Parashat Shelah lekha

July 1-2, 2016 – 26 Sivan 5776
Annual (Numbers 13:1-15:41): Etz Hayim p. 840; Hertz p. 623
Triennial (Numbers 15:8-41): Etz Hayim p. 851; Hertz p. 631
Haftarah (Zechariah 2:14-4:7): Etz Hayim p. 856; Hertz p. 635

PDF Shelah lekha 5776

Biblical Espionage

Rabbi Avram Kogen, whose “day job” is in insurance, lives in New Jersey.  He has long been involved with Camp Ramah, and USY through his children, two of whom have spent a year in Israel on USCJ’s Nativ program.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses sends 12 scouts to “spy out” (וְיָתֻרוּ) the Promised Land.  In the Haftarah, we read a parallel passage in which Joshua sends two spies west, across the Jordan, to size up the city of Jericho before battle.  Might we expect that Joshua’s sending of spies was simply a “replay” of the mission that Moses had initiated, we would be mistaken.

Joshua was well aware of the structure and the disastrous outcome of the earlier mission.  Not only was he was the protégé of Moses, but of course he himself had been one of the 12 spies and one of the two whose minority report was rejected by the people.  That incident led to God’s punishing the Israelites with forty years in the desert, certain ample time for Joshua (and his fellow spy, Caleb) to ponder the reasons and circumstances for their failure to convince the people.

One explanation given for the people’s acceptance of the discouraging report of the 10 spies over the optimistic words of Joshua and Caleb is that the people were still deeply rooted in their slave mentality.   Others have said that their faith was not serious enough, despite having witnessed the plagues in Egypt, the parting of the Reed Sea and the divine revelation at Mount Sinai.  But at least one other factor played a role, which comes to light when we contrast the stories of the Parasha and the Haftarah.

The Haftarah opens by telling us: “Joshua son of Nun sent two spies secretly (חֶרֶשׁ) …” Commenting on the word secretly, Arnold B. Ehrlich (Mikra Kiphshuto, 1899-1901) says:

Secretly – from all of [the nation of] Israel, for Joshua was fearful lest the outcome of

[the mission of] his spies mirror that of [the spies of] Moses his master.  I have seen

fit to interpret thusly, since – had he [meant] “secretly from the people of Jericho” –

what would this passage [be seeking to] teach us?  Are not all spies sent in secrecy

from the inhabitants of the land which they are setting out to survey?


Ehrlich wants the reader to be consciously aware that secretly modifies the sending process, not the manner of the spies when they are in hostile territory, since the need for secrecy in hostile territory should be so self-evident that the biblical narrator would have no need to specify it.

The implication is that when Moses had sent out 12 spies, this was done publicly (within the camp), concealed only from the enemy.  This would be consistent with sending out 12 well-known leaders, whose absence from the camp would have been noticed, even had they not been sent out with great fanfare.

By contrast, Joshua sent two unheralded (and unnamed) spies who were to report to him alone.  The spies presumably realized that they would remain anonymous, and that their mission was more important than their fame.

Every leader has different strengths and weaknesses.  Moses had the fortitude to confront Pharaoh and to lead a recalcitrant nation, but most of his work was done overtly; he was better at confrontation than he was at diplomacy.  Joshua added a dimension of subtlety, when necessary.  In learning from their examples, we should try to understand when we should be confrontational and when we should be diplomatic.

A Vort for Parashat Shelah lekha
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty

Shelah lekha anashim – Send people for yourself,” the parasha opens (Num 13:2).  Rashi says, “לדעתך – as you wish;אני איני מצוה לך – I do not command you to do this.”  The Ma’adanei Melech (attributed to the Ibn Ezra, Spain 12th C) reads Rashi as follows: ‘I‘ – don’t send.’  I command you not to send “Type I” personalities, people who are self-centered, proud and full of themselves.  Type I’s make a point of looking for faults and finding deficiencies, and if sent to spy out “the good and pleasant land,” they will keep digging and searching until ultimately they find it despicable (cf. Ps. 106:24).

Table Talk
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty

Moshe sends a delegation to tour the land of Israel prior to entering it. They return and report their finds to the people. Something goes terribly wrong. By the end of this episode we are no longer on the verge of entering the land, but rather headed for another 39 years in the desert.

1) How many people are parts of the delegation going to tour the land (13:1-16)? Why should each tribe have a representative? Are you familiar with the representative of the tribe of Ephraim (vv.8, 16)?

2) What kind of information does Moshe ask them to look for (13:17-20)? Based on his questions, what was the purpose of the mission?

3) The delegation returns and reports what they saw (13:26-29). What is the reaction of the people (14:1-4)? What do you think brought about this reaction?

4) What is the penalty for the people’s behavior that night (14:26-37)? Why will the people walk in the desert for 40 years (vv.31-32)? Why was that number chosen (v.34)?

5) Our Parasha closes with the Mitzva of Tzitzit (the fringes on the 4 corners of a garment), which you might recognize as the last part of the Shema (15:37-41). What is the Mitzva (v.38)? What is the purpose of the fringes (vv.39-40)? How do you think that having fringes on your clothing might help with this?

5) After the people blame Moshe and Aaron for the deaths of the people, a plague breaks out. Aaron, the high priest, runs to save the people (17:6-15).  How does he stop the plague?  Why do you think that this tool was chosen to save the people? (What does this teach us?)