Parashah Shlach: Disastrous delegation

Of all the sins the children of Israel commit in the Bible, the most serious sin of all takes place in this week's portion of Shlach.

parsha shelach 88 (photo credit: )
parsha shelach 88
(photo credit: )
"And the Lord spoke to Moses saying, 'Send for yourselves men who will seek out [Heb. vayaturu] the Land of Canaan which I am giving to the children of Israel, each one representing a tribe of their fathers shall you send, each one a Prince from among them'" (Numbers 13:1,2). Of all the sins the children of Israel commit in the Bible, the most serious sin of all takes place in this week's portion of Shlach, when a delegation of 12 Princes of the tribes of Israel return with a disastrous majority report casting doubt upon the young nation's ability to conquer the land. The scouts' severe report is the direct cause of the death of the desert generation. However, what is difficult to understand is that the suggestion to establish such an ill-fated reconnaissance team at the very outset of this week's Torah reading came directly from the Almighty Himself, quoted above. How is it possible that God would have suggested a delegation destined for such a terrible disaster? Rav Elchanan Sammet, in his excellent study of the weekly Torah portions, suggests an insight which at the same time provides a textual underpinning for a magnificent homiletic interpretation given by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The secret to understanding lies in the verb form used in the charge given by the Almighty, "Send for yourselves men who will seek out [Heb. veyaturu]," the verb tur appearing no less than 12 times in this very sequence, the very number of the members of the delegation itself. In fact, when Moses himself retells the story in his farewell address (Deut 1:22,24), he has all the Israelites coming to him and saying, "Let us send men before us that they may check out [veyahperu] the land... and spy [vayeraglu] it out," using two verb forms very different from the veyaturu used by God in our portion. A careful search will reveal that in other Biblical contexts, God does link the verb form tur to the Land of Israel, as in, "the Lord G-d who walks before you, He will do battle for you… to seek out [latur] for you a place in which you may settle your encampment." Even the prophet Ezekiel (20:6) declares that "…on that day I shall raise my hand for them to bring them out of the Land of Egypt to the land which I have sought out [tarti] for them. A land flowing with milk and honey, a most precious land for them among all the other lands." The power of the specific verb form tur used by God is even more clearly expressed in the very conclusion of this week's Torah reading, where we encounter that very verb form in a different but most revealing context. Almost inexplicably, this Torah portion, which mainly deals with the scouts, concludes with the commandment to wear ritual fringes on the corners of our four-cornered garments: "…and [the blue-and-white] shall be for you for a fringe so that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them; and so that you not seek out or lust [taturu] after your heart and after your eyes which lead you to commit acts of harlotry [zonim] after them" (Numbers 15:39). And when punishing the Israelites, God once again makes reference to the sin of the scouts as having been an act of harlotry [znut], "…and your children shall be shepherds in the desert for 40 years, thereby bearing [the sin] of your harlotry [znuteichem]" (Numbers 14:33). The picture is becoming very clear. The Almighty was not at all interested in a reconnaissance mission to scout out the Land or even in an intelligence delegation to assess the military practicability of engaging in an act of conquest. Perhaps that was what the Israelites had in mind when they asked Moses to send men before them to check out the Land, which probably meant to see by which roads it would be best to enter and which cities ought be attacked first. The Almighty had a very different design in mind. God wanted to impress them with the uniqueness of the Land which He Himself had picked for them, the Land that would be their ultimate resting place, the Land which was good and not bad, which produced luscious fruits and healthy animals, the Land whose produce developed strong and capable men; God wanted them to conquer the Land with great anticipation and desire. Rav Soloveitchik goes one step further. In the Bible, the Torah of Israel and the Land of Israel are both called morasha, which means heritage, but which our sages linked to me'orsa, which means betrothed and beloved. God understands that the conquest of the Torah of Israel as well as of the Land of Israel by the people of Israel will require strong feelings of love for each of these grand enterprises. And just as the Rabbis of the Talmud command us not to marry a woman unless we first see her and know that we love her, so did God ask Moses to send a group who would give the kind of visual description of the Land of Israel to the people of Israel, which would inspire them to love the Land and even lust after the Land. God understood that such an emotional attachment was absolutely crucial if the Israelites were to overcome all of the obstacles involved in conquering the Land, settling it and forging within it a holy nation and kingdom of priests. Alas, the people - and probably even Moses himself - did not understand the Divine command. Their sin was in misunderstanding the purpose of the mission; they took it to be a scouting enterprise rather than an inspirational foretaste of what awaited them after their conquest. Our generation - so similar to the Israelites who went from the darkness of Egypt to the light of freedom and stood at the entrance to the Promised Land - must do whatever is necessary to recapture and strengthen the love of Israel if we are to succeed in properly settling it. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.