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06/26/2019 05:17:51 PM


Sam Shnider

This week’s Torah portion is Shelach (Numbers13:1 to 15:41) which recounts the story of the spies-twelve representatives, one from each tribe, who were sent to scout the land-and concludes with the mitzvah of Tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of a Talit, and the mitzvah of wearing the Talit itself. 

The spies were sent to “scout” the land:

When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, “Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. 

Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? 

Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified?

Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.”

Although we often refer to them as “spies,” it is by no means clear that the mission is a military one. There is no specific command to find routes of attack or places of encampment for an invading army. Even the representatives who are chosen for the mission are not renowned for their status as warriors, but rather as political “leaders of the Israelites.”

After all, God had promised the Israelites that an angel would go before them and conquer the nations of Canaan. The military conquest should be simple. There is no need for spies. 

In fact the word “spies” - meraglim-is never used in this story. Rather the word “Tarim,” which is translated as scouts, could mean “surveyors” or “seekers.”

What a strange mission Moses has sent them on! He  appears to be giving the leaders of Israel an opportunity to “taste” the Land of Israel before it is actually given to them. To experience its delights, and its challenges and to report back. 

The infamous report of the spies is the reason for the “wandering” for forty years in the desert: it is a report full of dashed hopes, anxiety and fear. The spies see themselves as grasshoppers before giants. It begins on a positive note: 

This is what they told him: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.

But quickly turns sour:

However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there.

Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim there—the Anakites are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”

The spies describe not only their own fear of a land “that devours its settlers” but even project their fear onto others: we saw them like Giants and they saw us like grasshoppers. 

The Torah juxtaposes the mitzvah of Talit to the spies to show us the healing wisdom that the Jewish people have to correct the mistake of the spies. The spies were “Tarim” (surveyors, seekers) the Talit is designed to ensure “velo Taturu” (so that you do not wander, seek out) - the same root verb. The Talit, which we wrap ourselves in, is a symbol of Jewish identity. It allows us to be surrounded by faith, wherever we go, and to remember who we are as a people and as individuals with a purpose. 

In each and every generation the Jewish people is faced with insurmountable difficulties. But the Jewish people are also renowned for the strength of our identity.  The Talit, which surrounds us in a serene space of faith, is a reminder of that. 

It is our choice to remember who we are. The mistake of the spies was to forget that they were leaders of the Israelites, to forget that angel that would go before them. As Jews we are only faced with giants when we see ourselves as grasshoppers. 

Each time we wrap ourselves in the Talit, we transform the space around us and reconnect to that identity within. Each time we remain connected to our heritage and our identity, we see the difficulties around us subside. 

This is the secret of the Jewish people, and this is what allows us to triumph. 

Fri, August 14 2020 24 Av 5780