Parashat Sh’lach / פרשת שלח־לך (Numbers 13:1-15:41; Joshua 2:1–24)
Moses chose a prince from each of the tribes (except Levi) to spy out of the land of Canaan, to bring back a report of the conditions existing there. Hoshea ben Bun was selected from the tribe of Ephraim, and Moses changed his name to Yehoshua (Joshua).
After a trip that lasted forty days, they returned to the camp, and all except Yehoshua and Caleb ben Yephuneh (of the tribe of Judah) reviled the land, stating that while it was very fertile, its inhabitants were too mighty to overcome. Despite Caleb’s insistence that Israel could easily prevail over the Canaanites, the entire congregation despaired, and wept bitterly at the supposedly insurmountable obstacles that confronted them – declaring that they would depose Moses and Aharon, appoint a new leader, and return to Mitzrayim (Egypt).
Their lack of faith angered YHWH, and He threatened to destroy Israel, and to form a new nation through Moses. But the great lawgiver pleaded for his people, and succeeded in staying Elohim’s wrath.
YHWH stated, however, that as punishment for their rebellion, none of that generation from the age of twenty and over, with the exception of loyal Caleb and Yehoshua, would be permitted to enter the Promised Land. Israel was doomed to wander in the wilderness for forty years – until the new generation had grown to maturity.
The ten princes who had brought back the evil report perished. After their punishment had been outlined, some of the people tried to go forward, against Elohim’s command – and they were beaten back by the Amalekites and Canaanites.
YHWH gave Moses instruction concerning the fire-offering to be brought after the settlement of the land – as well as the law of “Terumah” (heave-offering to YHWH) – the law of sacrifice for a sin committed inadvertently or accidentally (Bishgagah) by the entire congregation or by an individual.
The Torah portion then relates the incident of the man who gathered wood on Shabbat, and who was stoned for his transgression. This is followed by the mitzvah to wear tzitzit (fringes) on the corners of our garments – to remind us of our religious duties and to call to our minds the Mitzvoth (Commandments) we are to observe and to observe.
‘One Torah and one code of justice shall be for you, and for the stranger who sojourns with you.’ The Jewish people individually and collectively – have been accused by anti-Semites in ever generation, of harboring ill-will towards non-Jews; and of being permitted by our religion to take advantage of those who do not agree with our views. Pseudo-scientific tomes, containing distorted quotation, translations, and interpretations of Biblical and Talmudic statements and theories, have been compiled for the purpose of disparaging and discrediting Torah Covenant Judaism. The sentence quoted from today’s Torah portion gives the lie to this false and malicious theory. And Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Beit ha’Mikdash (Temple) amplifies it clearly – as do countless other portions of our Sacred Scriptures, outlining and explaining our doctrine of justice to all. An idolater or an atheist was naturally condemned – but everyone had equal rights before the bar of justice.
The very nature of Torah Covenant Judaism, indeed, our hasidic faith, calls for tolerance. But, unfortunately, we are misunderstood – probably because of our failure to strictly adhere to our own Torah. And, furthermore, some of us carry the spirit of tolerance to a misconstrued and extreme conception. We have become “tolerant” in matters of our very faith, and tolerate transgression because we feel we have no moral right to interfere in the philosophy (if we may so term it) of our co-religionists. And this naturally leads to individual, incorrect, and untenable interpretations of our Torah – and in this – even our inconsistencies are inconsistent!
“Torah Achat, u’Mishpat Echad” – One Torah and one code of justice shall be for you. How we fail to live up to this doctrine in the matter of our observance! Let us consider the problem of Shabbat – Elohim’s greatest gift to humanity. How we abuse this privilege and honor bestowed upon us by the merciful and beneficent Creator and Governor of the universe! We have seen some of our brethren operate their businesses on Shabbat – and then come to services sanctimoniously, overlooking willfully the fact that this does not change the situation one iota – because they have others working for them, and they accept the profits therefrom!
The man who gathered wood on Shabbat in the wilderness did so publicly. For this, his punishment was severe, because a vital distinction is made between public and private transgression. While the latter is naturally condemned, sinning in public is more heinous, inasmuch as it is tantamount to a public proclamation of lack of belief in Elohim and His Torah – and, moreover, it leads others to sin – which is indeed a grave crime. Hence the speedy punishment of the man who was guilty of breaking the laws of Shabbat in public.
One sin leads to another – and we are so constructed that if we continue our wrongdoing, it becomes habitual with us, and in the end we justify it.
It is interesting to note that the incident of the Shabbat violator is immediately followed by the Mitzvah to wear tzitzit. How many of us wear the Arbah Kanfot”, consistently and conscientiously? This simple mitzvah, Biblically defined, is overlook or ignored completely in the majority of cases – whereas, we are told, ‘And you shall gaze upon it (the tzitzit) and remember all the Commandments of YHWH – and perform them; and you shall not seek after the inclination of your hear, and your eyes – in the pursuit of which you are led astray.’ The tzitzit are to serve as a guide and a warning to us – to remember and to perform the Mitzvoth of the Torah. Are we all so righteous that we should be called the Tzadik? Do we think we are so righteous that we do not have to wear the tzitzit to remind us of the Mitzvoth and our obligations? If we were, there would be far less intolerance and misunderstanding – both Jewish and non-Jewish.
When we fail to wear the tzitzit we gather the sticks of worthless customs, habits and superstitions, forgetting about the ordinances and regulations that are to guide us to live up to Torah and its teachings. When we fail to wear the tzitzit we begin accusing our brethren of wrong doing, and become intolerant or look down upon and begin placing dividing walls between us based on ethnicity or nationality or tribal affiliation. And we are stoned with ignorance, with jealousy, with hate, with intolerance, and with anti-Semitism in all its ugly forms. Such actions are not part of the Torah Covenant because the Torah is one and is for all our people.
(Adapted by Rabbi Saul Katz from You That Thirst, Torah Commentaries 1940)