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Shelach Lecha

Shelach Lecha is famous for the opening passage containing a description of the twelve spies entering the land of Israel. It continues with those ubiquitous complaints about life in the desert from the children of Israel. It talks of sacrifice and a man found gathering sticks on the Sabbath who is stoned to death. It ends with what is now the third paragraph of the Shema – the command to make fringes in the corners of garments.

Another voice

Shelach Lecha by Benjamin Ellis :: 5768

Benjamin Ellis trained as a doctor, and lives in North London. Currently on a break from clinical work, he divides his time between the World Health Organization and working for the UK Department of Health as Clinical Advisor to the Chief Medical Officer. His views are his own, and do not represent any particular denomination, organisation or philosophy.

"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Send for yourselves men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people." (Bamidbar 13:2)

Like so many political adventures, this week's parasha begins full of promise. The Israelites are in Paran, on the border of their Promised Land, and the preparations for conquest begin with a reconnaissance operation. And like so much in politics, the initial hope and anticipation are soon shattered. The scouts return with their cautious, pessimistic report; the people weep in despair and desperation and a generation is condemned to wander and die in the wilderness.

Where did it all go wrong?

The traditional explanations lay the blame squarely with the Israelites. Delving into the seemingly superfluous phrase "for yourselves", they detect subtle flaws in the Israelites' motivation. According to Rashi's commentary of Bamidbar 13:2, their insistence on sending scouts implied a lack of reliance on God's direct help. Although God has instructed them to enter the land now, the Israelites ask first to send spies. Like an exhausted parent, God gives in to their demand, knowing full well that the cascade of events will lead to their ultimate punishment: to not enter the Promised Land. In the words of the Tanchuma (Tanchuma Shelach Lecha, section 5): "Now I will give them the opportunity to err through the words of the spies, so that they will not inherit it."

According to this explanation, their fundamental lack of trust leads directly to the dire outcome.

In his 1897 poem "Metei Midbar Ha'acharonim", Bialik uses this story as an allegory for 19th century Europe. He urges those "lost in the desert" to leave behind the slavery, the death and the desolation and to embrace the new leadership, to walk "strongly and silently" towards the "new land". But some of the people won't move. They still want Moshe the rabbi, not Joshua the warrior. So, they too are destined to die in the wilderness. Written in the year of the First Zionist Congress (by a Volozhin-educated man who had come to embrace Zionism) the meaning is clear. Little did he know the wilderness that lay ahead in the next European century.

Rashi sees the parent-child relationship here in authoritarian terms, with disobedience leading to disaster. In a way, Bialik's reading reflects a different perspective on that same relationship. The parent generation, stuck in its ways, harks back to a previous era; the youth march on, crossing borders, conquering new physical, moral and spiritual territory. For Bialik, the death of the old generation is no punishment, but a sad, unavoidable necessity to allow progress. As Wordsworth said: "The child is father to the man".

Much has been written about the conflict of the generations, but can there be another way? Is there a way of relating to God where we are not wrongful children? Is there a way of relating to the past, our traditions - to God - where we treat each other as adults, behaving with respect and love?

The story of Joshua (read in this week's haftara) is different. He doesn't wait for God to instruct him; he simply sends the spies and gets on with planning the invasion. There are no terrible consequences. In this story, God's presence is in the background, supportive, loving from a distance. The work of raising the people is done. Now they must take responsibility for themselves.'

It would seem we get the God we deserve, or at the very least the one we are ready for. If we, like the early Israelites, behave like needy children we will experience an authoritarian, didactic God, with both the security and control that entails. If we take an adult stance, assume responsibility for our own lives and futures, then we can aspire to a God who is a partner, a confidant, a rock of support and unconditional love.


More by Benjamin Ellis

Another voice by Meirav Kallus

Once in a while I wonder to myself what would I chose if I could be any of the characters in the Torah? First of all, I would like to be a man as men played a huge role in that time. Secondly, I wouldn't want to be Moshe as I would rather be a director then a main actor and since the role of God is taken I would probably choose to be either Yehoshua son of Nun or Kalev son of Yefune as thet had one of the best jobs in the Torah - they were given a sneak preview to where we were all heading to! They got the chance to see the country as it is, walk it up and down, talk to people, eat the food, see the sights and get the feel of the land.

The 12 meraglim (spies) are one of the first Israel tour groups to visit the country. Calev and Yehoshua came back with a realistic point of view: it's a wonderful place, many virtues, many challenges, it won't be easy but it's possible.

The SPNI (Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel) have created one of the most challenging and exciting routes in Israel that allow all of us to be the 12 spies: Shvil Israel, a route that stretches from the most southern point of the country to the most northern one crossing it from east to west from north to south. Its full length takes between 3- 4 months. While walking it you get to see everything that Israel is made up of, from the geography, the people, the culture, the great achievements and what we still need to work on to get better.

If you have some time and wish to get a deeper look into Israel as it is, take a backpack, a walking stick, water and go do ‘shvil'!


More by Meirav Kallus

Other Divrei Torah on Shelach Lecha

  • 5766 (Larry Tabick)
  • 5767 (Michael Broyde)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5769 (Ben Baginsky)
  • 5769 (Maya Foner)
  • 5770 (Benjamin Ellis)
  • 5770 (Barbara Seaver)
  • 5771 (Maureen Kendler)
  • 5771 (Abigail Morris)
  • 5772 (Jeremy Stowe-Lindner)
  • 5772 (Simone Abel)
  • 5773 (Nigel Savage)
  • 5774 (Gideon Sylvester)
  • 5774 (Laurie Patton)