Shlach: Short Takes on the Parsha

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Scout ants carry fruit for Parshat ShlachScouts! Ants! Shlach! (5777/2017)

Parshat Shlach. Scouts on my mind.

Still, I didn’t think much about our first scout. Probably crossed the threshold through our open front door. Or rode in on the back of a cat.

“Good morning!” Said my husband the next day. “We have ants.”

“Did you deport them?” I asked. 

“No,” he said. “I killed them.”

But they kept coming. In twos and threes, walking in wide circles along the kitchen counter. Occasionally I would reach down to pick one up, hoping to deport it out the back door. The little group would scatter, hide, and re-convene. 

Scouts!

For three days I kept the counter meticulously clean. Only one bowl of food stayed out. A fruit bowl with thick skinned avocado, orange, and banana.

On the third day, the scouts returned home. To the big collective, to file their report.

What kind of report did they bring? A mixed one, for sure.

“It’s a wow!” said some scouts. “Abundant! There’s giant fruit! A group of us working together could carry it home. Let’s do it!” 

“No,” said some other scouts. “It’s not safe. Not worth the risk. Giant animals live there, ready to swoop down and squash us like bugs!”

Imagine the community response. A thousand ants shouting, “No, no, no more risk! We lost too many on the last job.” One or two hushing the crowd to offer a counter-argument. “We are ants! Risk is what we do! Have faith in your comrades. We can bring back the goods!”

Oh my gosh, the Torah is such a funny document! 

You don’t get the joke yet? Here’s Parshat Shlach:

Twelve Israelite scouts report on their visit to the land of Canaan.

“Look at this giant fruit!” they say. “You need two people just to carry a cluster of grapes.”

“But,” they add, “the people are gigantic. Next to them, we feel like bugs!”

One scout wants to go back. “We can do it!”

Ten scouts disagree. “The place will eat us.”

Israelites melt down. Moses and Aaron fall on their faces. God loses patience.

The irony? Bugs are powerful. Think ants, bees, moths, locusts. If these insects decide to invade, we cannot stop them.

If only the Israelites had felt more like bugs. Determination. Courage. Mutual support. Imagine the community response!

***

Wartime God, Peacetime God (5773/2013)

Parshat Shlach ends with an upsetting story. A man is found gathering wood on Shabbat. Presumably he is planning to build a fire, which is forbidden on Shabbat. God says that the man must die, and the entire community pelts the man with stones.

Psychologist Rollo May says “myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence. A myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world.” Can we apply May’s insight to this story? How does this myth help make sense of anything? What meaning does this narrative pattern help us understand?

Perhaps it offers a way to understand mob behavior. Here, people experience themselves as possessed by something beyond their normal selves. They call their zeal a “commandment from God.” In real-life wartime, this is not an unusual claim.

The Talmud reinterprets this story, contrasting it with a peacetime experience of Divine energy. Here, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai spends 12 years hiding in a cave during the Judean revolt against Rome (135 CE). He emerges, not knowing the war is over. When he sees people engaged in peacetime activities, his fiery look of anger burns them to death. A heavenly voice sends him back to the cave for 12 more years of purification. When he emerges again, he sees a man carrying myrtle branches in honour of Shabbat and is comforted.

In our reflective peacetime mode, we cannot imagine a God who would command thus. We are more likely to think of God as an inspiration to equanimity, a force that encourages us to master our emotions so we do not engage in mob behaviour.

Shabbat is a day of peace-shalom. How will you reach for equanimity this Shabbat?

Sources: Numbers 15:32-36; Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 33b

**

Overcoming Fear (5772/2012)

Parshat Shlach introduces some frightening mythical beings: the Anakites, giant people; and the Nefilim, disruptive princes who survived the great flood. When the Israelite scouts return from their tour of the Land, ten of them insist that a military campaign is impossible, because “all the people that we saw in the land are men of great size; we saw the Nefilim there – the Anakites are part of the Nefilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Num 13:32-33)

But forty years later, the Israelites do wage war on Anakite kings and defeat them – most notably, as Moshe proudly reports, “King Og of Bashan…his bedstead, an iron bedstead…is nine cubits long and four cubits wide, by the standard cubit!” (Deut 3:11)

How do the Israelites succeed? Moshe suggests that the people learn to let go of their fear; after that, God delivers Og into their hands. Midrash explains how they let go: they find the strengths hidden within their limitations. So what if they are only grasshoppers compared to the other armies?  Grasshoppers can, after all, mutate into locusts. “Og King of Bashan said, “I will go and uproot a hill and throw it upon the Israelites and kill them. He uprooted it and brought it along on his head. And the Holy One of Blessing brought locusts which bored through it.” (Talmud Berachot 45b)

When we become aware that fear prevents us from moving forward with something important, we can apply the lesson from the midrash. We can ask, “What am I afraid I cannot do? Does this fear come from any positive quality in me? If so, how can I use this good trait to move forward?”

***

Dog ScoutCalev, Loyal Scout (5771/2011)

Shlach means “Send!” Moshe sends 12 scouts to tour and analyze the land of Canaan and analyze it from lifestyle and strategic points of view. Can it support a mixed agricultural lifestyle? How difficult would it be for an army to enter?

All the scouts report that the land is agriculturally abundant, yielding giant grapes. But ten of the scouts also report that no army could enter be because the farmers are also giants. The assembled crowd hears the report, panics, and moves to attack Moshe for exposing them to danger. Calev leaps forward and says, “But we can do it!”

Who is Calev? If you remove the vowels from under the letters of his name and read it in a familiar way, you will read kelev, Dog. We know that dogs can be very brave out of loyalty to a master. Torah also suggests that dogs are spiritually and emotionally attuned to their surroundings, as it reports that dogs kept their silence on the night of the tenth plague.

If you replace the vowels under the letters of Calev’s name and read it aloud, you will notice it literally means “like a heart,” or, in Biblical Hebrew, “like a mind.” As a mob forms, Calev keeps his focus and thinks clearly. He is attuned to the well-being of his leader Moshe, and he encourages the people to take heart.

If you imagine that the names of the twelve scouts were the formal leadership names they chose, you can see that Calev chose his own name intentionally. Under stress, he brought forward the best qualities of the animal that inspired him.

***

Calm in the Midst of Conflict (5770/2010)

In Parshat Shlach, Moshe sends 12 scouts to check out the Promised Land. The scouts bring back a mixed report: it is a land flowing with milk and honey, but defended by gigantic soldiers with well-fortified cities. A crowd of people who hear the report are afraid, and become an angry mob preparing to stone their leaders. God becomes angry – not about the mixed reports, but about the mob. Even Moshe cannot completely calm God down, and the people continue to behave rashly.

When Moshe can finally speak to the people again, he reminds them of the spiritual atonement practices for unintentional sin and for arrogant behavior. And he teaches them to make and wear tzizit, as a reminder to stay rooted in mitzvot, and not be swayed by fleeting emotional and perceptual ups and downs.

What a perfect teaching to receive after a difficult week in Israel and Palestine. We are hearing so many mixed reports, watching videos, reading testimonies, sorting through opinions. Torah reminds us how important it is for us not to turn on one another. Traditionally, we teach that tzizit remind us of the 613 mitzvot: the gematriya of the word tzizit is 600, plus the 8 threads and 5 knots that adorn each corner total 613. To that, we can add another teaching, relevant to the message of Parshat Shlach: The gematriya of the words zichri shalom, remember peace, is 613.

Thank you so very much to all those who used the Or Shalom list this week to educate one another, and not to criticize one another!

***

Find the Thread! (5767/2007)

Summary of a teaching by Rabbi Steve Silvern:

Parshat Shlach is a mysterious anthology with four sections.  The mystery lies in finding the thread that connects the sections. (1) The spies view the land; (2) God teaches that special sacrifices should be made when all the Israelites go up to the land; (3) the people stone a man for collecting sticks on Shabbat; (4) God tells the Israelites to wear tzizit and remember mitzvot.

In the first and longest story, the twelve spies see the children of Anak (giant), learn when the city of Hebron was built, and collect healthy specimens of fruit.  Ten of them report, “This is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey, but there’s no way we can conquer it.  The cities are fortified, the people are ferocious, and compared to them we are grasshoppers.” The people believe the ten spies and rebel against Moshe. God angrily sentences them to 40 years in the wilderness.  The ten spies who spoke against the land are killed in a plague.

What happened to cause the spies to make a negative report?  If they are only reporting on their experience, why are they punished?  If the people are only responding to the report they heard, why are they punished? What is the connection between the riot after the spies’ report and the stoning of the man who collects sticks?  Why give information about the sacrifices to people who will not be going into the land? And why are people supposed to look at tzizit and remember?  Solve the mystery!  Find the thread!

***

Fringe Metaphors (5766/2006)

“God spoke to Moshe, saying: speak to the Israelites and have them make tzizit (fringes) on the corners of their garments for all generations…when you see them, you shall remember all of God’s mitzvot (commandments).” (Bamidbar/Numbers 15:38-39, Parshat Shlach)

The talit (prayer shawl) is a favorite way of wearing tzizit.  Each of the four corners of the shawl holds a macramé fringe designed to remind its wearer of the mitzvot, a Hebrew word that can be translated as “commandments,” “instructions,” “good deeds,” or “technologies for connecting with holiness.” The Hebrew word tzizit is related to the Hebrew words nitzoz, spark, and tzitz, blossom.  The fringes spark our memories, and help us blossom into people who behave with holiness.

Scholars of late antiquity thought that the body contained 613 bones, joints, and ligaments.  In order to teach that we should express holiness with our entire bodies, they said metaphorically that the Torah contains 613 mitzvot.  Later scholars took the words more literally and tried to separate out exactly 613 divine instructions.

The macramé tzizit on the four corners of the talit remind us metaphorically of the 613 mitzvot of God.  Traditionally, each fringe is made of four doubled strings wound in patterns of 7, 8, 11, and 13, with five blossom-shaped knots between the windings. The gematriya (numerical value of the Hebrew letters) of the word tzizit is 600.  600 + 8 strings + 5 knots call to mind 613 mitzvot, while four corners recall the four letters in God’s ineffable name.

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  1. I was struck by the parallels between the thread of blue in the tzitzit and the thread of scarlet in the haftarah. This made me think of the contrast of the deep blue thread of the techelet, a lofty spiritual reminder telling us to set our gaze higher (to the heavens rather than earthly temptations), with the thread of the scarlet cord, with its message of family, tribe, love (in the Midrash, the earthy Rahab marries Joshua) also blood and war. What color thread is running through our lives?

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