Skip to content

Parashat Shelach 5773 — 05/29/2013

Parashat Shelach 5773 — 05/29/2013

Yehoshua bin Nun sent two men from Shittim to spy secretly, saying, “Go and see the Land and Jericho … (Joshua 2:1)

This is the first verse (actually the first half of the first verse) of the Haftarah for our portion.  The connection is obvious: the Torah portion is about the disastrous mission of the spies in Moses’ time, and the Haftarah is about Yehoshua’s successful dispatch of another spying mission, almost 40 years later as the Israelites were preparing to enter the Land.  A number of commentators have mentioned the various ways in which the two missions differed from one another, but I want to focus on the word secretly (cheresh).  The root meaning of the word is silence as in Hashem y’lachem lachem, v’atem tacharishun / Hashem will wage war for you, and you will be silent (Ex 14:14).  I came across the following homily in the email Torah Weekly from 5759 (1999):

The passage begins with the fact that they were sent in secrecy; the term used is “cheresh.” Since this term reminds us of the word “cheres” – Hebrew for earthenware – our Sages deduce that they took along pottery to disguise themselves as traveling earthenware merchants. The Chidushei HaRim explains that Joshua had reason to choose clay vessels as the ware for the disguise, in order to remind them not to stumble as had the previous spies.  [Note: According to the Midrash, the two spies were Pinchas and Calev.  Pinchas had already shown his worthiness in the incident with the Midianite princess, and Calev was one of the only two of the original spies who did not slander the Land.]  Earthenware vessels differ from other vessels in that they do not accept spiritual defilement unless their interior comes into contact with the spiritually defiled. This is because, unlike metal, wood or glass, the clay from which they are formed has no importance; its sole significance is due to its form as a vessel. Spiritual impurity passes only when it contacts the important aspect of an entity, so regarding clay vessels, unless it touches the interior, which symbolizes the usefulness, the impurity will not pass on.  Joshua wished the spies to understand that a man is like an earthenware vessel: His significance lies in his duty, he has no self-importance.  This thought would prevent them from diverting from their assignment.  [The Chidushei HaRim is Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur (1789 – 1866), the first Gerrer Rebbe.]

The word Adam / man comes from the word for earth (adamah), as Gd tells the first Adam: …until you return to the adamah (soil, ground, earth) from which you were taken (Gen 3:19).  In some way, then, it is natural to compare human beings with earthenware vessels.  Now according to the way I understand the Chidushei HaRim, the salient feature of an earthenware vessel (i.e. a container) is the space inside it.  We understand this from the laws of ritual impurity.  There are certain creeping creatures (the 8 are listed in Lev chapter 11; note that the identification of some of them is speculative) that cause vessels and their contents to become ritually impure by contact.  Earthenware vessels are unique in that the presence of one of these creatures inside the vessel, even if it is suspended in the vessel’s airspace and is not touching any surface of the vessel, renders the vessel impure.  However, if the creature touches the outside of the container, it does not impart impurity, as it would if the vessel were made of wood or metal.

It appears that the Chidushei haRim is making a distinction between an object’s form and its substance.  The substance of an earthenware container is clay, but the clay can be shaped into any one of a number of forms.  In the case of earthenware, the substance is so cheap and plentiful that it has no importance, no intrinsic worth.  (When I was in India in 1970 I saw drinks being served by street vendors in clay cups, which were used and then immediately discarded.  Upon inquiring, I was told that these clay cups were “the Dixie cups of India.”)

The form of the container is obviously significant – its size, its depth, whether it is perforated, all can affect what it can be used for and how useful it will be in that application.  If we go to subtler layers of form we might say that all containers, large and small, of all different shapes, instantiate the generic form of “container” – perhaps defined as a surface with an “inside” and and “outside.”  I might point out as an aside, that it appears to me that much of what we call “Talmudic hairsplitting” is trying to identify the category (form) into which a particular situation might fit (and therefore which halachot might apply).  By training our minds to pierce through surface appearances and to see and identify the abstract forms beneath these experiences, we are learning to function on subtler levels of thought and perception.  Ultimately, we want to penetrate even beyond the level of the forms, to the infinite, unformed substrate of all existence.  This is presumably the work of a lifetime of focused, dedicated growth.

To return to our earthenware selves however, the Chidushei haRim tells us that Yehoshua used the analogy of the earthenware vessels to keep lively in the spies’ awareness that a human being is not to be associated with his or her body.  Just like the purpose of the clay in an earthenware container is to define the space within the container, so the purpose of the human body is to define or support the consciousness, the soul, that dwells within the body.  The soul is, as it were, the “space” within the container which makes it significant, the “form” of the human being which persists through all the external changes the body goes through from youth to old age.  And in the same way, Gd, as it were, is the “space” (haMakom) at the center of His creation, having “contracted” Himself to leave room for the finite to take shape, to grow and to evolve, to the point that it can become a proper vessel to contain the radiance of the Divine Majesty whence it came forth.

Deep inside each of us is a place of infinite expansion and yet infinite silence.  It is a level of life that transcends our bodies and our minds, our emotions and our intellects.  It is that place where our fully developed individuality meets Gd’s Universality, where we become pure existence and stand in mute awe of Gd’s greatness.  Our bodies can provide the shape that allows that silence to rise in waves of expression; we only have to learn to use them and care for them properly.  Our humble earthenware shell stands impervious to the forces of contamination that swirl around us, preserving the precious purity of our inner, unbounded reality.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 3

Mishnah 12

R. Chanina ben Dosa used to say:

If a person’s deeds outweigh his wisdom, his wisdom will endure.

But if his wisdom outweighs his deeds, his wisdom will not endure.

This Mishnah is often interpreted to mean that the purpose of one’s Torah learning (wisdom) is to put it into practical application (deeds), and that is certainly true.  Torah wisdom is meant to be put into action, not to remain theoretical, ivory-tower speculation.  It is the interaction of wisdom with real-world, concrete situations that allows Torah’s wisdom to manifest itself, and of course allows us to modulate our actions in accordance with Gd’s Will.  But consider another angle:  According to the Ari (R. Yitzchak Luria, 16th century, Tzefat), when Gd contracted Himself to leave room for finite creation, He then radiated his essence into that space, where it was supposed to fill a series of “vessels” that would give it form.  Alas, Gd’s radiance was too great for the vessels and they broke, leaving only husks and shards (kelippot) that it is our responsibility to put back together through our deeds and thoughts (this is the real meaning of the term tikkun olam).  Now think of our deeds as the vessels, and Gd’s Torah, radiating through us, as wisdom.  If our vessels are strong enough, they can properly clothe and give form to the infinite wisdom coming from Gd.  Thus, Gd’s wisdom will endure.  But if the radiance is too great for us, our vessel will not be able to withstand it, and Gd’s Wisdom, as it were, will not endure – at least not this expression of it.  It’s up to us, through our deeds, to strengthen and temper ourselves to be a fitting vessel for Gd’s infinite effulgence!