Shelach 2016 - 5776

Post date: Jun 30, 2016 6:43:38 PM


This week’s parsha – Shelach – relates an inflection point in our people's history. It chronicles the greatest sin we, as a people, collectively committed up to that point in our existence. The cost of that sin - the consequences of our actions - were that our national aspirations were delayed until we, both individually and as a group, felt strong enough to take responsibility for our actions. A generation would die in the wilderness, never to reach the Promised Land. It is not the story of the golden calf, nor is it about the rebellion of Korach. No, the parsha begins early in our journey through the Sinai. The Israelites already were nearing the border of Canaan.

Moses dispatches 12 spies to the land to see the agricultural features as well as well as to reconnoiter the current inhabitants and their military capabilities. Among the spies are two well-known biblical figures – Caleb and Joshua (who is renamed so by Moses from his former name Hosea). After looking around the land, the spies bring back a branch with a grape cluster (which has become an iconic symbol of Israel), pomegranates, and figs in order to show the land’s bounty. They also report back that the current inhabitants of the land are yeldei ha’anak – children of long-necked (or, tall) men. Later on, the spies refer to these people as nefilim – giants. They also note that the people in the land are az – fierce or mighty – and that their cities are well-fortified.

The word used initially to describe the inhabitants of the land of Canaan – anak – is an interesting one, defined as “neck” or “necklace.” Rashi notes that this word is used to describe the stature of the people because they are so tall that the sun drapes around their neck. Another definition provides the term “long-necked.” Either way, the spies returning to Moses seem clearly focused on the size of the people currently inhabiting Canaan. The text in Chapter 13 alone refers to the size and strength of the inhabitants six separate times, including one clear statement that the people there are chazak mimenu – stronger than we are.

In many ways, this parsha is setting up some of the great stories in the book of Nevi’im (Prophets) – David slaying the giant Goliath (who is presumably one of the nefilim described here) and Joshua marching around Jericho to defeat it. Interestingly, the Haftarah for this week is an early part of the story of Joshua. In fact, it is the part where Joshua, now the leader of the Israelite people, himself sends two spies into the Land of Canaan. At this point, forty years later, the Israelites are right at the bank of the river, poised to "cross over Jordan." The spies sent by Joshua find shelter with Rahav, who lies to the king of Jericho in order to protect their identities and keep them safe. From Rahav, these spies hear the following message:

“I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you, when you came out of Egypt; and what you did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were beyond the Jordan, unto Sihon and to Og, whom you utterly destroyed.” (Joshua 2:9-10, translation by Mechon Mamre).

This message from Rahav is the opposite of the message brought by the spies of Vayikra. In Vayikra, the spies bring messages of terror at the size and strength of their soon-to-be opponents. Here, in Joshua, the spies hear a message of fear in their opponents. Their message back to Joshua is almost the polar opposite of the message brought back to Moses. The spies in Joshua say, “Truly the Lord has delivered into our hands all the land; and moreover all the inhabitants of the land do melt away before us.”

What has changed between Vayikra and Joshua? Certainly the Israelites have grown stronger as a nation – endured more challenges together, survived longer in the desert, remained one nation even through the death of their leader, Moses. However, something else is notable in the content of these messages – the first set of spies in Vayikra brought back messages of fear related solely to the physical size and strength of the land’s inhabitants. In fact, the words used to refer to the people in Canaan are words denoting large stature and imposing physiological attributes (such as long necks). These are terms of the body – noting that the people are giants and are chazak (physically strong).

On the other hand, the message in Joshua is one connected to God and God’s miraculous actions that have allowed the Israelites to win battles against the great kings – Pharaoh (referred to in the context of the exodus from Egypt), Sihon, and Og. In Joshua, nothing is mentioned about the Israelites’ physical size or strength, but rather about all that God has done to help them secure military victories.

So, we have a message of fear in the Israelites because their opponents are bigger and stronger, and then, later, a message of fear in the opponents of the Israelites because the Israelites’ God is powerful and mighty. It seems as though this contrast is at the root of aphorisms such as, “Brain over brawn” and famous quotes such as, “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will” (Mahatma Gandhi).

It was, then, paralyzing self doubt, an exaggerated humility carried to a point of worthlessness, or in the terms of the Torah, a lack of faith in God, which was the sin of ancestors, relegating them to endure the rest of their natural lives in the wilderness.

Clearly this sentiment of brain over brawn is nothing new. Why is it important here in particular? I think that the unique position of the Israelite people upon entering the land of Israel is critical to remember. God specifically wants the people who enter the land to be a different generation than the one that was enslaved in Egypt. It is entirely possible that the generation that came from slavery in Egypt was physically strong, given the backbreaking work of building cities and pyramids for Pharaoh. However, as that generation dies out, the Israelites have no way of guaranteeing that the new generations will be strong in this way – it is not possible to genetically pass on physical strength to one’s descendants. This can be obtained only through an individual’s working of their own body repeatedly over time.

However, it is certainly possible to pass along other, less tangible qualities to future generations – those of belief in God, faith in the leadership of a nation, and courage in the face of fierce opponents. These cerebral and emotional qualities are ones emphasized by the spies in Joshua, and the ones that will ultimately allow the Israelites to enter and possess the land, just as God has promised. And they are no less important today than they were 3,500 years ago.

Ensuring that their children and their children’s children were part of the nation following God, and part of a group who was strong and courageous when doing so, allowed the Israelites to transition from wilderness to civilization, from a place of fearing the sheer size of the long-necked giants to a place of confidence, worthiness and dominance over their enemies.

While perhaps we, today, do not desire to intimidate or dominate, this week’s parsha and haftarah bring into stark contrast the relative importance of passing on physiological traits versus emotional and cerebral ones to the next generation. We do not necessarily need children who play professional soccer, but we certainly want children who are comfortable in their skins, who feel worthy, who know which leaders to follow, which ideas to believe in, and who know what challenges can be overcome with courage and faith.

Yvonne Asher, Samuel Asher