Skip to content

Parashat Shelach 5778 — 06/09/2018

Parashat Shelach 5778 — 06/09/2018

Bamidbar 13:1-15:41

If a person should act highhandedly, whether a native or a convert, he has blasphemed Gd – that person shall be cut off [kareit] from among his people, for he scorned the word of Gd and violated His commandment; that person will surely be cut off, for his sin is upon him. (16:30-31)

If you have always wondered what being “cut off” means, you are not alone. The greatest of the commentators down through the ages have pondered this question, because the answer is by no means clear from Torah itself, and apparently there was no clear-cut Rabbinic tradition that has come down to us about it, either orally or in the Talmud.

Abarbanel notes that there are some hints in Torah. Generally the word nefesh/soul is used when discussing kareit. This would seem to indicate that kareit is a kind of spiritual punishment, a distancing of the soul from its source in Gd. This inference is somewhat undercut by the fact that nefesh is often used to mean an individual (as in “a nefesh who will sin,” where the body is quite involved in the sin) and in any event, the nefesh is generally taken to be the most outer aspect of the soul, even found in animals, not the inner essence, the neshamah, which is unique to human beings. Furthermore, the association of kareit and nefesh is not completely consistent – sometimes ish / “a man” is used, which refers more to the physical aspect of a person.

The upshot of all this is that there appear to be both spiritual and physical aspects to kareit. In fact, kareit is sometimes translated “spiritual excision.” The physical aspects generally involve premature death and/or childlessness. The spiritual aspect is less clearly defined, but involves the soul’s inability to enjoy the bliss of closeness to Gd.

There are two other aspects of kareit that are not dealt with in the passages R. Kasnett has chosen. First, a sin offering, which is almost always brought for an inadvertent transgression, is only brought for those transgressions for which the punishment is kareit if one “act[s] highhandedly.” The atonement for the transgression is certainly through a physical act, but one that has a spiritual tone to it. We may slaughter an animal (and in most cases the meat is eaten by a kohen) and put the blood on the altar, but clearly this is no mere feast. The whole point of a sin offering is that the inadvertent transgressor, due to lack of mindfulness, has become distanced to Gd. The procedure of the sin offering is designed to reconnect the individual with Gd, partly by his having to bring the offering, and presumably, partly by the subtle rectifications that the specific procedure creates. This fact would argue that the result of the person’s transgressing on purpose, namely kareit, is some kind of stronger distancing from Gd that cannot be rectified simply by bringing a goat to the Temple and letting the kohanim offer it.

Second, kareit is often spoken of in terms of being cut off “from among his people,” as in our verse from the Torah. So there is a communal aspect to kareit as well. Perhaps this is why many explanations of kareit have to do with dying without issue. To the extent that our children and descendants remain in the community, then our DNA remains in the community. If, for whatever reason, they don’t, then our unique DNA line is lost. If each one of us has a specific role to play in unfolding Gd’s plan for history, then to some extent that will be encoded in the DNA. For example, my role is not to be a visual artist, as anyone who has seen my feeble attempts at drawing will attest.  Whatever in the DNA gives one the talent for art, I don’t have (it all went to my sister, who has passed it on to her daughters). Were I to have died childless, the artistic ability of the Jewish people might be enhanced, but the other aspects in which I do have a role to play would be weakened. In this sense, kareit is not only a punishment for the individual; it is a punishment for the community as well.

Here is Abarbanel’s take:

His main point is that every example of kareit … contains both a physical and a spiritual element. … The phrase “that person shall surely be cut off” is a translation of the words hikaret tikaret. This double wording indicates that both the body and soul will be cut off. The transgressor dies before what would normally be expected naturally; the soul separates from the body and enters the World of Souls. There it is kept distant from the Divine Presence, unlike those who merit eternal life. … However, this is not a complete and total separation, as every soul has an intrinsic, inextinguishable existence … Kareit, however, is still a painful punishment for the soul. When the punishment is complete, it then returns to enjoy the pleasure of the Divine Presence.

Sin is part of a vicious cycle that involves both body and soul. It is the nature of both body and soul to go after greater and greater happiness. The soul finds its greatest happiness in closeness to Gd, which is essentially in the inward direction. The body finds its happiness in the objects of the senses, which are in the outward direction.  There are certain actions that the body can take (mitzvot) that bring pleasure to the soul, whether or not they bring pleasure to the body. There are other actions that the body can take that further distance the soul from Gd. The further we are from Gd, unfortunately, the more likely we are to violate His Will, either inadvertently or because the centrifugal pull of the body is too strong for us. Thus our actions either lead to greater purity, greater closeness to Gd, and a greater level of intuition of His Will, and thus we come closer and closer to Gd as time goes on. Sin causes the opposite. Kareit-bearing sins are particularly egregious, and cause a great distancing from Gd, necessitating a direct purification of the soul in the World of Souls, without the negative pull of the body. Fortunately the Torah provides guidelines for assessing our actions, so that we can choose wisely and come steadily closer to Gd, which is the ultimate purpose of our existence.


Parashat Shelach Commentary by Steve Sufian

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 in which they were. Canaan symbolizes the land in which the outer transcendent, the material existence and the inner transcendent are integrated and individual life is restored to Wholeness, Oneness.

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 and integrated 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.

From this standpoint, the sending of spies into Canaan was a test of the people’s readiness, holiness, to enter the Promised Land. They failed the test and so Gd chose to delay the entrance until all those who lacked holiness had passed away and the rising generation and newborns would have sufficient holiness to enter Canaan.

We can also look at this symbolically: The whole of Torah, including this parshah, may symbolize different parts of the human physiology.  For example, the six layers of the grey matter of the brain, the cerebral cortex, may symbolize the six days of Creation while below them, the white matter of the brain, may symbolize the day of rest.

In this parshah, the twelve tribes and the 12 spies who represented them may symbolize the twelve pairs of cranial nerves. This is especially appealing as a symbolism because only ten of the spies said that Israel was not strong enough to enter into the Promised Land: said we were, Gd was with us. Of the cranial nerves, the first two originate in the cerebrum: they could symbolize Caleb and Joshua, the Gd-supporting spies. The other ten originate from the brainstem: they could symbolize the fearful spies.

Another example is that the twelve tribes may represent the twelve pairs of ribs connected to the backbone (Jacob, the father). The failure of the tribes was equivalent to being unable to draw nourishment from the backbone: i.e., they had no backbone and therefore were afraid, no matter what Gd said to Moses. The forty years waiting was the time it took to re-connect the ribs to the backbone, to have more direct experience of the integrated, whole soul of their father, Jacob and of Gd, and to regain the nourishment needed to be confident, to trust in Gd.

Another example could be the heart: Dr.Tony Nader, Ph.D, MD, MARR, sees the seven pairs of sympathetic ganglia, the four thoracic segments and the parasympathetic intervention — 12 in all — as corresponding to the 12 notes of the musical scale. They might also correspond to the twelve tribes and to the twelve spies who represented them. Of these notes, the first note and the fifth note can never be flatted or sharped: they could correspond to the two pure spies, Caleb and Joshua, who remained true to Gd.

This is an appealing angle: to understand Torah as symbolic of physiology, along with the other ways it can be understood.

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

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

It is our opportunity through our spiritual practice, especially our daily routines, to deepen our experience of the transcendent inside and outside our individual personalities, and to integrate them both into our daily life, thus becoming Holy as Gd is Holy so every place we are is Holy Land, the Land of Canaan, the place of freedom, the Promised Land: then the Promised Land is wherever we are, around us, inside us, everywhere.

Baruch HaShem