Shelach Lecha

And Moses said to God…”Therefore, I pray, let my God’s forbearance be great, as You have declared, saying, ‘Adonai! slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children, upon the third and fourth generations. Pardon I beg of you the sin of this people according to the greatness of your lovingkindness, just as you forgave this people from Egypt until now”. And God said, “Salachti kidvarecha – I have forgiven as you have spoken” (Numbers 14)

          Moses has sent out twelve spies to bring back intelligence about the land of Canaan, prior, one assumes, to the children of Isarel going into battle to take it. After they return from scouting out the land, ten of them deliver a disheartening report on the seeming impossibility of the task, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers” (Numbers 13:32).  Only Caleb and Joshua present the minority report, that they should go up at once and possess the land, that they are well able to overcome the inhabitants.

God is angry and hurt, and threatens to destroy and disown the people, and begin a new covenant with Moses. But Moses successfully argues with God to continue the covenant with the Israelites, reminding God of the shared history, and in particular of the nature of God’s own attributes of kindness and forgiveness. And when he has done this, God responds to him –  “salachti kidvarecha”  “I have pardoned as you have asked.”

It is a phrase we should know well, for it has entered our liturgy for the high holy days, beginning with the selichot services, reminding us to work towards forgiveness and to approach God asking for help to do so, that God forgives if genuinely asked for forgiveness.

The book of Exodus recounts that when Moses was at Sinai, he asked to be able to see God, and God told him he could not see God and live, he could only see “after God”, so he was placed in the cleft in a rock and God passed by him, and the attributes of God are announced – thirteen in all – and God tells Moses that he should recount these attributes in times of distress. In this experience, Moses learns  that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6-7).

But here in Shelach Lecha, where Moses reminds a disappointed and angry God of the events at Sinai, he recounts the attributes as instructed, yet he does it rather differently. This time the text is edited and the attributes reordered.   God’s attributes become “slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Numbers 14:18). In this recounting of the list, Moses leaves out seven of God’s attributes, including compassion, graciousness, and forgiveness of sin.  It is counter-intuitive. The people have demonstrated their lack of faith in a future, their lack of faith in God – one would think invoking God’s compassion and grace would be the first thing for him to do. Yet it works. God forgives the people as Moses has said. But what did Moses say to effect this forgiveness?

            Taking the re-ordering of the text so that the very first thing Moses reminds God about here is the characteristic to be “slow to anger”, some commentators such as Rambam suggest that the forgiveness “according to his words” is precisely this – God views the lack of faith the people are demonstrating as an even greater sin than the building of the golden calf (the last time God was so angry that God suggested to Moses that the two of them should start a new covenant together). So to begin with,  and before forgiveness can begin to form, Moses must remind God not to be so angry and only then can he ask for kindness and forgiveness. So when God adds the word “kidvarecha” (according to your word), God is saying – I have pardoned in accordance with your plea for my anger to be slowed down and held back – not a complete erasure of the event, more a deep breath and time to consider.

Abraham ibn Ezra explains it in a similar way, saying that the word salachti does not mean that the sins are wiped out, but rather that God holds back the divine frustration, in order to make a complete Teshuvah (repentance/return to God) possible.

So Moses’ plea has the effect of buying time for the people, and limiting the extent of the anger of God at the lack of faith shown by them. Only the current generation will die in the wilderness as a result of their despair and their refusal to trust God enough to go up into Canaan, but the people of Israel as an entity would stay alive and would reach the land. The Jewish tradition of hope and trust would continue with the children, the generation of despair would die out without leaving a heritage of despair.

There is another way to look at this phrase “salachti kidvarecha”, focussing not so much on God’s response as on Moses. Moses appeals for a delay in the anger, but the word “salachti” is the past tense of the verb to pardon, showing that God had already pardoned the people even before Moses had spoken. So why add the word “kidvarecha”?  Because God was waiting for Moses to speak up for the people, waiting for the challenge and the demand that God do the right thing even if the people did not. In a sense this is a powerful reminder to us not to give up whatever the circumstances – Moses’ challenge to God shows how strong his faith is that it feeds his determination not to despair on behalf of his people, but to fight for them and their future.

A powerful lesson – the people reported having seen themselves as being worthless, small, like grasshoppers in the eyes of others. Such a perception led them to downgrade their self worth, to give up. But Moses does no such thing – he sees himself as strong even in the face of the anger of God, and, reminding God of their shared experiences, of the agreement at Sinai, of the promises God has already made, Moses speaks up. He even uses the chutzpadik argument that in the eyes of other people the worth of the Israelite divinity will be downgraded if it abandons its people in the wilderness rather than take them on to freedom in the promised land – a sort of elliptical resonance to what the people went through seeing themselves in the eyes of others, a test that they failed… From Moses’ sense of self he is able to challenge God and rework the future.

             It is a way of relating to God that I think we sometimes forget. And we are so often ourselves prey to a lowering self esteem, or anxious about how others might see us, or worried about how well we might perform at something that we spend our time as grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we no longer look around ourselves into the bigger context and see how close and concerned God really is.  



There are some torah readings that just seem to be made for vegetarians, and Beha’alotecha is one of them.  The graphic image of the Israelites feeding upon the quail, stuffing the meat into themselves until it “came out of their nostrils” and then dying “with the meat still stuck between their teeth” is almost too repugnant to bear.  It speaks to us of overweening greed, of the desire for fleshly pleasure fulfilled to the extent of costing the life of the one who indulges too far.  It is both gross and pathetic, seedy and overwhelming. 

The people, often rather unattractive in their behaviour in the wilderness with their complaining and rebelling, their argumentative and sullen responses to Moses’ words to them, are here at their most revolting.  Their failure once again to understand what God is doing for them, their inability to comprehend ideas about freedom, communal responsibility, behavioural limits – leads them to what must be the most explicitly nauseating end in the whole of biblical narrative.

          Early on in the Exodus the newly freed slaves, terrified of what they had done in leaving the security of Egyptian society and worried about simple survival in a hostile wilderness, complained to Moses – “you saved us from slavery and brought us here to this desert to kill us all with starvation and famine?”.

God understood the narrow horizons of the people, the shrivelled imaginations and the visceral fear of a people who had forgotten how to be independent, how to have pride in themselves and the self-confidence necessary to go out and make a life. So that time God showered the Israelite refugees with quail and with the miraculous manna, the food which was said to have tasted like coriander or honey or rich cream – the food that tradition said tasted like whatever you wanted it to taste of. 

          But now, here in the book of Numbers after all the experiences of care and support by God here in the wilderness, this time the situation is different. “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish we ate for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons the leeks and onions and garlic. But now our soul is dried away, there is nothing at all except this manna to look at” (Num 11)

There are a number of problems in this complaint.  Are the people complaining that the diet isn’t varied enough? That manna – even tasting of different things, was still indisputably manna – and a bit boring for that? Are they desperate for something a little more solid? – they specify meat, food that tended to be eaten only on special occasions – and usually connected to the sacrificial system, when meat would be a by product of the worship of God?

Is it specifically Egypt they crave, with the system that may have been slavery but at least it was something they knew and could therefore cope with? Were they saying they didn’t want to break out into a more independent way of being?  Or is it the idea that the food in Egypt was so plentiful and all present that they could take it for free – without responsibility to its production, without obligation to others? 

The manna of course was also available to them for free, but somehow that didn’t count – there was no thought given to the deity who was providing their sustenance, no connection made in their heads between the availability of the miraculous manna and the Creator of the world who was making this every day miracle.

          Whatever the reason – and I imagine it was a combination of reasons, this time both God and Moses found the people’s complaining and self-absorption infuriating and intolerable. This time God gave them just what they said they wanted – in spades – and they died from it.

          When we first came across manna in the early part of the Exodus, we are told that God gave them it in order to test them. But what the test was is left to our imagination.  Rashi tells us the test is of obedience, that God wanted to see if the people would collect the manna in the way that God had commanded – just enough for each day, not keeping it overnight. Not going out to collect it on Shabbat but relying on what was collected before the Shabbat.  Each of these tests of course were failed – the people clearly did not trust that the manna would be there the next morning, that it could not be kept overnight in good condition, that the Shabbat would be somehow special in that no manna would be found but the manna retained would continue to be edible.  The people failed because they were frightened and because they were unimaginative – they had been in slavery too long and all they could construct was the practical concrete concepts around physical survival. 

          When Moses knew he was dying and would not continue with the people into the land he had been taking them to, he wrote a number of speeches explaining to them both the story and the meaning of their history, full of warnings and reminders. Of manna he said “Remember the path along which the eternal your God led you those forty years in the desert. God sent hardships to test you, to see what is in your heart, whether you would keep God’s commandments or not. God made life difficult for you, letting you go hungry and then feeding you manna. And manna was that which neither you nor your ancestors had ever before experienced. This was to teach you that it is not by bread alone that the human being lives, but by all that comes out of God’s mouth” (Deut 8:2-3). 

So Moses understood what the test was – it was not literally about the food, but it was about the people’s willingness to listen and to follow Gods commandments, to accept the limitations about what could and could not be done, and the food was simply the structure around which it would be seen whether or not the people were able to accept the restrictions that following God might place upon them.


Naso: the strange ordeal of bitter water

Moses informs the people that when a husband is jealous and suspects his wife of unfaithfulness, but there is no witness to prove his accusation, she is to be brought before the sanctuary priest.  He will uncover her head and ask her to place her hands upon the altar of the meal offering.  He is then to prepare a mixture of water, earth, and ashes from the meal offering, then say to her: ‘if no man has had intercourse with you, and you have not been unfaithful to your husband, be immune from this water of bitterness. If you have been unfaithful, then may God curse you with sagging thighs and belly”  and she must say ‘amen’. After the priest writes the curse and washes the ink into the water, the woman will drink the waters of bitterness and if she is guilty then her body will change as described. If it does not, then she is declared innocent.

            What do we make of such a piece of Torah?  Leaving aside the inherent sexism of a ritual reserved for women suspected of adultery, and not for their husbands, we are still faced with what appears to be less a piece of legislation for societal stability, than the practice of sympathetic magic.

            The real issue here is not the woman’s adultery, but the husband’s jealousy and suspicion, and because there are no witnesses or evidence, and yet this suspicion cannot be allowed to fester, the situation is cleared by deferring to divine judgment through the ritual of ordeal. 

            The ritual of ordeal is well known to us in various forms. The ducking of witches in this country is a good example – if she floated she was guilty and if she drowned she was innocent.  The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (@1750BCE) states that a wife who is suspected by her husband of infidelity is to prove her innocence by throwing herself into a rapidly flowing river – if she survives she is deemed innocent, if not then she was guilty.  Then there was the ancient ordeal by fire, where the accused’s tongue would be touched with red hot iron tongs, and guilt would be proved by the presence of a burn.  Trial by ordeal always placed great odds against the proof of innocence.  Yet the ordeal of the Sotah is something else – dirty inky water may not be pleasant to drink, but was not likely to actually cause her harm . 

            So what is the ordeal really about?  There are those who say that it was never meant to be an actual physical test, but a devastating experience during which the guilty woman would be unable to hide her guilt, and would give herself away in some way.  This must be the origin of the infamous statement by Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud (Sotah 20a)  that the man who taught  his daughter torah was teaching her lechery (tiflut) – that in other words if she knew that the water of bitterness was simply dust, ink and water, she would know that there would be no reason to give herself away. 

Another possibility is that the insignificance of the actual physical ordeal is intended in order to practically guarantee that the woman could prove her innocence.  In other words the real purpose of the ritual would not be to convict adulterous women who were able to hide their wrongdoing, but to create a way for women to clear themselves of any such suspicion.  “Suspicion of adultery in a close knit community would be almost impossible to dispel and could easily lead to ostracism and perhaps violent revenge.  The ordeal of the bitter water allows a fairly simple safe way for a woman to clear her name with divine approval, sanctioned by the priest and the Temple ritual. If this is the case we have a kind of inverted institution here: the trial by ordeal is transformed from a formidable test weighted toward guilt to an easy one, strongly biased in favour of demonstrating innocence.  The ordeal is changed from a measure threatening women to a mechanism for their protection.” (Rachel Adler quoting Jacob Milgrom).

            Whatever the ordeal of the Sotah meant, it is clear that by Talmudic times the rabbis had no historical memory of the ordeal being practiced.   It is even possible that by the time it was recorded in the book of Numbers, it was already archaic.   But it is interesting to note how the disappearance of the trial of the Sotah was explained n Mishnah and Gemara – “when the adulterers increased in number, the bitter waters ceased. And Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai discontinued the practice….. 

When the adulterers increased in numbers: our rabbis taught “and the husband shall be guiltless” At a time when the husband is guiltless the waters test his wife, if the husband is not guiltless the waters do not test his wife… (Sotah 47a-b)

The efficacy of the ordeal of the bitter water depended on the accusing husband’s innocence. Very early on it seems, the law decided that one could not assume that the accusing husband had no guilt in the matter, and so the ordeal of the Sotah was dropped from the live legislation.  So too was the sentence of capital punishment to deal with the guilty, as the deterrent power was transferred to the consequences in the community for the adulteress.

            So what do we make of the passage – ambiguous and obscure as it is? And what do we make of its disappearance into history?   It is hedged about with conditions: – for example the husband must have warned the wife in the presence of two witnesses about meeting secretly with a man. There must be two witnesses who testify that she secretly spent time with the named man; the case cannot be held in a local court but only by the Supreme Court (Sanhedrin) in Jerusalem – the ordeal of the Sotah seems to be a way to protect women from the injustice and the fury of jealous husbands.  But what a way to go about it!  Why not legislate against men who will not bother to control their fantasies or who allow them to spill over into real life?  The list of these is endless – for example forcing the separation of men and women in synagogues (or at the Western Wall); silencing the voices of women; curtailing the freedom of women to move around in the public domain or showing the images of women in advertisements or newspapers.. 

This Jewish law may have been designed to protect women from weak or resentful husbands, but the way to do it is not to put the constraints on the women whose very existence is said to drive men to uncontrolled frenzy.  The way to do it is to teach men and women that such a frenzy is unacceptable.  It is time to give up all the well meaning circuitous judgments may help the individuals but will never change society.  The law of the Sotah is one such, where the reason it fell into disuse is more useful to us than the reason why it was first instituted.     


Bemidbar: the richness of the wilderness

This week we begin to read the fourth book of the five books of Moses, the one whose title in English is known as ‘Numbers’ because of the censuses which take place within it, but which in Hebrew is ‘Bemidbar – in the wilderness’.

It is in the wilderness that most of the story told in the scroll is set. It is in the wilderness that most of the people meet God. It is in the wilderness that Revelation takes place – in ownerless and structureless land.  The midrash tells us that wilderness is a necessary condition for every revelation: “Whoever would wish to acquire Torah must make themself ownerless like the wilderness”(Bemidbar Rabbah).  In other words it is important to be able to cast off the set ways of thinking, to free oneself from the patterns and rat runs of our usual thought processes, and open ourselves up to the new world, new directions and also maybe even to an apparent lack of direction.

The midbar, the wilderness of ownerless land, is the space that exists in both place and time in which we too can search for revelation. Unlike the more frequent use of the image as being dry, arid and hostile to life, the midbar is a place full of potential, where anything can and does happen. Far from being deadening and moribund, it is a challenging place, complex and spacious, with freedom to explore in any direction. Midbar is a place of preparation and encounter, the niggle on the tip of our tongue and the nagging sense of connection we can’t always quite identify that hands on the edge of our consciousness. It is the meeting point with the unknown, the place of encounter with the divine.

            We all live within a web of socially conditioned thinking and perceiving.  We learn to see the world just like everyone else sees the world, to understand what is going on around us according to a limiting set of rules and agreed vocabulary.  It is a rare human being who is able to rise above the received wisdom of the surrounding community, and to shift the perspective, to see the world with fresh and untutored eyes. But the wilderness provides the space and the impetus to enable us to see the world differently.  It subverts the settled society and reminds us again and again that we have merely made one choice from among an infinite number of choices, that we have been influenced by the surroundings in which we live, the other people and cultures and philosophies we encounter, yet it is always possible to strip away those influences, and find the core of our human existence, the spark that animates our humanity. One just has to go into the space, to create the midbar, the place of freedom and possibilities. 

It sounds simple, to strip away all the outside influences which have formed our thought and our behaviour. It sounds simple, and of course it isn’t.

But it is possible. 

The mechanisms we use in the Jewish tradition are found within the revelation given in the desert – the mechanisms of mitzvot and of prayer.  We create a structure of behaviour – the mitzvot are purely a way of behaving (almost without thinking about it), in an ethical and socially enabling way.  The fact that tradition sees them as coming directly from God, the commander or Metzaveh, gives them a weight of authority and validity, but of course one doesn’t have to believe in God to do the mitzvot – rather the mitzvot may have the effect of leading to a belief in God.  Meanwhile one behaves appropriately.

Prayer on the other hand is a way of reaching out to God as an individual, and to do it one has to try to create the space, the wilderness, in which one is ownerless.  Influenceless, standing alone before God has the effect of de-socialising us. When we pray we are releasing our consciousness of our own behaviour, not thinking about other people or how we are relating to them, or of ourselves and how we look in the eyes of those around us. 

            In prayer we break the norms of social behaviour.  We step outside the civilising influences of our society, We use language in a different way, we may speak in complete silence, or sing or move about or listen to someone or something else.  We may move our lips with no sound, or shout out loud – there are no rules, that is the main rule of prayer.  Only a sincere striving, a creating of space which we can then occupy without anyone else but God.  It doesn’t really matter how we create the space, as long as we do.

The midrash teaches “whoever would wish to acquire Torah must first make themselves ownerless like the wilderness”  It doesn’t mean that we must remove ourselves from all the civilizing influences upon us, or from our responsibilities to each other, but that we should be aware of them and be able to release ourselves from what controls us and stifles us so we can encounter and become, rather than close ourselves down and starve our being and bImageecoming.