Skip to content

Parashat Shelach 5780 — 06/20/2020

Parashat Shelach 5780 — 06/20/2020

Bamidbar 13:1-15:41

I have heard the complaints of the Children of Israel, whom they provoke to complain against Me. Say to them, As I live – the word of Hashem – if I shall not do to you as you have spoken in My ears. In this Wilderness shall your corpses drop; all your counted ones in any of your numberings, from twenty years of age and above, that you have complained against Me; if you shall come to the Land about which I have raised My hand in an oath to settle you there, except for Calev son of Yefuneh and Yehoshua son of Nun (14:27-30).

After the Spies return with a slanderous report about the Land of Israel, designed to discourage the people from entering and conquering the Land, Gd decrees that the nation would wander for 40 years in the Wilderness until the entire generation had died out and their children had grown up and were able to enter the Land. The whole incident raises many questions. The spies were all upstanding, righteous men, yet ten of the twelve turned about completely and almost destroyed the entire project of creating an ideal society, ruled by Gd Himself. Why did they do this? What was the flaw in them, the crack in their armor, that allowed this to happen? Why did Gd pick these particular individuals if He knew what would happen with them? In fact, why did Gd let the whole incident take place to begin with? Also, Moshe Rabbeinu sensed that something was off, because he blessed Yehoshua and changed his name to protect him against the conspiracy of the spies. If so, why did he agree to send the men? What was accomplished by wandering in the wilderness for 40 years? Gd wanted to destroy the people and create a greater people from Moshe and his descendants – why was that plan not going to work? Or haChaim’s discussion of these issues is quite extensive and there is neither time nor space to give more than just a flavor of his approach.

We generally read the story of the Exodus and the return of our people to their ancestral homeland as a tale of national redemption, and it certainly is that. Or haChaim sees it as a tale of cosmic redemption as well. It is a battle between the forces of holiness and the forces of impurity, of lost sparks of holiness crying to be gathered up and brought to their home, of the Jewish people learning to fulfill its mission to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy people.”

Or haChaim cites an incredible Midrash, based on an unusual word used for “to spy” in Moshe’s recounting of the incident in Deut 1:22. The word used is v’yachperu, which can also mean, “to dig” (I think in Mishnaic and modern Hebrew this usage is the most common one, although one can certainly see the thematic relationship with spying). The Midrash takes off on this and says that the people came to Moshe and insisted on sending spies. Moshe said, “No need, Gd has promised us the Land, He’ll arrange to remove the inhabitants.” The people countered that the spies would just be searching out where the Canaanites would be burying their valuables (to hide them for the future), and Moshe “fell into their trap” and acceded to the mission. Of course the people were insincere, and really wanted the spies to determine if they could conquer the Land. When Moshe sent them out, he did it with one, kosher intention, but the spies went with the people’s bad intentions.

This raises the question, why could Moshe not see through the people’s dissimulation? He was a prophet, after all? A similar question might be asked about Ya’akov, when he was given Leah instead of Rachel on his wedding night. Even though Rachel, not wanting to see her sister humiliated, had given her the passwords she and Ya’akov had set up, and even though they were (according to the Midrash) identical twins, still, Ya’akov was a prophet! Why didn’t he pick up on the deception?

I think the answer in both cases is that the prophets thought there was nothing wrong, because in the long run there was nothing wrong. Gd was using wrongdoing (Lavan’s deceitful switching of his daughters and the people’s lying about their motives) to further His plans, much as He used Joseph’s sale to further his plans to bring Israel down to Egypt. In this case, the Jews needed to be in the desert for 40 years, and here was a perfect excuse to arrange it.

What was the purpose of wandering the desert for 40 years (actually 38 – the 40 years was the total and they were already into the journey for two years)? On the surface level, the nation wasn’t ready to enter the Land. It still had a slave mentality; despite all the miracles and deliverances that Gd had performed for them, they still found it impossible to trust Gd completely. (Before we start tsk-tsking, consider our level of trust in Gd, even without a slave mentality.) Since there was no way for them to conquer the Land in the normal course of events, as the Spies correctly pointed out, they were going to have to trust in Gd. But that would require the replacement of the generation of the Exodus with “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are” capable of becoming holy.

On a deeper level, Or haChaim says that the Israelites were “on a mission from Gd.” They were to rescue the sparks of holiness left over from the primeval act of creation, According to Jewish esoteric teaching the very act of creation involved the mixture of “sparks of holiness” in the “shells of impurity.” That is, from a state of pure unification an entropic process began that produced the state we’re in now, where there is no black or white, only shades of gray. It is the job of the Jewish people to reverse this process by “drawing out” the sparks of holiness from the impurity in which they are entrapped. This is a tall order, as it appears to violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics (Law of Increasing Entropy). The difference is that the creation is not a closed system – it is open to Gd’s energy and intelligence, and we are supposed to be the conduits of that energy and intelligence from its home in the transcendent to the created universe.

The desert, Or haChaim tells us, is a place where the forces of impurity are particularly strong. Consequently, the sparks of holiness they entrap are also strong and that much more precious. Gd had determined that it would take the generation of the Exodus 40 years to wander around, following Gd’s commands, and thereby releasing these sparks so they can return to their home in the transcendent. (All our subsequent exiles can be explained in the same basic way.) At that point we would be able to enter the Land. The impurity of Egypt, which had clung stubbornly to the generation of the Exodus, was now replaced by the freshness and purity of a new generation, schooled in Gd’s ways and able to take the nation’s next step forward.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Shelach Lecha

“Sh’lach” means “send”; “lecha” means “for you, for yourself”.

This parshah gives an opportunity to explore the nature of Moses’ self, the nature of our self, the nature of the Self, Gd, who is the Self of All beings.

Gd says “send for yourself spies” to Moses, and Rashi, the most quoted commentator on Torah, interprets it as meaning, (paraphrasing) “Not at my command, but if you feel to do it for yourself, then send spies.”

Why did Moses send spies at all? Why did he not just trust Gd’s promise that Gd would be with the Children of Israel and they would conquer? By sending spies, he was creating a separation between Gd and himself.

And in our own life, we can ask, “Why do we keep our distance from Gd, by making Gd an object rather than the Essence of our Soul.”

The answer to the second is easier than the answer to the first because we know ourselves first hand: We don’t choose to create a distance between ourselves and Gd: this distance is already there since we are born with it; we are not born experiencing ourselves as Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent. We exercise caution in our lives because we know there is a possibility that our spontaneous thoughts and feelings may not accurately resonate with Total Reality.

This caution is equivalent to sending spies for ourselves.

But wait! There’s nothing but Gd. Gd is All. Everyone, every thought, every decision, every action is Gd. So it was Gd within Moses that produced the thoughts and the decision and the action to send spies.

And in our lives, it is Gd within our thoughts, that guides us to every decision, including the decision to be cautious, to seemingly keep Gd at a distance, an object, rather than the Sole Subject, the Sole Knower, Sole Actor, Sole Being expressing as all the individualities, such as ours.

Despite Gd’s promise that he will support Israel and no enemy will stand before them, ten of the spies say it will not be safe to enter Canaan: the Children of Israel will not be able to defeat the current inhabitants. Fortunately, two trust Gd and say it will be safe.

The people are terrified by this report of the ten and they believe them despite the efforts of two of the spies and Moses to reassure them that Gd’s promise is true: they will be able to safely enter Canaan, the Promised Land.

Gd then declares that because of this bad behavior the Children of Israel will have to spend 40 years in Midbar, the desert.

Why did Gd put the thoughts into the spies minds that caused them to bring a false report? Why did Gd put the thoughts into the people’s minds that caused them to believe the spies and not Moses, the trusting two spies or Gd?

One way to look at this is to look at “40” as a symbol of fulfillment: 40 days of the Flood, 40 days Moses spent on the mountain receiving Torah (twice), 40 the age at which Isaac and also Esau married.

“Forty” is 4 times 10: four for the Four Worlds, different stages in the manifest-tation of Creation, and ten for the Ten Sefirot, 10 fundamental Qualities of Gd, within Gd.

But why 40 years, not 40 days or forty minutes, 40 seconds? What is the symbolism of a year?

A day is a full rotation of the Earth around its own axis: a year is a full cycle of the Earth rotating around the Sun.

The Earth symbolizes mundane, material existence and the Sun symbolizes celestial, divine existence.

Egypt (:Mitzraim”) means “boundaries, limits, restrictions. “Midbar” means “desert, wilderness, barrenness”, but, symbolically, transcendence.

“Canaan”, the Promised Land, means “synchronicity, integration”, the integration of boundaries and transcendence, the land where our ancestors and we can experience Gd’s Presence fully.

The goal of human life, the mission of our life, is to return to Full Awareness of the reality that All is One: this is the Promised Land, Full Integration of boundaries/limits and Transcendence, Freedom. This is the experience of Gd’s Presence, not in the duality of Gd and human, but the Oneness within which all details, all beings, exist.

This Land is not the modern state of Israel or any nation, any physical place. This Land is the State of Awareness in which we experience ourselves as Complete Synchronicity, All-in-All.

How can we experience this?

By transcending, as many in our Congregation do, through whatever range of techniques we have, including our traditional daily prayer routine, to whatever extent we can; and then acting in the field of boundaries so that gradually, transcendence comes to pervade all the boundaries, dissolving their nature as limits and restoring them to their nature as conduits through which Wholeness Acts and as Flows within Gd, All-in-All.

So let’s rise – let’s Go to our Self – and experience the spies, Moses, Egypt, Israel, all the planets and all the stars and all the space between them and within them, all diversity as expressions of our own Self, the One Self, Gd, Consciousness, above duality/diversity.

Our religion, especially Love as the center of our religion, helps. Helps greatly!

Baruch HaShem