Parashat Shelach Lecha: The faith of women is overlooked and the result is catastrophic

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: ב שְׁלַח־לְךָ֣ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְיָתֻ֨רוּ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֥י נֹתֵ֖ן לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אִ֣ישׁ אֶחָד֩ אִ֨ישׁ אֶחָ֜ד לְמַטֵּ֤ה אֲבֹתָיו֙ תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ כֹּ֖ל נָשִׂ֥יא בָהֶֽם:

God tells Moses to send men to travel round the land of Canaan, which God is giving to the children of Israel – one man from each ancestral tribe, each one a leader.

So begins the tale of the spies, whose return from reconnoitering the land  bringing stories of the hopelessness of the enterprise led to the people to become so disheartened that the story of the Israelites entering their promised land may easily have ended right here.  Certainly it becomes clear that the people are not yet ready to take the next step, and a prolonged sojourn in the wilderness as a new generation grows and takes over is necessary.

At first sight it seems a bit of an own goal – God tells Moses to send the men, trusted leaders who are – as Rashi says, commenting on the use of the word “anashim” – important and also righteous.  And yet the failure of leadership – apart from the perspectives of Joshua and Caleb – is catastrophic for the generation of the exodus.

The traditional commentators are interested in this story, in what went so badly wrong that the trajectory of the narrative was skewed and the journey that should have taken a short time ended up being one that took forty years.

Clearly there is a problem with the spies. Firstly comes the question of “shelach lecha” – a phrase that sounds so close to the divine commandment to Abraham “lech lecha”, and yet unlike Abraham’s journey of trust in God and of his own spiritual and material growth, this journey seems to be the exact opposite.

The casual reader might assume that a military reconnoitre of the land God is giving would be simple good practise. After all, even though God says “I am giving the land to the Children of Israel”,  surely a back-up plan is sensible.   But the reader trained to read through the Jewish texts will see this differently.

“Shelach lecha” – send “for yourself” – this is not something that God needed Moses to do, it was something that Moses and the children of Israel needed to do. Unlike  “Lech lecha” – Go to/for yourself” this is not a journey of discovery of the self, it is a journey to allay the fears the self already has. It bespeaks a lack of trust in God. The midrashic traditions picks this up – sending the men is a demonstration of lack of faith in God, but there is a further question we must ask. God is telling Moses not to simply have faith, but saying “you can send if you must”.

In the retelling of the story in Deuteronomy (1:20-46) it becomes clear from Moses’ speech that the request to send men does not come from God but from the people.  Moses tells the story like this “Behold, the Eternal your God has set the land before you, go up and take possession of it as the Eternal, the God of your ancestors told you. Do not fear and do not be dismayed. And you came to me, all of you, and said “Let us send men before us so that they will look out the land for us and bring us word of the way by which we should go up, and the cities we will encounter. And it seemed a good idea to me, and I took twelve men of you, one man for every tribe….”

This now begs the question, if it seemed not unreasonable that the people might want to know more about the land, and God – while not requiring this – did not command against it, then who SHOULD have been sent up to see the lay of the land?

The clue lies in the context of the story. It takes place just after the story of Miriam and the Cushite woman, where Miriam seems to be punished for speaking falsely, for asserting her own importance at the expense of another, and for showing lack of respect for others. A lesson needs to be learned, the question is – who has learned it?

Fantastically Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, (1550 – 1619) the scholar and poet and writer of his own Torah commentary (Kli Yekar) asks this question and answers it: Who should have been sent? The women!

He bases his opinion on a number of midrashic stories where it is the women who show themselves to have more faith than the men. They continue to have babies even when the Egyptian authorities try to murder their new-borns and their men refuse to have sexual relations with them. They protect their baby sons in this time. They refuse to give up their jewellery at first when the golden calf is created.  So when faith is really needed, it is the women who provide it.

The Kli Yekar notes that when the spies bring back their report of the difficulty of taking the land which is well protected and whose people look strong and powerful, the men revolt and want to return to Egypt.  In Chapter 14 the text is clear that while all the people wept, it was the men who said “why did God bring us to this land to fall by the sword, our wives and children will be prey, it would be better to return to Egypt. So they said to each other, let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt” (1:2-4). This establishes the lack of faith of the men for the Kli Yakar who goes on to compare this behaviour with that of the daughters of Zelophechad who specifically ask to be able to own the land of their father who had died without a male heir. For Rabbi Luntschitz this shows – along with all the other examples of women’s faith – that the faith of women is superior to that of the men, and hence if Moses had really wanted to send people on this errand that demonstrated a lack of complete faith in God, he should have sent women who would not have fallen so easily into the fearfulness and desire to return to Egypt rather than go forward into the land.

For the Kli Yekar Moses made a disastrous decision that was informed more by his prejudice about men’s roles and women’s roles and less by any empirical observation as to who had shown real faith in God.  Had Moses sent women to spy out the land (and it doesn’t seem to worry him that women might be functioning as army scouts, unlike some of today’s rabbonim) then they would have returned with the information and framed it in the same hopeful and faithful way that Joshua and Caleb did – it is a tough land to conquer but God is with us.

Add to this that the women have seen what happened to Miriam when she was banished with a skin complaint for her ungracious behaviour that had asserted her importance over the Cushite woman – they know that God is watching closely, that trusting in God is important.

But the men – Moses among them – are caught up with their own status. They are princes, they are leadership, they are important – they are anashim.  They have learned nothing, neither about God’s continued presence nor about humility and faith. Shelach lecha – it is all about them.  And when it fails, the answer is to find another leader from among their ranks and return to business as usual, go back to the safety of the slave routine of Egypt.

As the orthodox world continues to struggle with the role of women, perpetually trying to find ways to put us out of the public space and to assert the norms of the patriarchy, it is sobering to read the thoughts of one rabbi from the 16th century who recognised the need for women to come into the public space and be acknowledged for their own selves.

The Kli Yekar takes his name from the book of Proverbs 20:15 “Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel”

He is indeed a rare jewel, he speaks from within the tradition and he speaks a deep truth. Almost all commentators agree that God did not want Moses to send anyone to scout out the land – it was an act of lack of faith. But if someone did have to go to reassure the people, send people whose faith you can trust in- and who better in this case than the people who have demonstrated again and again their trust in God and in a better future?  – The women of the exodus.

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.