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.

Shemini: The Case of the Disappearing Priestess

There used to be a joke told about how barbecues happened in the suburbs. It went like this “When a man volunteers to do the barbecue this is what happens. First, the woman buys the food. Then the woman makes the salad, prepares the vegetables, and makes the dessert.
Then the woman prepares the meat, placing it on a tray along with the necessary cooking utensils and sauces, and takes it to the man who is standing by the barbecue with a nice cold drink. The man puts the meat on the grill. The woman goes inside to organize the plates and cutlery, coming out briefly with another cold drink for the man. He flips the meat, watches it a while and then takes it off the grill and puts it on a plate which he gives to the woman.
The woman brings plates, salad, bread, utensils, napkins and sauces to the table.  Everyone eats. After eating, the woman clears the table and does the dishes. The man accepts the praise for his cooking skills. Then he asks the woman how she liked her night off from making dinner.”

I sometimes think of this joke when listening to the instructions about the sacrificial system – only the final stages are really described, the process from a live animal being brought to the door of the tent of meeting to the burning of flesh and dashing of blood is strangely fuzzy. And I wonder who were the other people who supported the work of the ritual system, what were their roles, what were they thinking? Were there women involved as well as men?

This last question comes to mind in part from reading the midrashim which discuss what was the actual sin of Nadav and Avihu, that in this earliest moment of priesthood they offered strange fire and were struck down by fire.

A variety of reasons for their deaths are contrived from the text: their sacrifice was made at  the wrong time; they were drunk or unwashed or were not wearing the right clothing for the ritual. None of these speak to the ‘strange fire’ that they offered before God.

But there are other reasons suggested for their deaths and these reasons bespeak arrogance and self-importance and a huge lack of self-awareness: firstly that they had added to the fire already burning, something they had not been taught to do by Moses, so their crime was as much to do with dishonouring their teacher as the ritual they performed – they believed they knew better (Leviticus Rabbah 20:10). This arrogance is spoken of in another midrash recorded in the Babylonian Talmud: “Moses and Aaron were walking together with Nadav and Avihu behind them, and following them were all of Israel. Nadav said to Avihu, “When these two elders die, you and I will lead this generation.” God said “Let’s see who buries whom.” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 52a)

The implication is as described by Rashi, middah kneged middah, the punishment matched the crime, the sin of offering strange fire was death by strange fire, the sin of arrogance and ignoring the rights and existence of others was addressed by their own death.

So whose ‘death’ or lack of rights to existence are we talking about here? The midrash tells us, intriguingly, the following viewpoint: “Rabbi Levi said, “They were conceited, many woman awaited them eagerly (to marry them) but what did they say? ‘Our uncle is King, our other uncle is a head of a tribe, our father is High Priest, we are his two assistants. What woman is worthy of us?'” (Leviticus Rabbah 20:10)

The sin of Nadav and Avihu was the ignoring of the legitimate rights of women. In their self-satisfaction they did not feel the need to marry, and in their refusal they consigned women to a problematic limbo. But there is more to this refusal to attend to the needs of women than a quick reading suggests. We are back to the ‘joke’ I began with. Israelite society was the only one of its kind in the region at the time that does not appear to have had priestesses – at least according to the biblical texts. Yet archaeological evidence suggests that there were indeed women who functioned within the priestly ritual system, at least in the later period. For example there are a number of grave inscriptions in Beit Shearim which show women with titles including that of priestess. The general view has been that as women were not priestesses these women could not have been priestesses, a circular argument which Bernadette Brooten demolishes thus: “It is my view that [the titles] were functional, and if the women bearing these titles had been members of another Graeco-Roman religion, scholars would not have doubted that the women were actual functionaries….what the male rabbis said about women does not necessarily reflect who the women were, what they did and what they thought. Rather it reflects on who the men making these statements were”  (from “Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue” by Bernadette Brooten). Brooten has collected all kinds of inscriptions and, having removed the lens of “tradition says women didn’t do this” sees that the physical evidence is clear that women clearly did. My favourite was when, having done a thorough review of the archaeological literature and finding that many synagogues had no separate gallery or room apart from the single room, she challenged the assumption that that must have meant that no women prayed there, rather than the more likely assumption that men and women were not separated in prayer. It was my first lesson in how we notice what is important to us and ignore anything that is not important or that conflicts with the model of the world we have in our heads.

So – women and priesthood in Torah. Were there really no women involved in the structural priesthood of the Israelites unlike that of all the other groups around them? Or is that what bible wants us to think. Was it as patriarchal a society as we tend to think or is that a later gloss in order to create the patriarchal structure of Rabbinic Judaism? We know that the matriarchs were powerful figures who clearly had agency in their lives and the decisions that mattered. We know of a woman who both judged and directed battle – the formidable Deborah – even while midrash diminishes her role as it also does for Huldah the prophetess whom bible records as being consulted by the agents of King Josiah at his request – she is described (2Kings 22:13,14) as relaying God’s words to Hilkiah and the others and she speaks truth to power bluntly and without fear. She is described as a prophetess in the text, a role that requires mediating God’s words to the world. We know of women who played drums and who sang and processed, of the women at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 38:8) and of the Temple (1Sam 2:22). We know of the idolatrous cults that also used the Temple, that there were women weaving cloth for the Asherah there (2Kings 23:7). There are intriguing glimpses of women involved in the worship systems of the time, but they are almost erased from the biblical text. Asherah is our best entry point – who was she, what was her cult that it was so necessary to destroy? Archaeology comes to  our aid again, for there are texts that describe her as the wife/consort of God – was there a cleansing of all that Asherah meant in order to promote the power of the single divinity YHVH? In that cleansing were the female attendants also swept away from the power base of the Temple?

There is another possibility –that the Jerusalem Temple which had to fight hard to become the focus of worship for all Israel – was clearly a political entity as well as a religious one. We know, again from the Books of Kings, that under the monarchies of Hezekiah and Josiah the strictness of the boundaries of this Temple was increased to the point that only the members of the Levitical tribe and specifically only the descendants of Aaron had access to the power bases in the priesthood. As the status descended through the paternal line, there was no room for women in the records of genealogy, no need to record them or to give them space in the structure.

So in the tight control of the Jerusalem Temple in order to concentrate power at that time (around the seventh century BCE), the women paid the ultimate price. And slowly their history was lost, their roles seen as less important. They could buy the food, make the salads, set the table, prepare the vegetables, help the man who would make the barbecue, they could eat from the meat if they were relatives connected to the priesthood, but their role in keeping the show on the road could be ignored, unappreciated, forgotten. The meat is what is important in a barbecue, forget the vegetable kebabs or the nibbles.  The animal sacrifice is what is important in the ritual system, and even though the flour and the oil and the wine offered are also recorded in the texts they just don’t have a starring role.

The joke about the barbecue has an ending in some variations. After the man has taken all the praise, the woman has cleared up, and he has asked her if she enjoyed her time off, he notices she is fed up and exclaims “there is just no pleasing some people”.

At least he notices her feelings and that she is not happy. Maybe in this century he might go further, see why she is feeling unappreciated, ignored and excluded. Maybe he might notice that she is not happy and fulfilled in her role, and work together with her to create what was presumably the expectation behind the midrash about Nadav and Avihu not being willing to marry– it takes two to fulfil the role of priesthood, both the masculine and the feminine are needed to represent the human being. One alone who thinks they can do it by themselves are conceited, arrogant and destined to fail. We need each other, we need our diversity and our differences, our separate strengths and our individual gifts if we want to really create a bridge towards the divine.