Skip to content

Parashat Shelach 5777 — 06/17/2017

Parashat Shelach 5777 — 06/17/2017

Bamidbar 13:1-15:41

Why did Moshe Rabbeinu send the spies, with disastrous consequences?  Why did Gd allow him to send the spies?  Our Sages tell us that in fact the words “Send for yourself…” (Shelach l’cha) which open our parashah indicate that Gd was saying, in effect, “Send them if you want to; I am not commanding you to send them.”  Ramchal writes:

Why did Moshe take this initiative rather than wait for a command from Hashem?  Moshe understood that there are certain times in which man must take action in the physical world in order to arouse action from above in the spiritual realms.  There are other times, however, when man does not possess the power to do anything in this world and it is therefore incumbent upon him to remain passive and await Hashem’s intervention.

Moshe reasoned that sending the spies would arouse a rectification in the physical world that would “cause” Hashem to act, making the necessary preparations for B’nei Yisrael to overcome the tum’ah and conquer the land.  Hashem realized that B’nei Yisrael were in a spiritually weakened state after the sin of the golden calf, and they did not possess the power to arouse the spiritual realms, which is why He did not command Moshe to send out the spies.  The people should rather have waited for Hashem without the need for any awakening from below.

What we seem to have here is a kind of existentialist version of Hamlet’s favorite question: “To do, or not to do, that is the question.”  Are human beings to act in the world, or are we not?  It appears from Ramchal’s words that there are times when we must act, and times when acting is counterproductive.  Part of our job, apparently, is to learn to discern which is which.

Here are two other explanations, quoted in Peninim on the Torah, 21st Series, by R. A. L. Scheinbaum:

… A nation that had witnessed the saving Presence of Hashern among them should have had enough faith to follow the Cloud – without question. Moshe allowed their request, because he saw that they were dead-set on this course. To deter them would increase the friction, thereby creating an even bigger issue. Thus, he accepted their misguided plan, rather than blow the situation out of proportion.

   In other words, the people erred by assuming that it would be best to minimize the miracles that accompanied them and attack the land by conventional methods, i.e. spies. Their mistake was downplaying their miraculous existence. A nation that is subject to such supernatural intervention should abandon all desire for human endeavor. They erred, and Moshe did not want to exacerbate the issue further.  (My highlight)

R. Scheinbaum gives us a very strong hint that the decision whether or not to take action is based on the level of consciousness of the person trying to make this decision.  “A nation that is subject to such supernatural intervention” is the one that should “remain passive and await Hashem’s intervention.”  Implied is that if we have not experienced the kind of supernatural interventions that the Israelites experienced, then we should proceed to act.  Perhaps this is at the root of our Sages’ famous dictum, “We don’t rely on miracles!”

Finally, R. Scheinbaum quotes an interpretation from R. Ovadia Yosef, z’l, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel:

Thus, Hashem “allowed” the meraglim to go their own way, to make mistakes, and deceive themselves – to create a scenario in which the nation would get carried away and descend to a nadir that was unpardonable. Now, they would be relegated to living out their days in the Wilderness, in a setting where they would study Torah regularly from the mouth of Moshe. They would exist on Heavenly bread, manna, which the Talmud declares was the perfect sustenance for one who has to retain Torah. Retrieving it was no bother and allowed them to study Torah undistracted. It was the perfect setting. It was a punishment that was really a blessing in disguise – but then, every punishment conceals a deeper meaning.

This interpretation raises the question, if the people were traveling and camping by Gd’s instructions (via the lifting or resting of the cloud), why could Gd not simply have led them in circles for 40 years, stopping at the specific places and for the specific periods of time that would allow the people to grow in the areas they needed to grow in.  Why would Gd allow the spies, and the people, to sin so egregiously that we, their descendents, have suffered for it?

I’d first like to discuss Ramchal’s idea of arousing the upper spiritual realms from below (i.e. from the material plane).  This is called itaruta diletata, literally “arousal from below.” defines it as “an initiative taken by man by performing mitzvot and good deeds, which elicits a reciprocal response from Gd.”  Now this is an area where we have to be very careful – we don’t wish to imply that we can take any action to “force Gd’s Hand” so-to-speak, because fortunately, we can’t.  And we certainly wouldn’t want to impose our limited intellect and perception on Gd, when He can take all relevant factors into account and arrange matters for everyone’s maximum benefit.  Nonetheless, since Gd has given us free will, our moral choices will have some effect on all levels of our environment, from the highest heavens to the farthest galaxies to our immediate, earthly environment.

Sometimes, on the other hand, the stimulus goes the other way – the awakening comes from Gd.  This is called itaruta dile’eyla, “arousal from above.”  Prophecy and the Revelation at Mt. Sinai are two major examples of this “awakening from Above” – while one can prepare himself for prophecy, still Gd must grant prophecy to us.  Prophecy does not arise from a cause-and-effect chain of events.  It is based on the need of the time and the availability of a suitable vessel, but it is a gift of Gd.

In reality, there is a constant back-and-forth between Gd and human beings.  Gd reveals Himself to those who are prepared to receive that revelation, and human beings are trying to do Gd’s Will as best we can discern it.  Gd asks us “return to Me and I will return to you” (Zechariah 1:3; Malachi 3:7) and we reply “Turn us to you and we will be turned” (Lam 5:21).  In fact, I think this back-and-forth is actually a feedback loop.  We turn to Gd, which means improving our behavior.  Gd therefore turns to us, as we are doing His Will.  This increases our perception of and our love for Gd, and we turn to Him even more.  Where it starts may not actually matter that much, as long as it starts and breaks the opposite, vicious cycle of sin, estrangement and despair.  Since “Heaven helps those that help themselves,” we should take the attitude that itaruta diletata is primary and get busy turning ourselves to Gd.  After all, the only thing in life we have any control over is our own actions!


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parashat Shelach

Literally, Shelach Lecha means “go for thyself” but perhaps we can take it to mean “go to thyself”, implying that the people should find the inner transcendent that corresponds to the outer transcendent, the desert they are.

When we look at the parshah this way, we can infer that of the twelve “men of distinction,”  Caleb and Joshua saw the land of Canaan from the perspective of their transcendent Self (Torah says Caleb saw it with a different spirit than the other spies): therefore, they naturally, spontaneously perceived the land as Gd declared it: a land which was given to the Children of Israel, a land which they could easily enter with Gd’s protection.

The other ten leaders of the tribes did not perceive from this level: they perceived from the restricted level of the surface of awareness, the boundaries; they perceived as if they were still slaves in Egypt (“Mitzraim”: restrictions) and so they perceived themselves and the Children of Israel as being weak, unable to prevail against the might of the people of the land.

It is commonly said (Zohar and Midrash, according to Rav Yehuda Berg of the Kabbalah Center) that the spies gave a false report and that they did so because they were afraid to lose their distinction; they were afraid to enter a land without restrictions, in which everyone would be a person of distinction. But perhaps the logic I present above – which seems consistent with what Torah says – is valid. They perceived from the level of restrictions and so they did not have the unrestricted Holiness needed to enter the Holy Land.

The parshah ends with Gd saying, “I am the Lord, your Gd, who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your Gd. I am the Lord, your Gd”

And this echoes with Gd’s words earlier in Torah, “Be thou holy for I am holy”.

It is our opportunity to continue experiencing the transcendent, integrating it into our daily life, and becoming Holy as Gd as Holy so every place we are is Holy Land, the Land of Canaan, the place of freedom, the Promised Land.

Baruch HaShem