This week we read about the spies sent into Canaan and the resulting 40 tragic years we were to spend in the wilderness. Unlike Abraham, who, in Lech Lecha, was told directly by God to “go forth”, the spies were sent out, instructed by God via Moses, to
Send out for yourself (Shelach Lecha)
They were to observe and to report back. All of them reported the good of the land, but 10 qualified their reports with a warning. That warning, of the strength of the inhabitants, was pertinent. We were not ready either militarily or by trusting sufficiently in the promises made by God. It was irresponsible to ignore risk but it was also irresponsible to demoralise the people. Only Caleb advised going on, Joshua remained silent.
Not for the first time we would face the wrath of God. In the intercession of Moses, God is reminded of the Covenant at Sinai. Moses’ words are similar to those we read in Shemot. However here we have the grim expression of a God who punishes children to the fourth generation rather than the kindness for a thousand generations.
What results is the punishment of the people over the ages of 20 years who would not be allowed to enter the land. Caleb and Joshua are excepted. What is not set down is the eventual fate of Moses. (For that we will have to wait until Sedra Beshallach.)
The Sedra continues with not just the laws of the offerings but also potent reminders that we are now given. The consecration of a bread portion to God is the first description of the Challah which we eat today. The intertwined sections can be seen as the way that we interact with not just one another but with God. The laws of the tzitzit, fringed garments, still apply.
The story of the man gathering wood on Shabbat can be seen as a dire warning of offending the law. The people assumed an offence had been deliberately carried out. What they did not do was to ask why he was collecting wood. Had he been collecting in order to protect his family from cold and harm then surely the principle of “Pikuach Nefesh” (saving life) would apply. Laws need to be interpreted in the world in which we all live.
Our task as Jews is not to fear the real world, but to enter and transform it using our faith in God, in our traditions and our history.
We will be reading this Sedra on the 26 Sivan. Rabbi Josef Caro (the author of the Shulchan Aruch) reminds us concerning the yahzeits of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Hanina, (who were killed on 25 Sivan) and Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion killed on 27 Sivan. These were the Rabbis whose tragic deaths we still recall at on Tish B’Av and in the Yom Kippur services. They were killed, literally, embracing the Torah.