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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Parashat Sh'lah L'kha 5765
Numbers 13:1 - 15:41
June 25, 2005     18 Sivan 5765

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS

Being deliberate in speech and generous in mercy stand at the heart of Parashat Sh'lah L'kha. At the opening of our Torah reading, God commands Moses to send leaders from each tribe to spy on the Land of Canaan. The timing seems auspicious. As the Israelites near the liminal moment of entry, it is fitting that God desires representatives to scout the land. Since the Israelites would soon be God's agents in dispossessing the Canaanites of their territory, they needed to know what to expect. Regrettably though, the spies return from their mission hastily, reporting that "the people that dwells in the land is powerful, the cities are heavily fortified, and giants live there" (Numbers 13:28). Their brutally truthful report triggers hysteria among the Israelite community which demands a return to Egypt. Out of the depth of justified frustration, God then seeks to destroy the Israelites for their lack of trust. Moses, however, intervenes, and their punishment, though still severe, is attenuated. What can be learned from this brief episode?

First, as the commentary of the Etz Hayim Humash points out in the name of Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, "Truth is more than a summary of empirical facts. It must include a response of the soul to those facts." Rather than being deliberate and precise in their speech, the spies are reckless. They neglect to "anticipate the consequence of their words" (842). Knowing full well how despondent and backsliding the Israelites had been in their trek through the desert, these leaders could have tailored their report carefully to their audience. Mishnah Arakhim 3:5 underscores the ramifications of their verbal carelessness: "for we find that the punishment of the Israelites [not entering the Land of Israel] was sealed on account of reckless speech, as it is said, "for they tried Me these ten times and did not listen to My Voice" (Numbers 14:22).

Second, and perhaps more importantly, we learn the virtue of mercy as a result of this episode. Professor Ze'ev Falk (z"l) quite astutely notes that the tribulations of the Israelites in the desert were not only a test for the Israelites but more significantly, they were a test for God. Professor Falk directs our attention to Pirkei Avot 5:4, "our forefather Abraham was tested with ten trials, and he withstood them all - to show the degree of his belovedness." Falk writes that the most serious trial for Abraham was obviously akeidat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac, in which he is called upon to sacrifice his son. As he nears the moment of truth however, an angel from the heavens intervenes and prevents the slaughter (Divrei Torah Ad Tumam, 339). So, too, in our parashah, do we see a similar trial but this time, of God. When God loses patience with the Israelites, God determines to annihilate them once and for all. Fulfilling his prophetic mission, Moses stands in the breach and pleads with God (much as the angel who intervened in the binding of Isaac): "Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness" (Numbers 14:19). God listens to this sensitive voice and accordingly, lessens the severity of the initial decree.

From the Israelite scouts, may we learn the importance of crafting our words wisely and patiently. And from God, may we internalize the quality of enduring mercy. Both disciplines go a long way toward sustaining righteousness in our world.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Matthew Berkowtz

The publication and distribution of "A Taste of Torah" commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.