Between the Lines—Shelah Lekha

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi David Levy

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוטה דף לד עמוד ב
אמר ריש לקיש: שלח לך - מדעתך, וכי אדם זה בורר חלק רע לעצמו? והיינו דכתיב: וייטב בעיני הדבר, אמר ריש לקיש: בעיני - ולא בעיניו של מקום


Babylonian Talmud Sotah 34b

"Send for yourself men" (Num. 13:1). Resh Lakish said: "'For yourself' means from your own mind; because does anyone choose a bad portion for themselves? That is what is written: And the thing was pleasing in my eyes"—Resh Lakish said: "It pleased me [Moses] but not the All-Mighty."


Typically, I am not drawn to exegetical midrashim; I prefer the narrative comments. However, this little teaching is a great piece of wisdom from Resh Lakish.

Resh Lakish is picking on the strange language of the command in Numbers 13. God instructs "send for yourself men," as opposed to simply saying, "send men." Numbers Rabbah picks up on this also, and suggests the meaning is that this is a process initiated by the people. God has already promised this land, and if they have doubts, they can send spies. Here in Sotah, too, Resh Lakish has picked up on the use of "for yourself" as indicating that this is the will of the people, not of God.

Resh Lakish thereby addresses the theological problem underlying this tale of the spies who create havoc with their reports. Why would God have made a plan that backfired so badly? Resh Lakish would have us understand that God's plans were fine; it was ours that went south, when Moses acquiesced to the peoples' need for a report.

Most important in all of this is the proof text that Resh Lakish uses. In Deuteronomy 1, Moses retells this story a bit differently then we have it here. There, Moses says that the people asked for the opportunity to spy out the land, "[a]nd the thing was pleasing in my eyes." The JPS translation aptly renders this phrase as "I approved of the plan." This is a dramatic moment of taking responsibility.

Resh Lakish, in this brief teaching, is suggesting that trouble starts when we, like the Israelites, stray from God's plan. (If only we always had a clear view of what that plan is for us.) Resh Lakish also suggests that if we are wise, like Moses, we can learn to take responsibility for our mistakes.