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.

Sidra Vayigash:the reassurance of God’s presence in dark times

And Israel took his journey with all that he had, and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel in the visions of the night, and said: ‘Jacob, Jacob.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’ And God said: ‘I am God, the God of your father; fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation. I will go down with you into Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph shall put his hand upon your eyes.’ And Jacob rose up from Beersheba; and the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, and their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him. And they took their cattle, and their goods, which they had got in the land of Canaan, and came into Egypt, Jacob, and all his seed with him; his sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters, and all his seed brought he with him into EgyptGen 46:1-6

Jacob has a number of meetings with God during the night – the first was the dream on the road out to Haran when he was running away from Esau, and a ladder appeared to him that joined heavens to earth, and God delivered a reassuring message to him. The second the dream at the ford of Yabok, when he was returning home to Canaan, wealthy and secure but also anxious about the reception he would get from Esau.  And now here, at Beersheba, God appears in order it seems to reassure him that he will return from Egypt and will become a great nation. It reads to us a little strangely – for we know that Jacob will die in Egypt, and that as a nation they will only leave in over 400 years’ time, having survived a long period of slavery, yet one might read into it that the time in Egypt will be a short respite during the famine. Why? Does God think that Jacob will not cope with the reality of what his descendants will face? Is this vision one that emanates from Jacob’s need for support rather than being a real meeting with God? Is God responding more to the Jacob God first met, the frightened young man who yet was confident enough to tell God that only if God fulfilled the promises made in the dream would he finally believe, rather than to the older man whose world is shaped by the loss of his older son by his beloved wife Rachel; who has been frozen in grief since that time.

Or is the story added into the narrative later as a story to support the enslaved Israelites and ameliorate their suffering?

We have no answers, just as we have no answer for the interchangeable use of the two names Jacob and Israel, so powerful yet so cryptic in this passage. Yet as with all the encounters Jacob has with God during night time journeys, the vision is one we are able to hold on to today – providing reassurance in times of uncertainty, reminding us that we are one link in a chain that goes back into history and will go forward into a future we cannot know.

We are most definitely the children of Jacob rather than those of Abraham or Isaac. Abraham had a stern and all-encompassing faith which seemingly left no room for doubt or anxiety, Isaac lived in the shadow of that faith and his own encounters with God are clearly shaped by it. But Jacob was his own self, a mixture of self-assurance and anxiety, wanting to believe but not being too sure about it, prepared to do a deal with God when it seemed an expedient action.  It is given to few people to believe with certainty, and to fewer still to come to belief through their own experiences, rather than to have it bred into them. Doubt is a colourful strand in the Jewish character, it threads through our narratives and our prayer. Indeed we pray in an aspirational way – hoping to be able to believe rather than asserting that we hold such a conviction.  Whether God ever speaks to Jacob in the night or whether Jacob creates the experience for himself becomes an irrelevant question – what is important is that Jacob is able and willing to create such an encounter (or to believe it when it comes). It is all that is asked of us too – to be able and willing and open to the presence of God when times are at their darkest.

The Ten Days of Return: Calling out to God determined to be heard

The Psalmist asks “Eternal God, what are human beings that you should care for them, mortal creatures that you should notice them?”

The question is carefully posed. We recognise that we are indeed fragile presences on the earth, our lives barely impacting in time or space, yet we confidently assert that God notices us and cares about us. We wear celebratory white during this season of penitence because we know that God will forgive us if we sincerely repent.

Our tradition provides us with a strong sense of ourselves. We are at one and the same time both “dust and ashes” and “the beloved children of the Sovereign”. We are mortal and yet we are bound up in immortality. We are fully individual and also we are a small part of a whole creation. It takes a particular view of the world to be able to hold both all the opinions at the same time, yet the Jewish mind is asked to somehow encompass them all, just as our liturgy speaks of God in a variety of ways all at the same time. And it is this dynamic tension that traditionally nurtures our distinctive identity and sense of self.

Yet how easily could we agree with the Psalmist today? Are we able to put a direct question to God? And even if we are comfortable with that relationship, would we dare to remind God that a precondition of the conversation is that God must pay attention to us and care for us? For many of us the easy familiarity of the covenantal relationship is lost and we struggle to find a bridge to that place. This is what the month of Ellul is for, and the Ten Days of Return. It is the work of the High Holy Days.

We may no longer be sure of God; we may wonder about the purpose of prayer. And yet part of us doesn’t want to let it all go; we want to return to that clarity that gives meaning to our lives. The Psalmist had many doubts and fears, but he knew his worth in relation to God. It is time for us to reclaim that knowledge, to search ourselves and to begin to really know ourselves. This understanding is the foundation of the bridge we build into the future, the bridge we build back to the knowledge of God.

מָה-אֱנוֹשׁ כִּי-תִזְכְּרֶנּוּ;    וּבֶן-אָדָם, כִּי תִפְקְדֶנּוּ.