Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Parsha contains two positive mitzvos and one prohibition
Moshe sends twelve scouts (spies), one from each tribe, to explore the Promised Land. The report of ten of the scouts is that the land is indeed “flowing with milk and honey” but…
o The cities are well-fortified
o The people living in the land are aggressive
o There are giants living in the land
o The people are too strong for the Israelites
o It is a land that consumes its inhabitants
o All the men seen in the land were huge
o The Israelites “cannot go forward against these people”
Calev the son of Yefuneh, one of the spies, tries to quiet the people, insisting that the Israelites can do it
The people, unconvinced, begin shouting and weeping and complain “We wish we had died in Egypt…It would be best to go back to Egypt [flight from responsibility] …let’s appoint a new leader [a new god; return to idolatry]and go back to Egypt”
Moshe and Aharon fall on their faces, not knowing how to respond
Both Yehoshua ben Nun, another of the spies, and Calev rip their clothing in grief and urge the people “not to rebel against God…not to be afraid of the people [because] God is with us”
The Israelites threaten to stone Yehoshua and Calev to death
God’s response: “How long shall this nation continue to provoke me? I will kill them with a plague and annihilate them and make you [Moshe] into a greater, more powerful nation than they”
Moshe prays to God; reminds Him of His Thirteen Attributes of Mercy; and begs Him to exercise restraint
God forgives but insists that this generation will die in the desert and not reach the Promised Land; their descendants will possess it
God decrees forty years wandering for the people, one year for each day of the scouts’ spying
The ten scouts who gave the bad report die by plague; only Yehoshua and Calev survive
Ignoring Moshe’s advice, the Israelites declare they are ready to fight, and then rise up to battle the inhabiting nations. The Amalekites and Canaanites sweep down and defeat the Israelites with a crushing force
Korbanot that are to be brought in the Holy Land require grain offerings and wine libations
Dough offering (challah)
Communal and individual korbanot for idolatry performed inadvertently [relates to the Israelites’ desire for idolatry during the incident of the scouts above]
A man is stoned to death for violating the Sabbath by gathering sticks (or carrying them; or cutting them; or binding them)
Four-cornered garments that are worn require tassels (tzitzis)on each corner that include a tassel of sky-blue wool to remind us of God so that we do not stray after our hearts and eyes, which in the past have led us to immorality
“…and Moshe named Hoshaya Ben Nun, Yehoshua.”
Some maintain that the name change had been made earlier. Perhaps Moshe, remembering Yehoshua’s misjudgments (in the incidents of the Golden Calf and Eldad and Maydad), felt Yehoshua needed a special Divine blessing so he added the letter “yud” (representing God) to his name.
Jonathan Elkoubi thinks that Moshe purposely changed the name here because Yehoshua was not among the prominent, wealthy Princes selected. By adding to his name with a letter that represents God, Moshe raised Yehoshua’s stature.
The Sin of the Scouts
…commonly referred to as Meraglim, though that name never appears in the text.
R’ Isaac Arama, the fifteenth century author of Akedat Yitzchak (cited by Nechama Leibowitz) observes that instead of acting as neutral observers and just reporting the facts, they offered their (unsolicited) opinions.
Similarly, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag’s view is that the group was on a National Fact-Finding mission to report back the facts --and nothing but the facts—regarding two critical strategic matters: 1) the suitability of the Land as a Homeland and 2) the feasibility of conquering the Land. Their mandate was to gather information and present the data – not to render an opinion about military strategy. After first reporting to Moshe, who commissioned the expedition, they turned to the entire nation with hysterical exaggeration designed to mold public opinion against God and against the Land. After first reporting some truthful facts, the majority launched into a harsh tirade about the impossibility of conquering the land because the people are fierce…the cities are fortified… the residents are giants … and the land “consumes its inhabitants”.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that while most commentaries agree that the scouts demonstrated a lack of faith, Hasidic thinking is that the scouts were well-intentioned individuals who were concerned with the spiritual challenges--not the physical ones--confronting the nation. They were not afraid of defeat but of victory.
They wanted the Israelites to maintain their unique relationship with God in the unfettered quiet of the desert, far removed from the challenges and discontent of civilization. The Israelites “lived in close and continuous proximity to God…drank water from a rock…ate manna from heaven… were surrounded by clouds of Glory…miracles accompanied them along the way.”
In this no-man’s land they could achieve (or approach) the closeness to God experienced by the first human beings in the Garden of Eden.
In psychoanalytical terms, “they did not want to let go of the intimacy and innocence of childhood and enter the adult world”. They feared freedom and the responsibilities it entailed. And this was a sin, because the Torah goal is for us to demonstrate ethical behavior when engaging the world. Our nation’s purpose is to make God’s presence visible. “The Jewish task is not to fear the real world, but to enter and transform it.”
The Scouts’ Words Reveal Their True Feelings
After reporting to Moshe how the land “flows with milk and honey”, the scouts add “EFES” -- a word meaning “nevertheless” or “but” or “zero” whose use is intended to negate everything that was just said. They rejected the Land and the real-life challenges it posed. So, they energetically cited several reasons why the Land could not be conquered.
Calev who tries to calm the Israelites by stating: “Let us surely go up and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” But the spies respond that the people could not attack because “chazak hu memenu” meaning “they (the inhabitants of the land) are stronger than us” but also translatable as “they are stronger than Him”. This Midrash cited by Rashi points to the scouts’ true agenda: to rouse the people against God by insisting that the people of the Land are stronger than God! They rejected God and maligned the land He promised them. The whole community broke into loud cries and said to one another “…It would be better for us to go back to Egypt…Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt.”
In their report, the spies exaggerate in describing (all or most of) the inhabitants as huge men and titans and sons of titans. They say, “We felt like tiny grasshoppers and that’s all we were in their eyes.” In psychological terms, they projected their own feelings of inadequacy (their slave mentality) onto the minds of the inhabitants. Grasshoppers jump around aimlessly, unlike ants that are dedicated to achieving their goals.
Rabbi Jonathan Muskat thinks that the scouts’ sin was in their not “putting on a game face” to confront the inhabitants. In fact, as we learn later, it was the inhabitants that feared the Israelites and not the other way around! A fulfillment of their mandate from Moshe required determination and a not-showing of their fear, to gather as much information as possible.
Differences in the Reporting of the Spies Incident in Parshat Devarim
There, in his review of the forty-year desert wanderings, Moshe focuses on the Israelites’ sins. There are glaring variations between how the story is remembered there and reported here:
• There it states that the Israelites demanded the spies; here it is God Who ordered the sending of the spies.
• There it states that twelve men were chosen for the mission. Here these people were described as prominent heads of the children of Israel.
• There the spies are quoted as having only said “good is the land”. Here they go into a much more detailed report.
• There the Israelites are described as “murmuring in their tents”. But here there is no mention of this behavior.
• There the people are described as questioning how they can possibly go up to fight. But here they state unequivocally that they cannot go up against peoples that are so much stronger!
Rabbi Dovid Hoffman explains the difference in style and purpose. Here Moshe is acting as an historian recording the events but in Devarim he is exhorting the people to learn from the lesson of history. He is interpreting the incident to highlight how every person is responsible for his own behavior, how one must resist evil and how citing the behavior of a superior or leader or colleague is no excuse for one’s wrongful behavior. We are each responsible for our own actions. Nechama Leibowitz adds that there Moshe is emphasizing the direct responsibility of the ancestors for their actions. They wanted to send spies and, therefore, it was their responsibility for what happened afterwards.
It was for this reason that there the Torah refers to the selected spies as men (and not exalted leaders) to prevent them from excusing their and their parents’ behavior by arguing that they were merely following the conduct of their esteemed and prominent leaders!
Because his prime focus in Devarim is on the Israelites’ behavior (and not on the spies’ behavior) --on their private murmurings and on their lack of faith in God-- Moshe purposely minimizes the details of the spies’ report.
The First Public Desecration of Shabbos
A man who was found gathering sticks on the Sabbath was put to death after having initially been jailed (a rarity in Jewish law) while awaiting the Word of God on how to deal with this unprecedented deed. Likely, his death decree resulted from his disregard of the warnings of two witnesses to cease this violation.
The previous topic discussed in the Torah is about a man who is put to death for publicly and intentionally committing idolatry when acting “highhandedly”. It’s possible that even without warning the sticks-gatherer also would have gotten the death penalty for his behaving in a highhanded, smug manner because such public conduct and attitude, if tolerated, undermines authority.
According to the Talmud, this fundamental section was incorporated into the all-important and twice-daily-recited Shema because of the subjects it contains:
Commandment of tzitzis
Acceptance of all the commandments
Need to avoid sinful behavior that can result from the thoughts of the heart and the sight of the eyes
Avoidance of idolatry
The word tzitzis means fringes (of a garment) or hair lock. There is archaeological evidence that the ancients added fringes to their clothing, perhaps representing the legs of the animal from whose hide the clothing was made. Other researchers think that the lock of hair represented the whole person. “Fringes and locks of hair were also used in legal contexts as occasional substitutes for seals in signing clay documents” (according to many scholarly sources cited by Rabbi Gunther Plaut).
Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom (cited by Rabbi Dr. Marty Lockshin) that from ancient Near Eastern literature and art we learn the importance of a hem in a person’s garment. The more prominent the person, the more elaborate the embroidery of his hem. It represented an extension of the person’s person and authority. At times the impression of a hem on a document replaced a signature. Tzitzis are a way of extending the hem. Professor Milgrom concludes that “It was worn by those who counted. It was the ID of nobility”. Professor Baruch Levine notes the similarity between the word tzitzis and the Akkadian word for ornament. Israelites who wear tzitzis can perceive themselves as aristocrats, recognizing that their lofty position comes from God and from following His commandments.
The subject of tzitzis is cited at this point in the Torah, according to the Ramban, because by looking at the tzitzis we may be reminded not to violate the Sabbath the way that the sticks-gatherer described in the immediately-preceding paragraph did.
In the scout’s saga, the Hebrew root-word “tur” -- meaning travel or scout or explore or go after or follow -- appears often. And understandably so, since the scouts’ story concerns itself with travels.
In the tzitzis paragraph we read “v’lo sasuru acharay levavchem vacharey ayneychem” meaning that tzitzis helps us to not “follow our own hearts and our own eyes after which we may go astray”. The word sasuru, which may also mean approaching things with a preconceived notion, relates to the root “tur” at the beginning of the Parsha.
Tzitzis links to the incident of the scouts by reminding us to avoid repeating the mistakes made by the scouts whose eyes were influenced by superficial, sensual external attraction (causing misperception) and whose hearts (seat of emotion and desire) caused misconception. Rav Hirsch explains that the generation of the scouts rejected the Truth of Divine influence in history. By wearing tzitzis on our garments we express through both symbolic and sensory experience our belief in God as “Supreme Authority over all our actions and the Dispenser of all events”.
Humans often are drawn to something we know we should not do…and we often yield to our desires. But reminders can make a difference in the way we act. The conclusion of a number studies cited by Rabbi Sachs is that people who are watched; people who believe; and people who are exposed to and/or reminded of God and/or of religion tend to be more caring, more giving and more honest people than those who do not. Outward signs like tzitzis, mezuzah and tefillin are the reminders to resist temptation that we maintain on our clothing; on our homes; and on our arms and head.
One is obligated to have tzitzis attached only when wearing a four- cornered garment. Perhaps we can detect another profound idea lurking in this Mitzvah. We are not commanded to, but if one seeks to investigate and deal with global ethical and moral issues (i.e., involving the “four corners of the world”), one needs to be especially careful not to be unduly influenced by one’s eyes that emphasize external attraction and by one’s heart that can cause misconception.
Rambam elaborates that not every mind can clearly grasp the Truth. As such, concludes Rav B. S. Jacobson, “the commandment may train us in humility and caution when it comes to forming and stating an opinion, platform or ideology.”
Rabbi Sacks suggests that tzitzis with its blue thread can be the antidote for the (unconscious) fear of success. Success can bring with it apprehension regarding new responsibilities and new expectations by others. Blue is the color of the sky. When holding and looking at tzitzis we are reminded to look upward to the blue sky (representing God’s universal Presence) with hope and optimism, a first step in overcoming fears.