it out with their own eyes and decide for themselves. And they saw what they wanted to see: a real place, a land governed by natural laws, where people live and die. A beautiful land, but one which it was against all the laws of nature that the puny ex-slave Israelites could conquer in the face of a sea of entrenched Amalekites and Canaanites. “And we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes” (Numbers 13:33).
The sin of the spies was a failure of faith. They allowed themselves to be misled by the external appearance of the natural world into a colossal failure of nerve, despite all the promises given by G-d that He would bring them to the land. The faith of Israel does not depend upon what the eyes see. On the contrary, we declare our faith wrapped in the Tallis, clutching the Tzitzis by our hearts, closing our eyes to the visual world around us and covering them with our hand: “Sh’ma Yisrael, HaShem is our G-d.!” Only Joshua and Kalev closed their eyes to external appearances, knowing that with G-d’s help, it is possible to “bend” nature. “We will go up and take possession of it, for He can — we can — (conquer) it.”
Eretz Yisrael looks like a regular country with houses, roads, fields, forests and mountains, etc. (as Rabbi Nachman put it, “these actual stones and houses”). Yet in reality, the law of the land is totally beyond nature. It is: “A land that HaShem your G-d cares for constantly, the EYES of HaShem your G-d are on it from the beginning of the year and until the end of the year” (Deut. 11:12).
Every Israelite recites the law of the Land of Israel twice daily, morning and evening in the Sh’ma: “And if you will surely listen to My commandments. And I will give the rain of your land in its season.and you will eat and be satisfied. Guard yourself lest your heart seduces you and you go astray. and you will be lost quicfrom the good land which HaShem is giving you” (Deut. 11:13-17).
Perhaps the spies feared the people could not live up to the level of the law of the land, and they preferred an easier, more natural way of life outside of Israel. As leaders of their tribes, the spies conducted an ingenious operation of public opinion manipulation, using skillfully chosen words to implant in the people’s minds a vision of the impossibility of achieving their natural destiny that led them all to tears. (This the spies achieved with words alone, even without the use of television, which is the Satan’s ultimate deceiver of eyes.) “And all the community cried out, and the people WEPT on that night.” Tears come from the eyes, the organs of vision. With our tears we try to wash away the bad that our eyes have seen.
The people should have focussed their vision on that which is beyond nature — the miracles that had been performed for them. This should have given them the faith that G-d has the power to fulfill His promises. (See Rashi on Numbers 14:11). Those who had seen the miracles and still did not believe in G-d would not see the land. “All the men who see My glory and My signs that I did in Egypt and in the Wilderness yet have tested Me in this ten times, and have not listened to My voice — They shall not see the land that I have sworn to their fathers, and all who despise Me shall not see it” (Numbers 14:22-3).
Yet immediately after the imposition of the decree, the Torah continues with a series of commandments that can only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel, including the laws of the wheat, oil and wine libations that accompany animal offerings in the Temple, and CHALLAH, the gift of the first portion of one’s bread to the priest (Numbers Ch. 15). The positioning of these commandments directly after the narrative of the spies is a reminder that even though the exile (“forty years”) may be lengthy, eventually Israel will inherit the entire land and have the merit of offering its choicest produce in the Temple and on the table of the priests. [The Challah, separated by the woman and given to the priest, rectifies Eve’s sin of giving the forbidden fruit to Adam.]
From Rav Kook
Shlach: The Third Passage of Shema
Every evening and morning, we say the Shema, Judaism’s supreme declaration of monotheistic faith. In the first passage, we accept upon ourselves the yoke of God’s sovereignty. And in the second, we accept God’s commandments.
Interestingly, the Sages added a third paragraph to the Shema — the passage commanding us to wear tzitzit (tassels) on the corners of our garments (Num. 15:37-41). Why did they decide to add this particular paragraph, out of the entire Torah, to the central prayer of Judaism?
The Talmud (Berachot 13) explains that the passage of tzitzit contains not one, but six major themes:
•The mitzvah of wearing tzitzit on our garments;
•The Exodus (“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt”);
•Accepting the mitzvot (“You will thus remember and keep all of My commandments”);
•Resisting heresy (“You will not stray after your hearts”);
•Refraining from immoral and sinful thoughts (“and after your eyes”);
•Eschewing idolatry (“which have led you astray”).
Is there a common motif to these six themes? And secondly, while most are indeed fundamental concepts of Judaism, what is so special about the mitzvah of tzitzit, more than the other 612 commandments?
This mitzvah in fact does contain a fundamental message. It touches on the basic issues of life: how do we realize our spiritual potential? How can we truly fulfill ourselves as human beings?
As Maimonides wryly noted, the philosophers composed numerous volumes and entire libraries trying to answer these questions. Despite their efforts, they failed to exhaust the topic. The Talmudic sages, on the other hand, succeeded in encompassing the issue by revealing its essence in one pithy statement: “Let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven” (Avot 2:12).
Human perfection is attained by establishing a worthwhile spiritual goal for all of our efforts and activities in life. Once we have set our spiritual focus, we need to direct all of our aspirations, wants and actions according to that objective. Then we will be complete in all aspects and levels of our existence.
This is the message of tzitzit. The sky-blue techelet thread reminds us of the heavens and the Throne of Glory. The soul’s external expressions — character traits, emotions and actions — are like a garment worn on the outside, over the body. We need to connect all of these outer manifestations to our inner spiritual goal, our tachlit, in the same way that we tie our outer clothes with the special thread of techelet.
The Exodus from Egyptian bondage expands on this theme. We are no longer slaves, subjected to physical and moral repression. A slave cannot set goals for his life and actions — they are not under his control. God liberated us from slavery, giving us the freedom to elevate ourselves and to aspire towards our spiritual calling.
The acceptance of practical mitzvot continues the same message. All of our detailed actions should connect with our overall objective. Thus, we attain completion in all aspects of our existence: our intellect, emotions and conduct.
Avoiding the Pitfalls
The first three themes in the passage of tzitzit teach us how to fulfill the maxim, “All of your deeds should be for the sake of heaven.” The second three themes deal with three interrelated obstacles to this guideline.
The first pitfall is heresy. The fear of all-inclusive commitment, the desire to avoid moral responsibilities, can lead to denial of God or His Oneness. The path of heresy means abandoning elevated goals and rejecting ethical aspirations. Without a comprehensive objective and direction, the soul naturally seeks some other occupation. Lacking an overriding goal, the soul is tossed and flung like a stick in the sea, pulled by any internal or external lure. This leads to the second pitfall: attraction to base and corrupt actions.
In the end, however, a self-indulgent lifestyle leaves the soul with feelings of horrible emptiness. The soul recognizes that a life without meaning is a contradiction to its very essence. But since it has already lost its rational beacon by rejecting the light of truth, the soul seeks purpose and meaning in foreign fields. It tries to find spiritual sustenance in broken cisterns, the foundations of idolatry.
Thus, we see that this short passage includes the fundamental themes of Judaism. It describes that which gives our lives meaning and direction, and the major obstacles that can lead the soul astray. It is a fitting conclusion to our acceptance of God’s kingship in the Shema prayer.
(adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, pp. 70-71)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
(Send for Yourself)
NUMBERS 13:1 – 15:41
This Torah portion tells the story of the spies that are sent forth to survey the Land of Canaan in preparation for its conquest. They return with a mixed message. The Land is superb but too well-fortified to be conquered. Moses is bitterly disappointed with their fearful report and so decides that the people must wander another 40 years (until the generation of slavery has died out) before they can enter the Land.
Shelach Lekha concludes with the instruction to wear fringes of blue as reminders of holiness.
GOD SAYS TO MOSES: “Shelach Lekha” (send for yourself) spies to scout out the Land. The spies sent by Moses return both enraptured by the land and terrified at the prospect of making their permanent home in that elevated state of consciousness.
So too, this portion blesses us with a mission: Spy out the Land of our Inheritance, taste the milk and honey that flows from the Land of Promise, and let that taste guide us on your journey. The blessing we receive is a glimpse. What we do with that glimpse becomes the challenge.
Over a lifetime we are given glimpses, flashes, and hints that open our awareness to the Reality of paradise and unity that underlies this world of constant flux. We are graced with a timeless moment in which the infinite is revealed as the source of our finite world. We are sent to that land of expanded consciousness through imagination, practice and grace. We return from this taste of enlightenment either empowered to receive and integrate the supreme blessing into our lives, or completely terrorized by the incomprehensible immensity of what we feel is beyond our grasp.
“The land eats up its inhabitants,” report the spies. And they are correct. The small ego-driven separate self cannot survive in the pure air of that land. The “I” will be dissolved, called beyond itself, merging with the beauty and the mystery of that place.
The spies return from their mission divided.
AFTER A PEAK EXPERIENCE, we return to our life shaken. Whatever negativity is in us, born of grief or conditioning, is still there. Yet some part of us remembers that immensity, that taste of the infinite… or tries to remember.
That is our work: to remember what we have glimpsed and to plant the glimpse like a seed in the soil of our lives.
Shelach Lekha blesses us with both the mitzvah of remembering and a technology for fulfilling that mitzvah. We are instructed to put “tzitzit” (fringes) on the corners of our garments and to place at each corner a thread of the purest blue. Looking upon that color we will be reminded of the Sea, and the Sea will remind us of the Heavens, and the Heavens will remind us of the Throne of Glory that we glimpsed in a moment of clarity.1
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
THE BLESSING WE RECEIVE IS A GLIMPSE. What we do with that glimpse becomes the challenge.
When I was in my twenties, I read Be Here Now by Ram Dass and I thought, “How simple! And how wonderful! That is how I will live my life.”
And then I had a dream. The dream gave me a glimpse into the state of consciousness that I was asking for – one of complete openness and presence. The dream showed me just a few minutes of that state. I saw the brilliance of every color, the symphony in every sound; each breath was breathed as a miracle; each moment held a lifetime of experience. I woke up totally overwhelmed… and sobered.
I knew for sure that I was not ready to enter the Land. I understood how naïve I had been to think I could attain that state without preparation. And I began to get a sense of the work that would have to be done in the wilderness during the next 40 years. I would need to build the strength of the container that might receive my inheritance: the fullness, the richness, the beauty, the mystery of each moment.
WE GLIMPSE THE PROMISED LAND, the place that is flowing with milk and honey, and then must return to the wilderness of our lives. This circuitous journey sets up a tension within us. We know the taste of perfection and yet the urge to reach for it calls us to battle again and again. We know that beneath the mask of suffering, there is grace. We have seen the light that is imprisoned within the shell of the world, the shell whose stubborn opacity shields us from the power of the truth within. The memory of our glimpse fuels our journey and keeps us from succumbing to the illusion and tyranny of this-is-all-there-is physical reality. That memory guides us through the wilderness.
SHELACH LEKHA GIVES ME THIS SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE: to remember what I have glimpsed and to plant the glimpse, like a seed, in the soil of my life. And Shelach Lekha warns me that if I deny that glimpse – if I doubt- its validity – then I will be denied entrance to the Land of Promise – the state of consciousness that witnesses Divine Presence filling the whole world. To plant the seed of that glimpse requires that I acknowledge and celebrate it, and that I nurture its growth with my loving attention.
1Talmud Menachot 43b
For Guidelines for Practice please click link to website.
It is a land that consumes its inhabitants (13:32)
What was the reason that the Spies, who were leaders of Israel and men of lofty stature, did not want to enter the Land?
The explanation of the matter is as follows:
A great majority of the physical mitzvot can be implemented only in the Land of Israel, especially the agricultural laws and the laws of the offerings brought to the Holy Temple… The Spies, who were on a most lofty spiritual level, did not wish to lower themselves to the level of physical action, preferring to remain in the desert, where they received all their needs from above, and related to G-d by means of the loftier levels of thought and speech (i.e., study of Torah and prayer). They desired to draw down all the Divine emanations into the “Land of Israel” that exists in the realm of Malchut, the world of Divine speech, where there also is a “Jerusalem” and a “Holy Temple.” Regarding the physical Land of Israel, they said: “It is a land that consumes its inhabitants”–if the Divine light were to be drawn down into the physical world, our entire existence would be nullified.
But Joshua and Caleb said, “The Land is very, very good.” It is specifically in the Land of Israel down below, and specifically by means of the mitzvot implemented by physical action, that the truly infinite light of G-d is drawn down–a light that includes both the spiritual and the material, which is why it is “very, very” good.
(Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)
And they found a man gathering sticks (15:32)
The gatherer was Tzelaphchad (whose daughters petitioned Moses to receive his share in the Land–cf. Numbers 27)… this is Rabbi Akiva’s view. Said Rabbi Judah ben Beteira to him: “Akiva! In either case you will be called to task. If you are right, the Torah shielded him, while you reveal him! And if not, you cast a stigma upon a righteous man.”
(Talmud, Shabbat 96b)
And it shall be to you as fringes; and you shall see it (15:39)
Said Rabbi Meir: it does not say, “and you shall see them,” but “and you shall see Him” (the Hebrew Otto, also translates as “him”). This teaches that every one who fulfills the mitzvah of tzitzit, it is as if he has greeted the face of the Divine Presence. For the blue thread resembles the sea, the sea resembles grasses, grasses resemble the sky, and the sky resembles the Divine throne.
(Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 1:2)
From Rabbi Lawrence Kushner
Five Cities of Refuge
The Nephilim, these Goliaths who inhabit the Promised Land are already mentioned back in Genesis 6:4. There we learn that in those primordial times “the Nephilim were then on earth.” This account is so long ago, at the beginning of Genesis, because it is also deep within the childhood memory of every human being. Now there was a time when real giants prowled the land and we felt like grasshoppers. It is an indelible, if repressed, unonconscious memory in each of us. Contrary to the intended effect of nursery pastel colors and soft lullabies, this was frequently not a time of abiding personal security. Who could relax with giants everywhere?
Taking possession of the Land of Canaan may therefore also be a metaphor for returning to the scene of one’s childhood–now prepared to stand one’s own against its inhabitants, to conquer it for oneself. It is going back to when you were a child among huge people. If you were lucky, they were kind and loving, but even if they were, the thought must have crossed every child’s mind: If those guys ever get mad at me, I’m toast. So, to be able to stand toe-to-toe with them, now that you’re grown up yourself, must surely be one of the great joys of coming of age.
Menahem Mendl Morgenstern of Kotzk says that it’s all right to say you feel like a grasshopper in your own eyes– that means you’re alert–but when you start guessing what you look like to someone else, you’ve given them permission to define you, so you’re still a child. For this reason, Caleb, who refused to let anyone else define him, is a man and, along with Joshua, was one of the only two men of the wilderness generation to live to enter the Promised Land. But that’s another story.
From Melissa Carpenter
Glimpses of Blue
Speak to the children of Israel; and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, for (all) their generations, and they shall place on the fringe of each corner a thread of blue.
Speak to the children of Israel; and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves ways to peer out (around) the edges of their treacheries, for (all) their generations, and they shall place on the peering-places of each edge a twisted cord of ultimate perfection.
Speak to the children of Israel; and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves blossoms on the wings of their outer coverings, for (all) their generations, and they shall place on the blossom of each wing a skein of skein of sky blue.
Which translation of Numbers 15:38 is correct? They all could be.
tzitzit = fringes, tufts, locks of hair
tzitz = to peer out; the gold frontlet on the high priest’s
tzitzah = blossom, flower
beged = outer covering, garment, wrapping, treachery,
kanaf = wing, skirt, hem, edge, corner
petiyl = thread, cord, skein (of twisted strands)
techeilet = a dye from a rare mollusk, ranging from
purple to turquoise, described by Rashi as the color
of the sky at twilight.
tachliyt = ultimate end
tichilah = perfection
This week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lecha, ends with this many-layered sentence plus instructions to notice the tzitzit, remember your obligations to God, and do them, instead of exploring the seductions of your mind and your eyes. This way, the Torah says, you will be holy to your God.
Many observant Jews today read these verses about tzitzit (Numbers 15:38-41) during their daily morning and evening prayers, and — following the first translation above — wear fringes on the corners of certain garments at certain times.
Why is this elaborate mnemonic device given at this point in the Torah? At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Moses sends twelve men ahead to explore the promised land of Canaan. When they return, ten of the twelve report that the land is populated by unconquerable giants. The Israelites lose faith in God’s promise and agitate to return to Egypt. God responds by decreeing that the Israelites must wander in the wilderness for forty years, until everyone who lost faith has died.
In this context, all three of the translations above make sense. On a simple level, a fringe or tassel can remind the Israelites — and some Jews today — that we are supposed to be holy, which includes acting on our obligations to God, instead of on any seductive fantasies in our minds or temptations we see in the world. Then, when the world seems too difficult or frightening, we’ll master the temptation to give up and embrace slavery in Egypt — in our case, slavery to whatever we think will provide either pleasurable distraction or false certainty.
On the level of the second translation above, we recognize that at times in our lives, we have all quailed at the difficulty of walking with God, and hidden under the covers. Most of us are still hiding in some area(s) of our lives. The Torah asks us to remember that although we are covered with faithlessness to the divine spark within us, there is an end to that faithlessness. If we keep our eyes on that edge, we can glimpse a future where our twisted paths emerge into ultimate perfect holiness.
And the level of the third translation above? I begin with Rabbi R.S. Hirsch’s comparison between Adam and Eve, who eat from the tree of knowledge and become afraid, and the Israelites who eat up the negative information from the ten faithless explorers and become afraid. The consequence for both Adam and Eve and the Israelites is being sent away from the good land to die in the wilderness. God gives Adam and Eve protective outer coverings of skin, and gives the Israelites protective outer garments with tzitzit.
Hirsch then calls for strict observance of Jewish religious law. I propose going deeper, considering that the primary meaning of kanaf is “wing,” and the Talmud (Menachot 41b-42a) notes that every Hebrew word from the root tzitz is about projecting out, “sprouting.”
We are still frightened today by information and knowledge of evil in the world. We cover ourselves with strategies of avoidance as we wander away from our true paths. We distract ourselves from difficulties and numb ourselves against pain, thickening our skins. Yet sometimes we catch a glimpse of heavenly blue and notice we have wings.
Even when we know we have not kept faith with the divine inside us, the more often we remember the heavenly blue on the tips of our wings, the more our souls sprout and blossom with holiness.
From Academy for Jewish Religion/CA
Torah Reading for Week of May 30 – June 5, 2010
“The Challenge of the Spies”
by Tamar Frankiel, PhD
AJR, CA Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Comparative Religion
This parsha opens with the story of the sin of the spies, which led to forty years of wandering in the wilderness. This event carries echoes of the worst previous sin, that of the golden calf a year before. In each, G-d threatened to destroy the Jewish people; in each, resolution came from Moshe’s recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, the only two times that recitation occurs in the Torah. In addition, the “murmurings” against Moshe in last week’s parsha remind us of the times a year before that the people had also complained for lack of food and water.
With these parallels between the two times of complaining, the two great sins, and their resolution, the Torah seems to invite comparison and contrast. What can we learn from this?
The apparent failure of Moshe to return from the mountaintop led to the crisis of the calf. In a state of panic that turned into mania, the people created a substitute that they could worship. At the sin of the spies, leadership was again the issue in a different way: ten of the spies questioned and rebelled against him.
As Nechama Liebowitz points out, those spies gave three different reports. To Moshe they said, “We came into the Land . . . it does flow with milk and honey; nevertheless the people are fierce. . . and the cities strongly fortified.” When Caleb urged preparation for immediate conquest, they told him, “We are not able to go against the people; they are stronger than we.” Then, when they spoke to the rest of Bnei Yisrael, they said, “The land . . . eats up its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of great size.” The three different stories reveal the spies’ own internal conflict. They report to Moshe with reasonable accuracy. To their colleague, they challenge his assessment. To the people, they exaggerate in order to turn everyone against the project, and against Moshe. After the murmurings and complaints of the previous parsha, this was not a difficult job.
With the golden calf incident, the people just had to sit and wait; but like anxious children, they could not tolerate the anxiety. At the time of the spies, they had been confronted with adult responsibility. G-d was asking them to get moving – go into the world, take responsibility for their mission, and defeat all obstacles. For this, the people were far less ready than Moshe thought. G-d too was disappointed.
Yet this is human nature. Most of us know that feeling – the moment when we are called to do what we said we would do, and we suddenly fear we’re not ready. Our stomach clenches, our knees shake, we feel a chill. Sometimes we overcome our doubt and march ahead. At other times, we back off, look for an escape, make excuses, or find someone to blame for setting an impossible task.
How do we cope with fear and anxiety, the sense of falling apart in the face of enormous challenges? The end of the parsha contains an answer symbolically, in the mitzvah of tzitzit, which we also recite daily as the third paragraph of the Shema. The tzitzit are four strands, folded and tied in a very specific way. If you have ever tied tzitzit, you know it takes patience and attention, but the strands then form a very strong bond. The tzitzit themselves proclaim: when you feel your life is disintegrating under the challenges you face, you can tie it back together. The mitzvah is to look, to see into reality rather than feed off our fears; to remember, calling to mind all the service we do for G-d; and to be mindful also of our ultimate purpose, to be holy to your G-d.
This essay is in honor of the bar mitzvah parsha of our son Yaakov Asher, born 21 Sivan.
Reb Sholom Brodt
The children of Israel had approached Moshe Rabbeinu and expressed a desire to send spies, “v’yachperu — and they shall spy out [literally…dig] the Land of Canaan” before entering the Holy Land*. Hashem granted permission for this expedition, but as we learn in this weeks’ parsha, the outcome was and still is tragic. *[See Deut. 1: 22-46, which complements the two chapters devoted to this event in our parsha, Bamidbar 13-14]
Forty days later the spies returned. Ten of the twelve spies presented a report that incited panic and rebellion. The remaining two spies, Calev and Yehoshua tried to reassure the nation that we can get the land, that we do not have to fear the nations inhabiting the land, because no matter how strong they may be, “for their protection has been removed… and they said to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, the land which we traveled through, latour ohtah– to spy it out, the land is very very good.” But the people did not listen to them and instead were swayed by the lashon harah of the spies. They cried and they mourned and they went into a panic even unto wanting to go back to Mitzrayim. They aroused Hashem’s wrath and brought down dire consequences upon themselves their children and upon all future generations. That night was the “Tisha b’Av”, the ninth of Av. The 9th of Av came to be the most tragic date of Jewish history.
The commentators ask how did such a terrible tragedy come about? What is even more puzzling is that the spies, as explained in Rashi, were actually ‘tzadikkim’ – holy and righteous people. Who would expect that ‘tzadikkim’ would foment such a tragic rebellion against Hashem’s plan? What was their mistake?
The spies were holy tzadikkim, righteous people, until they committed this grave sin and they certainly had great faith in Hashem. Strangely, their sin came about because of the righteousness and wisdom.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the spies erred because of their desire to always be close to Hashem. They knew that upon entering Eretz Yisrael, life was going to change radically, that our supernatural heavenly existence in the wilderness would not continue.
In the wilderness we lived around the Mishkan – the dwelling place of the Shechinah. The Presence of the Shechinah was evident both in the Pillar of Fire and the Pillar of Cloud. The ‘clouds of glory’ surrounded us. Even the food we ate was heavenly – ‘mannah’ from heaven. Hashem was our focus of attention while our physical needs were taken care miraculously, and thus we were able to spend our days in prayer, study of the Torah and devotion to Hashem.
However upon entering Eretz Yisrael all this would change; we would now have to plough, plant, sow and reap; we would have to get very involved with the ‘eretz’ – matters of earthly existence. Eretz Yisrael was and is a very blessed land, its fruits and produce were extraordinarily large and there was great abundance and we were going to be very wealthy.
The spies were fearful that because of our involvement with the physical and the mundane we would lose our spiritual connection with Hashem; they were fearful that we might come to think that we are mature and independent beings, no longer in need of Hashem. Better, they thought, that we don’t enter the Holy Land, for the physicality of the land consumes the spiritual life of its inhabitants. And so, they reasoned, Hashem did not really want us to get involved with ‘the land’, with the physicality of life? And so they chose to speak lashon harah against Eretz Yisrael.
But that is exactly what Hashem wanted and desired. It is Hashem’s will that we make this world into a dwelling place for Him. Our task is to bring heaven down to earth and to raise our earthly existence to heaven, to reveal the Divine in the physical [which is even greater than the revelation of the supernatural] and thereby elevate it. Though their understanding was great, the spies nevertheless made the mistake of not realizing that this was not the place for rational understanding. When connecting to Hashem’s ‘ratzon’, to His will, we are entering into a deeper than mind connection with Hashem, for ‘ratzon’ will, is deeper much deeper than that, deeper than all of one’s rational understandings of Hashem and His Mitzvot.
The miracle of Israel is that this is the place where Hashem wants us to be and to live together with the Shechinah. Here in this land Hashem wants us to do our part in revealing the Presence of Hashem in this world, the lowest of all worlds; to reveal that this world is nothing but the outer manifestation of the ever present Divine words of creation.
What I learn from Reb Sholom’s comment (above) is a reminder of how much our spiritual practice as Jews is about engaging in the day-to-day material world around us.
The land of Yisrael — literally “wrestling with God” — is a metaphor for the whole world, this world of stuff in which we find ourselves. As human beings, we are here on two levels. The first is to “plough, plant, sow and reap.” The second is, while we’re doing all this, to draw down the light from above and lift up the sparks from below. What an awesome mission! May be blessed to strengthen each other along the way.
From Rabbi Miles Krassen
Parsha Shelakh-Lekha, 5770
Question: In regards to the Shelakh-Lekha parsha, it opens with, “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.’ So Moses, by the LORD’s command, sent them out from the wilderness of Paran, all the men being leaders of the Israelites. And these were their names…” (Be-Midbar, 13:1-4). It then goes directly into the names and the tribal relevance, the list of which is part of the beginning of this parsha. I intuit there is information here with how we may relate to this on another level, perhaps even with how we may navigate through the sefirot with this list. It appears that these names and the related tribes are symbols and keys, but what are they symbols of, if that is even the case? How do we relate to this teaching that is coming through here as hasidim? Please clarify.
Answer, Reb Moshe Aharon: This is a good question.
One thing I would want to say as an important principle is there are a lot of sources for decoding but, one thing I would say as a general principle is there is a way in which the microcosm and the macrocosm are related. And so, a lot of the things that we get in Tanakh and in the Torah are the map of the macrocosm and the kind of information that we need to get is how that map applies to each person as a microcosm. The land of Israel is a kind of model for understanding the disparate parts of both the macrocosm and the microcosm. So, one of the things that we have to do is first of all take a look at the map and see where each tribe is located.
Question: How do you mean? Which map are we looking at?
Answer, Reb Moshe Aharon: The map of how the land of Israel was physically divided. That’s the macrocosm. And so the principle is first you have to have a map, a model of the totality and, even beyond that, there is more than one level because the land of Israel itself represents the model of conscious energy that is working to accomplish the Ge’ulah, the redemption, which is ultimately a macrocosmic redemption, meaning that its interest is in the entire world although it is expressed kiveyachol, locally. I’m reminded of Reb Zalman who loves to say, “Act locally and think globally,” and in a way that is what kind of map this is: locally this is sort of where you work in these places and there is a different energy in each part of the land of Israel that’s apportioned to a particular tribe.
So let’s say there are three levels, the first of which is the macro-macrocosm, for which, there are actually more levels than this. We’re just looking at three as a way of simplifying the example. For example, someone like Gurdjieff tried to map out these levels with the various octaves and different planets. The point being these maps and models can be made to be universal and global, galactic even; these models can go out and out and out, but the main focus for us is Gaia, is the Earth.
Question: So the micro-macrocosm would be the first level, so to speak? This being the physical land of Israel and then the macrocosm of the land of Israel is Gaia, our manifest world…?
Answer, Reb Moshe Aharon: Right. And there’s a macro even for that map of the land of Israel, to be even more specific. The land of Israel can be a micro in relation to an even bigger macro and all of these levels of micro and macro are analogous to a particular relationship to a related macro and micro sphere, which can be extended out infinitely
Question: So these maps of micro in relation to a macro is reflective of the way the Etz Chayim works? We’re talking about a model quite similar to the Etz Chayim?
Answer, Reb Moshe Aharon: That’s right. The thing that a lot of people don’t understand is that the maps are just like a yardstick: the yardstick gives you markings that are dynamic and relative that is a usable range, but we can’t measure the whole macro-world with a yardstick. But, you can move the yardstick, for example, when you get to the end of what appears measurable, you can bump up or adjust the yardstick to measure further out, so to speak. But if you have a yardstick, you then have a way to measure what appears from one’s distinct perspective top and bottom, the left and the right, and all the six directions the Sefer Yetzirah talk about. But people often think that the yardstick is the totality whereas in actuality it’s only a movable and relative means to measure where one is in the various worlds as we do not know what the limits are.
Question: The yardstick, then, implies that we’re measuring something we recognize and, the fact of the matter is that this yardstick grows, so to speak, as we grow and further explore the dimensions the Sefer Yetzirah teaches about, all the while further increasing the size of our map?
Answer, Reb Moshe Aharon: Yes, that’s right. This process extends and can expand infinitely.
Question: And so this relates to our ancestral tribes…
Answer, Reb Moshe Aharon: …because they are part of the map. Each tribe is given a spot, a particular domain within the land of Israel. So, to be able to decode the information, the first thing you need to do is get a map of the land of Israel, of where the tribes are within the land of Israel. You can get such a map, for example, in Aryeh Kaplan’s Chumash translation, “The Living Torah.” Then you can clearly see where each tribe is located and everything has meaning in terms of the model. So once you have the clarity of the map, then you can transfer the information from the macro of the land of Israel to the micro of the individual human being.
Let’s say that as an individual human being, you are an analogue of the land of Israel if you are engaged in the Jewish tradition. By engaging the tradition you are in effect saying you’re using this particular map and this model in order to understand yourself in the universe. So first you have to see where it is in the land of Israel to understand what part of your person, what part of your body, and what part of your neshamah is governed by which particular tribe. This is called K’lal Yisrael, being a complete Israel, Israel in totality and some of the secrets in the decoding. If we’re going to look into the decoding, we can find it in the blessings that Yaakov, that Jacob gives to each of the tribes. Before his death he calls all of the tribes in and each one receives a specific blessing. There’s the information relevant to what the function is of how each one is different from another and what their function is and so forth.
The Nesi’im is one of the terms used…there is the Nasi, which is usually translated, “the prince,” or “chieftain” or something like that, but what it really means is something like what we saw in the parsha from two weeks ago, which is parshat Naso’, it means “lifting up.” What is the active agent that lifts up the function of each tribe? Then, to understand that you have to go to the specific names, for example, the Nesi’im of this particular tribe is so and so and so and so. And generally, because of the letters in Hebrew all represent specific building blocks or types of energy, according to the Sefer Yetzirah, there is an encoded message in the very name, for example, of each of these tribes. Further, for example in Naso’ last week, a lot of the parsha talks about the Gershuney, the sub-tribe whose name comes from Gershon, which is an aspect of the Levites. The name Gershon has within it the root Gimel-Reish-Shen, which means Geyrush, “driven out,” or “separated.” So this is a particular family in the macro of the people of Israel. To complete this example of a specific name, this name represents that element within us which has a tendency to fall out and which has to be lifted up. So in the torah of Naso’, one aspect is that it’s about raising up the name of Gershon, this being the element which gets separated. What is the element that gets separated? It is the heart, it’s what comes in the middle as when we generally get stuck, very often we’re in binary form.
Binary form for us means we’re somewhat split between a mind and a body and we have trouble keeping the two integrated together and this is really what dualism is: when we function as a conscious mind separate from a body, when the body appears to be doing one thing and the mind is somewhere else. But then there is the piece that comes between.
The Torah is basically dialectical and the dialectical principle is basically in threes, it’s in triads. There’s a version, for example, of this that also appears in Gurdjieff’s work. He talks very specifically about triads. Gurdjieff didn’t get this out of the blue! The Torah is really based on triads; there’s a whole midrash that says, ‘the three-part Torah (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim) was given to the three-part people (Kohen, Levi, Yisrael) by the Third Born (Moshe) on the third day of the third month,’ to get across to us that we need triads. Dyads are good but if we don’t have the piece in the middle then they pull each other apart. The middle is where the Gershuneys function; the part that has to be lifted up is the heart that connects the head—that integrates the head—with the body.
Question: In looking deeper into this parsha, can we apply the concept of triads and the reminder to go back and explore the macrocosm of Israel? And as we explore the macrocosm and then are led to the microcosm that is us as individuals, but also globally…what is the triad that is being formed here? How do we increasingly stay connected with our tribes of Israel as taught in the Torah, both as individuals and communities?
Answer, Reb Moshe Aharon: As you said, the tribe is very important here because, even though the yardstick could be extended infinitely, for us there are basically three main levels that we need to be cognizant of, which is our own individual self as the micro-microcosm. But we, as the micro-microcosm, in order to have power, in order to have meaning, we have to have the macrocosm that gives the micro its relative map and it is this map that gives meaning. The map that is giving us meaning is K’lal Yisrael. So we’re participating both as an analogue of the land of Israel and its divisions and also as an analogue to the tribes of Israel, which is like body and neshamah. But in order for this practice to have power, then we have to see that our map is itself a micro and its power comes from and is vested in its analogue, which is something much greater. And this is why it’s important for us to keep, stay with, and use our tradition, to relate to it and to draw power from it but also to draw the power from beyond our macro, because power is ultimately infinite, but practically speaking it gets exhausted if it’s not renewed. So every macro is a micro in relation to something else and we need a macro for our macro and that’s the triad for us. So it becomes the mediating point between something that is bigger and higher than it is and by doing so it can pass on to us, through its unique model, the energies that will be conducive to transformation on our personal, micro-level.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Send Somebody, part 1 2011
Send him send him send me –
What did we know
that another ten did not?
Was it safe?
I don’t know.
The other ten were certain
There are giants in the Land –
Scared the hell out of us.
One took a side trip
prayed on the graves of his ancestors
and from that drew strength to be optimistic –
Now we are optimists, he said.
What’s an optimist? I asked.
One who fails with enthusiasm –
I told my children this
and instructed them to tell their children
etcetera etcetera –
far into the future
until there came a generation
that spoke only dark words.
Send Somebody, part 2
In the generation of dark words
we started over –
it was not unexpected
but we didn’t prepare enough to avoid it entirely.
A lady stuck her head outside the second floor window –
What’re you boys looking for? The Land?
It’s yours, the hearts of all the people have melted.
Have you seen the blue?
A thread of blue
to look and remember
the blue comes up once every seventy years –
Nowadays I carry it around in my bag.
A minority story saves us
a thread of blue reminds us now and again
of the essential:
There were twelve
ten were full of it
one of them laid flat out on the graves of the ancestors
got strong there
brought another one in –
From the future we prefer
the minority report
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Biblical Power Animals: Grasshoppers and Locusts
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Shelach: Where’s the Beef?
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Spirit of the Dog: Parsha Shlach 2011
Calev, Loyal Scout
Shlach means “Send!” Moshe sends 12 scouts to tour and analyze the land of Canaan and analyze it from lifestyle and strategic points of view. Can it support a mixed agricultural lifestyle? How difficult would it be for an army to enter?
All the scouts report that the land is agriculturally abundant, yielding giant grapes. But ten of the scouts also report that no army could enter be because the farmers are also giants. The assembled crowd hears the report, panics, and moves to attack Moshe for exposing them to danger. Calev leaps forward and says, “But we can do it!”
Who is Calev? If you remove the vowels from under the letters of his name and read it in a familiar way, you will read kelev, Dog. We know that dogs can be very brave out of loyalty to a master. Torah also suggests that dogs are spiritually and emotionally attuned to their surroundings, as it reports that dogs kept their silence on the night of the tenth plague.
If you replace the vowels under the letters of Calev’s name and read it aloud, you will notice it literally means “like a heart,” or, in Biblical Hebrew, “like a mind.” As a mob forms, Calev keeps his focus and thinks clearly. He is attuned to the well-being of his leader Moshe, and he encourages the people to take heart.
If you imagine that the names of the twelve scouts were the formal leadership names they chose, you can see that Calev chose his own name intentionally. Under stress, he brought forward the best qualities of the animal that inspired him.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
LARGER THAN LIFE (SHLAKH-LEKHA)
Look, everything about the land
is larger than life.
The state airline sends secret agents
to travelers’ houses at random.
The grapes there grow so heavy
no single man can carry them.
The navel of creation is there,
an eternal portal to Eden.
Love and hatred permeate the air
like spices, like roses, like
the echoing call to prayer
and the memorial day sirens.
If you don’t feel at-home there
the moment the wheels kiss the ground
for God’s sake don’t tell a soul!
When the spies admitted their fears
(they said the land ate its own)
they doomed a whole generation.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
by Rav DovBer Pinson
In this week’s Torah portion Moshe/Moses sends the twelve scouts, the leaders of the tribes of Israel, to go from their encampment in the desert and observe the land of Israel.
The Torah reading begins with the words;“Hashem spoke to Moshe saying. Send out men…Ve’yasuru/ and they shall observe the Land…which I am giving to the children of Israel (13:1-2) Moshe instructs the spies to “see what the land is like” (13:18)
Their task is to see the land.
The common misconception is that they were told to be spies. But looking at the verse carefully, they were not sent to spy and figure out the best possible way to conquer the land, they were merely asked to observe.
Moshe sends them to see the land, on a deeper level, not only to see for themselves the goodness of the land, but to actually effect through their seeing, a positive elevation of the land. In this way they would ‘acquire’ the land, it would become theirs and transformed into a holy land.
The ancient philosophers argued about how we see things. There are two major theories: in order to see something, the light from the object comes toward us and we receive it, or, our eyes emit the ‘light’ of vision, which goes out to meet objects.
Today, empirical evidence proves that sense-objects are received in your brain. As you look at something, for example, the words on this screen, rays of light pass from the screen to your eyes, and these register as an inverted image of the page in your retina. Light-sensitive cells then cause impulses to pass through your optic nerve, leading to complex electrochemical patterns in your brain, which you finally interpret as a page with words on it. This is a one-way path, from the object to the subject.
One thing still remains a mystery in this process. Why do we see the image of the page in front of us ‘outside’ of us, when the image is actually appearing within us, or within our brain?
If one were perceiving accurately, perhaps it would be more natural to say, ‘I am seeing a page in my mind,’ rather than ‘I am seeing a page two feet away from my face.’ Only our projection of the image outward onto an assumed ‘outside’ world makes objects appear outside of ourselves.
Therefore, in a sense, while light is received by our eyes and nervous system, we can also argue that we project or ‘emit’ the light of vision outward. Our minds extend to the outside world, so-to-speak.
Taking this idea further, we enter the realm of basic quantum theory, in which the observer is understood to affect the observed. Biologists and theorists discuss another mystery: some people can accurately sense when an unseen person is staring at them. Here, not only does a ‘seer’ affect the seen, but a ‘seer’ ‘out there’ can seem to affect us ‘in here’. This is the amazing power of ‘seeing’.
According to the deep teachings of Torah, the way we see affects the things we are viewing. For example, someone with pure intention creates a positive energy when looking at something, and the opposite holds true as well. Our vision emits subtle vibrations into the universe and towards the object/person we are viewing.
Coming back to the story of the twelve scouts and its unfortunate ending, we find that ten of the twelve scouts failed in their mission. They returned with a negative report; “And there we saw the giants…and we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so were we in their eyes.” (13:33)
They had no real way of knowing how they were perceived in the eyes of the natives, however, since in their own view they were unfit and not ready to enter the land, they therefore assumed that that was the reality, the natives were ‘giants’ and they were mere ‘grasshoppers.’ They looked from a perspective of negativity, not wanting and desiring to enter the land, and therefore the land was negative and impossible to enter and inhabit.
We don’t see things the way they are, rather, we perceive things the way we are.
The ten spies were pessimistic about entering the land of Israel. They had other motives, wishing to remain spiritually sheltered in the desert and led by Moshe and therefore went in with a negative and self-defeating attitude, and created a negative reality for themselves and the people.
In contrast, the other two spies, Yehoshua and Kalev, understood the inherent benefit of inhabiting the land of Israel and appreciated it as the gift that it was. They were passionate and excited about Israel and so, even though the land they observed was the same as the other scouts, the land they ‘saw’ was completely different. The message they came back with was, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” (13:30)
This created a reality in which they truly were able to conquer. In fact, it was Yehoshua, the scout who saw the land in a positive light, who was empowered to finally lead the nation into their land.
Energy of the Week
This week’s energy imbues us with the ability to see positively all the events and people we come in contact with.
We can choose the things we see. If we understand deeply that what we see is a reflection of who we are and how we are choosing to perceive, we can then choose to perceive in a positive and uplifting manner.
When we immediately see something as negative, we need to go back into ourselves, where the light is being absorbed, and change the refraction. If we can imagine something as being wonderful and positive, we can see it that way, and when we see it that way – it becomes that way.
We must be careful how we view things, or interpret them, as our very ‘seeing’ affects the quality of that thing.
When we view an event or a person in a positive light, we actually create positive energy which changes the very nature of that event or person.
Be conscious that when you see something deeply, it becomes a part of you, and thereby choose to create a better reality for yourself with positive vision.
From American Jewish World Service
When God tells Moses in Parshat Shlach, “Send for yourself men to spy out the land of Canaan,”1 it sounds like the start of an exciting adventure. But what seems exhilarating soon becomes chilling—then downright devastating. Of the 12 men who are sent to scout the land, 10 return with a negative report: The people are fierce, the cities are fortified and the land itself “devours its inhabitants.”2 Discouraged, the Israelites give up on entering Canaan, and God punishes them for their pessimism by condemning the entire generation to wander the desert for 40 years. Their children will live to see the Promised Land, but they will die before ever laying eyes on it.3
According to the Kli Yakar, a 16th-century commentator, this national tragedy could have been averted had Moses heeded the subtle warning in God’s command. Amazingly, the commentator interprets God’s words, “Send for yourself men,” to mean that Moses should send men if that’s what he wants to do; however, in God’s opinion, Moses would do better to send women spies.4
The Kli Yakar’s reasoning is simple: whereas the male Israelites show a lack of investment in the land, the female Israelites show great love for it. While the men go so far as to suggest a return to Egypt,5 women, like Tzlafchad’s daughters, fight tooth and nail for their right to inherit land in Canaan.6 Had Moses sent female spies, the Kli Yakar suggests, they would have seen the same terrifying sights as their male counterparts; but, driven by their love for the land, they would have focused on long-term solutions instead of becoming discouraged in the face of difficulty.
The Kli Yakar’s choice of example suggests that Israelite women would have made better spies because of their ability to create and implement future-oriented plans, even though carrying out such plans meant facing obstacles in the present. When Tzlafchad’s daughters dared to challenge Moses and fight for their right to inherit land in Canaan, they were fighting for a right they would not get to exercise for some time. Looking beyond their present circumstances, these women acted with future generations in mind.
The Kli Yakar’s reading—fascinating in its own right—is especially interesting in light of the claim, on the part of many contemporary experts, that the best way to reduce poverty in developing countries is to invest in women. Study after study has shown that, when women control the family budget, they are more likely than men to invest in education, health care and food for their children.7 Because women in developing countries tend to spend money on things that pay off in the long term, they increase the intergenerational return on investments. In other words, betting on women to reduce poverty is not only good for gender equality; it is also good business sense.
Women’s tendency to invest in education, for example, has vast ramifications in a world where one extra year of schooling increases a child’s future earnings by 10 percent.8 Because people who earn more tend to contribute to stronger economies and raise healthier families, women’s willingness to invest in education impacts income and welfare at a national level.
Women have also proven to be better stewards of land when it comes to small-scale farming—a crucial fact, given the prevalence of food shortages in many developing countries. When long-term agricultural training and loans are offered to them, women typically make judicious use of both. In fact, the World Economic Forum has found that giving female farmers in Kenya the same level of agricultural assistance as men can increase yields by over 20 percent.9
Of course, none of this is meant to indicate that men aren’t also capable of charting a successful course toward development. They, too, certainly possess the skills to positively impact the income and welfare of developing nations. But studies show that women in these contexts tend to do so more strategically; and yet, opportunities on par with those available to their male counterparts have more often been withheld from them.
The Kli Yakar’s reading should remind us that, like the Israelite women, the women of today’s world show a great aptitude for creating and implementing the future-oriented plans their nations need—when they are given equal opportunity to do so. For this reason, World Bank managing director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala explains: “Investing in women is smart economics.”10 If ever we needed extra motivation to increase our level of support to organizations that empower women in developing nations, this is it. After all, while the women we invest in now may not see all the fruits of their labor, their children will enter the Promised Land their mothers worked to attain
1 Numbers 13:2.
2 Numbers 13:27-33.
3 Numbers 14:26-35.
4 Kli Yakar on Numbers 13:2.
5 Numbers 14:4.
6 Numbers 27:1-11. That this occurs after the spies are dispatched is explained by the popular rabbinic notion that God sees the future and counsels Moses accordingly.
7 Leah Witcher Jackson, “Educate the Women and You Change the World,” Forum on Public Policy 2009. http://forumonpublicpolicy.com/summer09/archivesummer09/jackson.pdf
8 “Educate and Empower,” Global Campaign for Education May 2012. http://www.aft.org/pdfs/international/fs_gceeducategirls.pdf
9 “Women and Anti-Poverty Efforts in Developing Countries,” World Savvy Monitor May 2009. http://worldsavvy.org/monitor/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=566&Itemid=1013
10 “Adolescent Girls in Focus at the World Economic Forum,” The World Bank, Accessed June 2012. http://go.worldbank.org/QWPUUOPVY0
Overcoming Fear (5772/2012)
Parshat Shlach introduces some frightening mythical beings: the Anakites, giant people; and the Nefilim, disruptive princes who survived the great flood. When the Israelite scouts return from their tour of the Land, ten of them insist that a military campaign is impossible, because “all the people that we saw in the land are men of great size; we saw the Nefilim there – the Anakites are part of the Nefilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Num 13:32-33)
But forty years later, the Israelites do wage war on Anakite kings and defeat them – most notably, as Moshe proudly reports, “King Og of Bashan…his bedstead, an iron bedstead…is nine cubits long and four cubits wide, by the standard cubit!” (Deut 3:11)
How do the Israelites succeed? Moshe suggests that the people learn to let go of their fear; after that, God delivers Og into their hands. Midrash explains how they let go: they find the strengths hidden within their limitations. So what if they are only grasshoppers compared to the other armies? Grasshoppers can, after all, mutate into locusts. “Og King of Bashan said, “I will go and uproot a hill and throw it upon the Israelites and kill them. He uprooted it and brought it along on his head. And the Holy One of Blessing brought locusts which bored through it.” (Talmud Berachot 45b)
When we become aware that fear prevents us from moving forward with something important, we can apply the lesson from the midrash. We can ask, “What am I afraid I cannot do? Does this fear come from any positive quality in me? If so, how can I use this good trait to move forward?”
From Rabbi David Ingber
To Live our Lives Through our Own Eyes
Please click on the link to the sound file.
From Reb Shlomo
Retold by Reb Shalom Brodt
From Rivers of Blood to Rivers of Joy
And here is a heartbreaking, deep question. The spies had clear prophecy. They were all the greatest pupils of Moshe Rabbeinu. Why did they come back and say bad things about Israel? And also, Calev and Yehoshua, who gave them the strength to hold out? And there’s so many, so many Torahs. Let me share with you one.
The first thing is that the truth is–yes, they [the spies] had clear prophecy. You know what they saw? They saw rivers of blood coming out of Yerushalayim, flooding the whole world. They saw the destruction of the First Temple and they saw the destruction of the Second Temple. They saw Auschwitz; they saw Dachau. They saw the Six-Day War, they saw the Yom Kippur War, and, you know, they said, “Why do we need it? Let’s stay in the desert.” So they were right. The only thing is, they made one mistake. They didn’t realize that all this is only happening because of them. If they would come back and say good things, all the rivers of blood from Yerushalayim would be turned into rivers of joy.
You know how deep this is? Sometimes we see bad things in the world, we see terrible things in another human being …. but it’s all your fault. It’s all your fault. I mean, this is deeper than Yom Kippur–cuts right through you in a million ways.
But Yehoshua and Calev had holy eyes and were so pure they immediately saw the Gevaltige rivers of joy, so they said it’s a great Land. Every time we see only good in another person we are fixing the mistake of the spies, hastening the redemption; may it be quick in our days. Amen.
From Rabbi Fern Feldman
From Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Shlach Lecha 5771/2011: “Destiny and Choice”
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Rashi asks about the beginning of this week’s Torah Portion in juxtaposition with the end of last week’s. He writes:
“Why is the story from this week’s Parasha about the spies right next to the story from last week’s Parasha of Miriam? Because she was punished for being involved in rumor-mongering about her brother, and these wicked ones [the spies] saw this and yet did not ascertain the lesson. (Rashi on Num. 13:2)”
Miriam and Aaron are involved in casting aspersions against Moses for one reason or another in Chapter 12 of Numbers. Miriam is stricken (presumably, Aaron ought to have been as well) with tzara’at, a spiritual skin ailment traditionally connected to the sin of evil speech. Ten of the spies in this week’s Parasha bring back reports of Canaan that lead to distress and distrust within the Israelite camp. A close read of the biblical text might help us understand exactly where they went wrong:
At the end of forty days the Spies returned from scouting the land. They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, and they made their report to them and to the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land. This is what they told him: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.” Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim there — the Anakites are part of the Nephilim — and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them. (Num. 13:25-33)
Look closely at the order of events.
The spies tell of the land they toured, listing the sizes of the fruits and the nations therein. According to Benjamin Bloom’s educational taxonomy for levels of abstraction within questions, the spies first shared ‘Knowledge’, which includes collecting and naming lists and definitions, typically connected with questions like “who, when, where, etc.”
When they complete this knowledge-sharing, spies then ascend through Bloom’s taxonomy, processing what they’ve experienced and making recommendations. Caleb (presumably, along with Joshua) advocates for a path of action: “We can do it!” he says.
The 10 other spies then reveal their own recommendation and say, “We can’t do it!”
The spies’ self-negation (“we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves”) plays an important role in understanding Rashi’s comment. What is it that they witnessed in the case of Miriam? They saw that there are powerful consequences for the words that flow from a person’s mouth, and that those consequences touch even the greatest among us. They were tribal leaders and Miriam was a prophetess. No one in a role of authority can ever forget that the moment they say something it becomes real for others. There can be no truly objective glimpse into the future – there can only be a commitment to a future.
The spies would have chosen a fate of fear. Of eternal wandering in the exile of self-alienation. After all, the opening command of our Parasha, as understood by Rashi, as God tell Moses, “Send out these spies. I Myself don’t need them – they are for your sake, if you choose. (Rashi on Num 13:1).”
God commands us in this Parashah to empower ourselves as destiny-setting, as deeply impactful people! And the ultimate negation of this command is to see yourself as a grasshopper. As Reb Chaim of Volozhin teaches in his magisterial Nefesh HaChayiim:
“And this is the Torah of being a person…: One should never say in their heart, God forbid, ‘For what am I and what is my power to enact anything through my insignificant deeds?’ Understand, know, and set in your heart that every detail of every deed, word, and thought is not lost. Every one of them ascends to its own Source to cause an effect in the highest Heavens. (NH 1:4)”
Miriam’s lesson could have taught that to the spies. And perhaps they did learn something in the end – that fear is as contagious as courage. Perhaps that is why Rashi calls them wicked – because they were fear-infectors. (The ‘Death Eaters’ in Rowling’s Harry Potter saga come to mind.)
Rabbi Israel Morgenstern of Pilov once taught:
“Rashi’s comment is difficult to understand. The depth of their wickedness is the reason for the texts’ juxtaposition? Rather a deep idea is hinted to here: One who does not want to see the truth will not see it, even if it demonstrated to him with clarity. Their eyes are sealed from ever seeing it.”
The land of Canaan, the promised land which they affirmed was flowing with milk and honey, was right there in front of the same eyes that refused to learn from the lesson of Miriam. They saw it. But they didn’t really see it. As Chancellor Arnold Eisen of JTS tweeted this past week:
“The spies start out with accurate reporting—until fear takes over & self-respect plummets. Neither is a good basis for destiny.”
We choose our destinies. May we remain informed of the sometimes precarious realities we inhabit and, through it all, lead ourselves and those around us with passion, conviction, and hope.
From the Maqam Project
Rabbi Wendi Geffen
You likely know that our ancestors wandered the wilderness for 40 years until they entered the Promised Land. You may find it surprising, though, that the ancient Israelites actually arrived at the border of the Land of Israel only two years after the Exodus. The other 38 years of wandering weren’t a long journey to the land; they were the consequence of ill-fated events that took place during Parashat Shlach.
The parashah records that first arrival and the preparations to enter the land. In anticipation of moving forward, Moses directs twelve tribal leaders to scout and assess the land, its inhabitants and cities. The scouts embark, evaluate and gather fruit as “proof” of the quality of the land. They return and report on the land’s goodness—but they also warn of its heavy fortification and intimidating residents. With their reflection that the Israelites must have looked like grasshoppers in the eyes of the land’s giant inhabitants, the scouts send the entire Israelite population into fear-fueled panic. Despite the desperate pleas of Joshua and Caleb not to be deterred from their goal, the people beg to return to Egypt. Enraged by the sinfulness of the ten spies, God seals the fate of their entire faithless generation: none of them, save for Joshua and Caleb, would ever enter the Promised Land.1
Although the Torah never defines the exact sin of the scouts, the 18th-century Chasidic master Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov (or BeShT), offers his own analysis. The BeShT identifies a two-fold problem: the scouts had a skewed perception of the land and a warped sense of its inhabitants. While the Torah offers a substantial description of the bountiful nature of the land’s produce, noting that a single cluster of grapes proved so abundant that “it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of [the scouts],”2 the scouts describe the fruit of the land in simple, non-descript terms, focusing instead on the intimidating nature of the people who sowed these giant crops.
The BeShT cites Moses’ instruction to the scouts to “hitchazaktem—strengthen yourselves” before taking a sample of the land’s fruit.3 The BeShT interprets that Moses hoped that in seeing the fruit of the land, the scouts would recognize that the hard work would have a worthwhile payoff, which would inspire them to shore themselves up for the labor and patience required in achieving the long-term goal of living in the land and cultivating its produce. This explains why the Torah’s description of the land emphasizes the quality of the terrain and the beautiful crops: the Torah had the end game in mind. If the scouts had understood this as well, they would have reported back to the people that the mission to conquer the land would be hard, but ultimately worth it in the end, as evidenced by the grapes they brought back.
But instead, the scouts focused on the formidable size and strength of their opponents. Rather than drawing strength for the important work ahead they turned away, seeing the task as too daunting and ultimately not worth either the risk or the reward. Although the scouts’ desire for immediate results is understandable, their approach was not realistic and proved destructive—setting them back for decades of additional wandering.
We, too, are susceptible to this kind of thinking—especially in our work to promote global social justice. So often, when we learn of an injustice, we are passionate about fighting against it. But when we come to understand that truly addressing the issue demands extensive and expansive work, we often turn away. Take, for example, the terrorist group Boko Haram’s kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian school girls in mid-April. Abuzz in the media for about a week and half, the hashtag #bringbackourgirls tantalized many of us with its false promise of actually accomplishing something. As the weeks passed, the media buzz died down and the “hashtag activists” quieted, but the students remained missing and Boko Haram’s terrorist activities, which existed long before the kidnapping, continued.
Sadly, most of us are so easily daunted by the magnitude of injustice in our world that we quickly throw up our hands: the powers of injustice are giants in our midst. Who are we, so small and insignificant, to even attempt to conquer them? It would be great to see an end to global poverty and a world where every person’s human rights were upheld, but the challenges far outweigh the potential long-term rewards. Like the spies, we list the obstacles one after another, forgetting to imagine the grandeur and splendor of what a redeemed world could look like.
The current push to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) in Congress demonstrates the importance of dedication and resilience if we seek to create systemic change. IVAWA has been introduced three times—first in 2007-2008, again in 2010, and now in 2013. While it has yet to be passed into law, each time that it has been introduced it has gained more co-sponsors and more traction. If passed this year, IVAWA has the potential to be a real game changer for the status of women and girls throughout the Global South, as it will enable the U.S. to significantly influence the global women’s rights agenda. But this will only happen if we remain resilient, focused and continue to take action, and not be deterred by obstacles that stand in our way.
The Baal Shem Tov’s insight into Parashat Shlach proves an important reminder for anyone who calls him or herself an activist: there is no “reaping the fruits of our labor” without putting in the hard work and sticking with it for the long haul. Let this message sustain us as we continue our efforts to cultivate justice and freedom throughout the world.
For more information on how you can join the effort to pass IVAWA, sign on AJWS’ We Believe campaign by clicking here.
The Eyes Have It
From Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Shelah lekha
Rabbi Rachel Safman
Dealing with Information Overload
Torah Reading: Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Haftarah Reading: Joshua 2:1 – 24
Have often have you longed for a crystal ball that would allow you to envision the future? How long have you bemoaned the fact that some critical detail of an enterprise was obscured from view until after a critical decision was made? As mortals locked in a unidirectional relationship with time, we imagine enviously what it would mean to be able to look forward in time, but prophecy, too, has it downside, as illustrated by this week’s sedra.
Although Parashat Shelah Lekha, which we read this week, does not strictly deal with the phenomenon of prophecy (Divinely gifted revelations of the future), it does provide us with insights as to we as humans react when presented with too much (still incomplete) information about what lies ahead.
The parashah opens at the point that the Children of Israel, having journeyed onward from Sinai now find themselves within striking distance of Eretz Yisrael. Their proximity creates the opportunity to gather first-hand intelligence about the Land and so acting on their own inspiration – and some would say, in defiance of the Divine will (Midrash Tanhuma, Shelach 5) – they form a scouting party composed of the most respected and promising leaders of each of the tribes and send these ten representatives ahead to gather intelligence.
We might pause at this juncture to ask what we ourselves might do in this situation. Faced with a weighty decision, we would not pull out all stops to gather information, weigh our options and attempt to make an informed choice — Googling relevant keywords, polling our network of friends, calling authorities for inside tips?
Alas, as happens with our own attempts to amass information, the information gleaned by the emissaries did as much to obscure as clarify the people’s prospects. While the emissaries’ observations confirmed that the Land was, as promised, “a land flowing with milk and honey”. But their foray also revealed that the land was already inhabited by a race, Nephilim, who dwarfed them in size and strength. It was, the majority of the scouts concluded, simply too risky to attempt a conquest.
Only two of the twelve spies read the information differently. Caleb and Joshua had been exposed to the same information as their peers, but they weighted the factors differently. Yes, the conquest would be difficult, and yes its conquest would come at a price, but they would ultimately emerge victorious and the fruits of their labors would be abundant.
As we know, it was the pessimistic report of the majority that carried the day amongst the Assembly of Israel in this instance, and as a result of the spies’ assessment, they refrained from an assault on the Land and instead deflected their course to the East, setting in progress an extended course of wondering that would ultimately cost all but two of those assembled – Joshua and Caleb – the opportunity to set foot in the land of their destiny.
While its easy – traditional, in fact, we account them among the tragedies we mourn on Tisha b’Av – to bemoan the fate of those who succumbed to the prevailing pessimism of the moment, it is perhaps more instructive to read the story of the spies – and of Caleb and Joshua, in particular – for the insights it offers as to how they – and by extension, we – might resist becoming dispirited when confronted with a preponderance of (especially, negative) information.
For insights into this challenge, which has a surprisingly contemporary ring, I suggest we might turn to the commentary of Rashi who is drawing from a yet more ancient reference found in the Bavli (Sotah 35b). Rashi recognized the corrosive impact that information might have, especially when piled on immoderately under conditions of emotional duress. So he ascribed to the minority spies, Caleb, in particular, a strategy that has resonance in our own age:
“When the delegation of emissaries came to Hebron, Caleb [separated himself] and went alone to the graves of the patriarchs, so that he would not be enticed by his colleagues and fall into their counsel.”
That is to say, when the cacophony of negative information became deafening, Caleb “unplugged” and took steps that allowed him to refocus on his purpose and reconnect with his inner voice.
The suggestion that a periodic withdrawal from connections with the wider world is a necessary, indeed, therapeutic antidote to the pressures of our daily lives is certain not a new idea in Jewish thought. Indeed, it is enshrined in our most fundamental rituals, through our tradition of Shabbat. But the notion that the deliberate withdrawal from the pursuit of information, the taking of counsel from within rather than without can be a truly life-saving measure in moments of acute conflict and disputation is a timely message in generation that celebrates its “information junkies.”
From Brian Schacter-Brooks
Bold in Holiness – Parshat Sheklakh L’kha
Once, Reb Zushia commented on the saying of the sages, “the bold-faced will go to hell, and the shame-faced to paradise.”
“‘The bold-faced will go to hell,'” said Reb Zushia, “this means that if you are bold in holiness, you don’t have to fear descending into hell. You can engage in all kinds of worldly things, and you will receive the light hidden within them. But if you’re shame-faced in your holiness, you’d better stick to the paradise of prayer and meditation and stay away from the world…”
There is a taste of this idea in this week’s reading, Parshat Sh’lakh L’kha, in which Moses send out spies to check out the Land and bring back a report:
שְׁלַח לְךָ֣ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְיָתֻ֨רוּ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן
Send for yourselves people who will spy out the land…
Most of the spies come back and say that the land is wonderful, but that there are “giants,” and they discourage the Israelites from entering the land on account of the giants. They are being “shame-faced” in a sense, lacking courage and confidence.
There are times for withdrawing from the world and from people, in order to heal or gain perspective. But when it’s time to move back into the world, it is good to be “bold-faced” with your holiness. Meaning, have confidence that there is a task you can do – that only you can do. It might be something you need to learn. It might be serving others in a particular way. Or, it might just be an opportunity to surrender on a deeper level.
To be “bold” doesn’t mean you have to have confidence in yourself. The spies in the story lacked self-confidence, but the remedy would not have been to bolster their self-confidence. Rather, the remedy would be for them to have had Divine-confidence. Hashem told them not to be afraid; if they had Divine-confidence, their lack of self-confidence wouldn’t have been a problem.
Similarly, if you don’t have self-confidence, don’t worry! You don’t need it. It’s often better not to have self-confidence. As Hillel says in Pirkei Avot, “Don’t believe in yourself until the day you die.” (2:5)
But trust: here you are, in such-and-such situation, and this is the situation you should be in; you have some unique role to fulfill. Trust that the Divine “put” you here for a reason. Trust, trust, trust! That’s liberation!
From The Hebrew College
SEVENTY FACES OF TORAH
On Grasshoppers and Angels
By Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld
At the beginning of this week’s parsha, we encounter the Israelites in a moment of intense vulnerability and self-doubt.
The people have been wandering in the wilderness for over a year. So much is behind them: moments of miraculous rescue, relief, revelation; other moments of thirst, terror, and trembling; and always, the thin, almost imperceptible line between them.
What lies ahead is unknown. Guided on their journey by a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of cloud by day, these ex-slaves – still strangers to their own new-found freedom – are commanded to follow a God they cannot see to a land they cannot imagine. It is not difficult to understand why they slip so easily, again and again, from faith into raw fear.
As our portion opens, Moses is commanded by God to send men to “scout out the land of Canaan” – which he does immediately, selecting twelves spies, a leader from each tribe, and sending them off with these instructions: “Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor?”
All good questions. The spies spend forty days scouting out the land. When they return, they go directly to Moses and Aaron and, before the entire community, they make their report. It begins on a positive note. “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey.” But as they continue with a description of the people who inhabit the land, the message becomes more equivocal. “The people who inhabit the country are extremely powerful and the cities are fortified and very large.” A less glowing report, but still, a seemingly reasonable response to their assignment.
It is at this point that things begin to unravel. Caleb steps forward, offering words of encouragement and trying to stem the tide of panic rising among the people. But the other spies take on an even more ominous tone. Their message now turns from one that is tinged with fear to one that predicts certain failure. “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” And then, reaching fever pitch, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its inhabitants. All the people that we saw in it are giants. We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”
It is an exquisite articulation of self-doubt: “Lo nuchal. We can’t do this.” And the ever-so-human projection of one’s own sense of inadequacy onto others: “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”
It is this statement that captures the attention of an extraordinarily poignant commentary from Midrash Tanchuma. “The Blessed Holy One said to the scouts: “You don’t know what you have just let your mouths utter. I am ready to put up with your saying, ‘We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves.’ But I do take offense at your asserting, ‘And so we must have looked to them.’ Could you possibly know how I made you appear in their eyes? How do you know but that in their eyes you were like angels?’”
In this brief imagined exchange between God and the scouts, the midrash underscores the insidious nature of self-doubt, the way we can mistake it for truth, the way it can indeed become “a land that devours its inhabitants.”
The antidote, the midrash insists, is cultivating the capacity to open up some space between our inner experience and outer reality. This is the vital, life-giving space of breath, hope, possibility. The voice of God is the voice that speaks to us, saying: I understand that you are afraid. I understand that you feel small. But take a minute. Leave room for the possibility that your fear is not the whole story. How do you know but that in their eyes you were like angels?
Perhaps the very end of this week’s portion – the mitzvah of tzitzit, of wearing fringes on the corners of our garments – can best be understood as a way of ritually enacting this very truth, a way of keeping open this dialogue with the divine voice in our own lives.
The word tzitzit, according to Rashi and other commentators, is related to the Hebrew word metzitz, or “to peer,” as in the verse from Song of Songs, “metzitz min hacharakim” – “peering through the latticework.”
We, who have a tendency to see ourselves as grasshoppers at times, need to be continually reminded to expand our vision and remember that we stand in every moment before a loving God. In those moments when self-doubt clouds or constricts our vision, we are asked to lift our eyes, to try to peer through the cracks in the walls we have built, and open ourselves to the possibility that we may be like angels in the eyes of an Other.
From My Jewish Learning
The Blue of the Ocean, the Sky and the Tzitzit
Our relationship with the Divine must also encompass a relationship with the world that surrounds us.
BY ELIZABETH RICHMAN
Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make tzitzit for themselves on the corners of their garments through all the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the tzitzit of each corner. That shall be your tzitzit; look at it and recall all of God’s commandments and observe them… Thus shall you be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God… (Numbers 15: 38-41).
Parashat Sh’lach concludes with these famous instructions to attach tzitzit (fringes) to the corners of our clothing as a reminder of and a directive to keep God’s commandments. The instruction of tzitzit is seen as a reminder of the entirety of religious practice. Our Sages believed that it was so important that they incorporated it verbatim into the Shema, one of the most central prayers in Judaism.
The Rabbis wondered why God commanded the inclusion of one blue thread among the white threads of the tzitzit. Tractate Menahot of the Babylonian Talmud reports Rabbi Meir asking “Why is blue different from all other colors?” and then answering, “Because blue resembles the sea, and the sea resembles sky, and the sky resembles God’s Throne of Glory…as it is written: ‘Above the sky over their heads was the semblance of a throne, like sapphire in appearance…’”
In other words, Rabbi Meir hypothesizes that the blue thread in tzitzit is meant to guide its wearers through a chain of associations beginning with immediate visualization of tzitzit and ending with the expansiveness of God. But why didn’t Rabbi Meir simply say that the color blue reminds us of God’s throne? Why do we first need to think of the ocean and the sky?
Rabbi Meir is alluding to the intimate connection between our religious actions and the real world. Our relationship with the Divine must also encompass a relationship with the world that surrounds us: the ocean, the sky, and the rich variety of life that dwells in between. We must learn to truly see, and thereby to know, the full world that God has created, from the depths of the ocean to the heights of the sky and the vastness of earth.
A Reminder for Action
Indeed, we are not permitted to merely contemplate the world–we must be part of it. Immediately preceding Rabbi Meir’s comment, the Talmud asks why we are told to look at tzitzit and remember God’s commandments. The Talmud offers the answer that “seeing leads to remembering and remembering leads to doing.”
Seeing or reading about tzitzit is meant to remind us to act. This is true as much today as it was when these words were written. Perhaps thinking of the blue of the ocean and the sky can serve as a reminder to care for the earth and make choices that lead to sustainable development. Perhaps remembering those who inhabit the expanse of land between ocean and sky, and recalling our communal redemption story, should remind us of our obligation to build a world that honors the dignity and equality of all people.
We can see the earth differently by traveling and interacting with a diversity of people, visiting the developing world, or simply walking down the streets of our own cities, eyes wide open, speaking with those who need help. If we look carefully enough, what we see may remind us, like the Shema does, of our ancient and modern family stories.
Ours are stories about slavery, poverty, immigration, environmental degradation, suffering, and, in many cases, redemption. Our stories can help us to see the stories of others and to act in ways that will bring about redemptive endings. As the Rabbis imply in their teaching about tzitzit and its place in the Shema, when we look around we are challenged to make empathic connections between ourselves and the world around us. These connections obligate us to act.
The color blue that reminds us of ocean, sky, and God’s throne also reminds of this connection. The particular shade of blue to be used in tzitzit is called tekhelet. Ramban (Nahmanides) suggests that tekhelet was chosen because its spelling is very close to the word takhlit, which means purpose or goal.
The relationship between the two words summarizes the Talmud’s teaching on tzitzit. The purpose of our religious rituals is to truly see and engage with the world and its people. This engagement with the world leads us into relationship with the Divine. Only then, as the end of Parashat Sh’lach tells us, we will be holy to our God.
Provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit http://www.ajws.org.
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