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Parashat 06/15/2011

Parashat Shelach

by Robert Rabinoff


They have lost their protection (lit. their shade is gone) (14:9)

Rashi: Their shield and their strength – the righteous among them died: Iyov (Job) who was a shield for them.  Another interpretation: The shadow of the Omnipresent has departed from them.

Last year we took a look at Moshe Rabbeinu’s instructions to the spies who were sent to reconnoiter the Land of Israel in preparation for the nation’s entry and their taking possession of it.  In particular they were asked to see if there were any trees.  Now since they had already been asked to see if the Land was rich or not, surely that would include the information whether it had both fruit trees and non-fruit-bearing trees for construction.  Rashi tells us (13:20) that “trees” really means “upstanding people” whose merit would serve as a shield for the people.


We have another example of the same line of thought in the verse quoted above.  This verse is from the next chapter, and is spoken by Calev, who, along with Yehoshua, are the only two of the twelve spies not to slander the Land in an attempt to keep the people from entering it.  Calev is responding to the disheartening report that the people of the Land will be formidable enemies, too strong in fact for the newly freed slaves to even think of conquering.  His point is that just as Israel cannot rely on its strength to conquer the Land, neither can the Canaanites rely on their apparent strength to defend it.  In fact, their real protection had already departed from them, leaving them vulnerable.  In fact, 40 years later, Rachab, the innkeeper in Yericho who hid the two spies that Yehoshua sent, testified to this very fact – she told the Israelites that although the walls of Yericho might be formidable-looking, the hearts of the people had already melted – they had given up (after seeing what Israel had done to the mighty kings Sichon and Og) before a single shot was fired.


The locution Calev chooses to describe this phenomenon translates literally as “the shade (tzel) has left them.”  Anyone who has walked down a road in the desert on a hot summer’s day, and comes upon a lone tree with a few square meters of shade, can understand this metaphor perfectly well.  Rashi treats this protection much as he does with the “trees” of chapter 13 – the protection comes from the righteous, upstanding members of society, whose very presence uplifts the spiritual level of those around them, and of the society as a whole.  From this higher spiritual level, attack becomes almost impossible; without it, defeat becomes almost inevitable.


I’d like to take a look at Rashi’s second interpretation.  He says “the shadow of the Omnipresent has departed from them.”  Here he takes the word tzel literally.  Our tradition tells us that the Clouds of [Gd’s] Glory hovered over the Israelites during their entire sojourn in the desert.  Apparently, although perhaps less obviously and miraculously, every nation has a shadow of Gd’s glory hovering it.  I think Rashi’s implication may be that just as Israel could not have survived our desert trek without Gd’s protection, so no society can survive without Gd’s protection.  Perhaps this is what we are all seeing in the increasingly polarized, vicious and corrupt politics in the US, Gd forbid.


There is another place in Scripture where the root tzel is used: when Gd decides to create human beings, He creates them b’tzelem Elokim, usually translated “in Gd’s image.”  Perhaps one can argue that “Gd’s shadow” conveys an aspect that “Gd’s image” does not.  A shadow is not a real image – in fact it’s a projection of the real thing that is characterized by an absence of light, a fuzziness, and a loss of detail.  Certainly human beings are Gd-like in some respects – we have the ability to make moral choices and thereby contribute to creating the spiritual world that we will inhabit.  Nonetheless most of us understand from our own experience that our lives, at least on the surface, are dark and fuzzy compared to the infinite clarity that is potentially within us, and which finds its most perfect expression in Gd.


Our tradition tells us that although we may be created b’tzelem Elokim, we can degrade ourselves to such a great extent that we lose virtually all connection to our inner Divinity – we can lose our tzelem Elokim.  Sin, action which is not in accord with Gd’s Will, is the mechanism by which we identify ourselves increasingly with those aspects of our personality (principally our body) that tend to obscure our Divine nature.  When the burden of sin builds up to a certain extent, the eclipse of our tzelem Elokim becomes so intense that we become hardly recognizable as human beings.  We have all seen mug shots of particularly heinous criminals that give us the feeling that we cannot even recognize their humanity any more.


Perhaps Torah is telling us that sin on the level of society – especially the three cardinal sins of idolatry, murder and sexual immorality – can cause the tzelem Elokim to be lost or obscured from a society as a whole.  When there are still righteous people in the society, it can endure, for the burden of accumulated sin is not allowed to pile up.  The righteous, by their words and by their example, inspire us all to strive to think, speak and act in more life-supporting ways.  They inspire us to repent – to return to our infinite roots – and therefore to let more of the shadow of the Omnipresent be expressed in our individual lives.  Perhaps Calev was telling the people that while we had leaders like Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon the Kohen, leaders who expressed the highest possible levels of Gdliness and who uplifted the entire nation by the force of their connection with Gd, the Canaanites had nothing of the sort.  The best they could muster was Iyov, and now he too was gone.  The iniquity of the Amorite was now full.  The tzelem Elokim, the righteousness that alone makes us human, the connection to the Divine that protects us and showers us with all the blessings of heaven and earth, was gone.  They were ripe for the picking, had Israel only responded properly.


I think the warning for us in the US is particularly apt.  Our political culture has become a cesspool of greed and corruption.  Our economy is virtually bankrupt.  We have spent and continue to spend vast sums of money and altogether too many lives in military adventures of dubious value.  Our environment is systematically being destroyed for short-term gain.  What passes for religion must have Gd rolling his eyes in disbelief.  This great nation, perhaps the only nation that was consciously founded on a set of high ideals, is in danger of losing its way completely.  I don’t pretend to be a prophet, nor do I want to be a doomsayer, but unless we all start to work on our tzelem Elokim, both individually and communally, we may soon reach a point of no return, where we are so stained and sullied that repair is impossible.  May Gd grant us the strength to turn back and start moving in a positive direction again.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 2

Mishnah 14

He [Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai] said to [his 5 chief students] Go forth and see which is the evil way from which a person should keep away… R. Shimon [ben Netanel] says: One who borrows and does not repay.  One who borrows from a person is as one who borrows from the Omnipresent, as it is said: “The wicked person borrows and never repays, but the righteous person is gracious and gives” (Ps. 37:21)

On the surface level it is clear that one who has no intention of paying back a loan is nothing more than a thief.  On a deeper level, we are all bound up in a community, a network of interdependencies, in which we all receive, but more importantly, we all have the opportunity to give to others.  When people come together with the primary aim of giving, everyone receives.  When people come together with the primary aim of taking, nobody gets anything but frustration.  The more we give to someone, the more invested we become in that person and the more our love for them grows.  Ultimately, there is one Lender to whom we owe everything – Gd gives us existence, life, the ability to make moral choices, a soul that can connect back with Gd.  Since Gd is infinite and self-sufficient we can never repay those gifts, but we can use them properly, in accord with Gd’s Will.  The result is infinite bliss for us and satisfaction for Gd.  It is the ultimate win-win proposition!