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: nudged along the path to beyond ourselves

“And the ETERNAL spoke to Moses, saying:  ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue.  And it shall be to you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the ETERNAL, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray;  that ye may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy to your God.   I am the ETERNAL your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the ETERNAL your God.”

It is, maybe, one of the earliest educational strategies – a visual aid to constantly remind one of something important, to teach a constant and immediate awareness of God and of the covenant relationship we have whose conditions – mitzvot – inform every aspect of our lives.

The thread of colour commanded in the mitzvah of tzitzit has long since gone in most ritual garments, since we cannot be sure exactly how to make the dye to create this tekhelet, the blue colour (although in recent years it has made a partial return as some think they have cracked the identity of the chilazon, source of the most expensive colour dye of the ancient world). But the fringes remain – though for most Jews not on their everyday garments, but on the shawls we wear, the tallitot, when we want to make space in our life for prayer.

The idea of the fringes on our clothing is that we will always have with us a reminder of God and of the commandments that we are obliged to fulfil – indeed the fringes are knotted in a particular way to remind us of the number 613, to echo the idea that there are 613 commandments said to be in Torah, so that every time we see them we will remember the covenant and our part in it.  Judaism is a religion of the every day, it is through ordinary mundane quotidian activities that we create the Jewish people, develop Jewish identity.  The fringes on the corners of the garments, the tzitzit, were designed to reinforce this. Whatever we see, whatever we do, there is a Jewish edge to the action, a perspective of obligation and commandment. We are reminded always of the foundation of who we are – we are a covenanted people whose life and behaviour is shaped by the encounter at Sinai, when we agreed to a relationship with God that was to be expressed in how we act in the world.

In the Talmud in a discussion on tzitzit, and on the tekhelet colour mandated in bible, we are told that: “Rabbi Meir used to say: How is tekhelet different from all other colours?  Because tekhelet is like the sea, and the sea is like the sky, and the sky is like [God’s] throne of glory as it says: “Under God’s feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, and it was like the essence of heaven in purity.” (Shemot 24:10)  (Menachot 43b). 

It is a curious teaching. For Rabbi Meir is linking the reminder of the tzitzit not only to the commandments, but also to a sense of God. And he does so by inserting stages of a journey so to speak – He doesn’t talk about tekhelet only as colour, but as the colour first of the sea and then of the sky, and only then of the hidden place of God. He seems to want us not just to associate the colour with God, but to think about the connections between us and God – the sea is a place we can reach and touch, a huge swathe of our world, but ultimately finite. The sky though is untouchable for us, and apparently infinite, and only then do we move on to the “throne of glory” – the exaltedness of God. By making us work, stage by stage, Rabbi Meir is teaching us that we can reach up beyond ourselves to gain some sense of connection – not making a comment on the colour of the universe, or a simple mechanistic connection between the colour on the tallit and the strange description of the sapphire pavement found in the book of Exodus. By making us think, by moving us from the tangible and visible, to the intangible visible, to the invisible infinite, we are being taken on a process and a progression that allows us to think beyond ourselves, beyond even what we can normally imagine.

There is in our tradition another version of this statement of Rabbi Meir’s, which makes the idea of progression even clearer. In Midrash Tehillim we read that the tekhelet “resembles the sea and the sea is like the grasses, and the grasses are like the trees, and the trees are like the firmament, and the firmament is like the radiance, and the radiance is like the rainbow, and the rainbow is like the [divine] image” (90:18).

I like this version because it causes us to not only reach beyond ourselves and our world, but to do so slowly, taking our time, looking from sea level to ground level to tree level to sky and beyond. And in this account there is a punch line:  “Rabbi Hezekiah taught: When the children of Israel are wrapped in their prayer shawls, let them not think that they are clothed merely in ordinary blue. Rather, let the children of Israel look upon their prayer shawls as though the glory of the Presence were covering them.” (Midrash Tehillim 90:18).

When we look at the fringes of the tallit, and we remember the original instruction here in parashat Shelach Lecha, we begin to understand the powerful effect of that colour of tekhelet (which has, incidentally remained with us in a sort of echo form in the variant colours of the stripes of the tallit which can range from almost black to a turquoise-ey sky blue, as can the dye from the chilazon, dependent on the age of the mollusc), and which has progressed from the tallit to the flag of Israel.  By using the thread of tekhelet – and then by using a reminder of the thread and the colour and what it makes us think about– we are bridging a gap between our world and the heavens, between ourselves and God. The radiance we are encouraged to think towards becomes like a rainbow – the perpetual sign between God and us that we are under divine protection – takes us to an almost magical link between the worlds.

When we put on our tallit for prayer and wrap ourselves in the fringes we are, so to speak, putting on the seatbelts, checking the mirrors – readying ourselves for a journey towards God. We are land animals, made of earth, adamah – which root is the origin of the word for the colour red – edom. We are physical beings made from the stuff of our ground says the bible, yet our souls yearn for more – the look to connect to more than the material physical world of now. The tekhelet prescribed in our tradition is a recognition of that yearning, and the offer of a way towards what we want – we can look through the natural world around us and from studying it and appreciating it, we can find a way to the creator of all that we see.

This is how Jewish tradition shapes us and forms us – it takes the everyday and makes us notice more. We are asked not to skim through our lives but to examine them, to consider what we are doing, to aspire for more.  It expects mindfulness and it gives us methods and tools for us to achieve this. But on the way to mindfulness it gives us a more pragmatic approach – the commandments are sets of behaviour that will shape us without us even thinking about it – in effect if we behave like a mensch even without thinking about the ethical imperatives or the spiritual growth, but just because that is what is expected from us, we can live our lives and look back and realise we have become a mensch.  The spiritual journey does not have to be too self reflective, we are nudged along the path with reminders to do, to be, to act – and so, in time, to understand and to become.

Shelach Lecha: What we see with our eyes and what we see with our hearts (or when we notice the grasshoppers)

Sidra Shelach Lecha is book-ended with the commandment to look. Early on in the sidra the scouts are urged to look from the hill country to see what kind of country Canaan is, and to bring back information about the land and its inhabitants; while at the end of the portion we find the commandment about tzitzit, the fringes we put upon our garments which will act as a reminder of all of God’s commandments whenever we look at them.

Both of these instructions contain another powerful verb too – one we are clearly meant to notice as it appears eleven times in the sidra – the root la-tur – which in modern Hebrew means to go sightseeing, but which is richer and more complex in its biblical usage. We translate it in the story of the spies as meaning “to scout the land”, but in the directions about tzitzit we can see that it means more than superficial looking, but is about noticing, involving the self through the act of observation. The power of this form of engagement is made more clear by the rest of the verse: “look at them and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart (ve-lo taturu) and eyes in your lustful urge.”

We can read the first story in the light of the last – and so add a moral dimension to the activities of the spies and their instruction la-tur: – instead of being asked to simply go around the land, they are being required to throw themselves fully into the scouting, in order to find their true objective. They were to pay complete attention, to follow the awareness of their hearts and their eyes.

Hearts and eyes. They define for the rabbinic tradition two ways of being in the world. Tradition tells us that we may follow our eyes and therefore have our ideas influenced by what we see in the world – in other words how we experience it changes how we understand it – or else we follow the heart, and hold a moral compass inside ourselves, so that how we experience the world is influenced by what we believe to be true. Both may be valid, but a Midrash on this sidra teaches that a person perceives the world according to the understanding of their heart. In other words, a person’s interpretation of what their eyes see is not objective, but we construct our own realities independently of external certainty. “So that you do not follow your heart – does this indicate that the eyes follow the heart or that the heart follows the eyes? Are there not blind people who commit all the abominations in the world? Thus we learn from Scripture that the words “So that you do not follow your heart” indicate that the eyes follow the heart.”(Sifrei)

The argument that blind people also sin – and clearly one can say that their eyes did NOT lead them into transgression –buttresses the approach that a person follows their heart.

It is maybe not how we would adduce the proof today, but the outcome is eerily modern – We see only what we choose to see; We understand only what we have the equipment to understand; We notice only what is important to us. How we appreciate and behave in the world is constructed from our own internal resource rather than responding to some objective and measurable reality.

The problem for the spies was not anything really to do with what they had actually seen in their touring the land – the reports back from all twelve agreed that the land was wonderful, fertile, filled with good things but also that it was well defended by a number of different powerful tribes. The problem with the ten spies – and subsequently with the people of Israel – was what they felt about the information they had brought back. We might say it was a problem of perspective – which did they give more weight to when seeing the land: their faith in God who had brought them this far, or their fear for themselves and their future?

They were unlike Caleb and Joshua who clearly understood the dangers yet in their belief in God they spoke up: yachol nuchal – we are certainly able to do it”

The difference reflects not what they all saw, but their inner belief systems, what was in their heart. Caleb and Joshua saw the land for which they have been yearning ever since exile in Egypt. But the spies saw only a fortified land that takes precedence over people, a land rich and fertile and populated. Their perspective was not of the divine covenant but of the power of other people, and they felt diminished in the shadow of those people, so much so that they saw themselves as grasshoppers – fragile, transient, lowly – and worse, they imagined that the current inhabitants of the land would share that image of them.

How we feel inside ourselves, what values we hold, what beliefs we claim, shape our experience of the world. It dictates what we see and it what we simply don’t notice. And what we see around us in turn changes how we feel inside ourselves, impacts upon our values and belief system, alters who we become. If we are so fixed upon our constructed reality that we can no longer notice the outside world, then we will be unable to grow and to change. Our horizons will narrow to fit what we are prepared to acknowledge. All our lives must be spent challenging what we comfortably believe to be the case, we have to force ourselves to notice what we would rather not see, be prepared to take a view other than the one we created for ourselves earlier.

It is hard to do this, to use both hearts and eyes – mediate the easy view of the situation. This is the beauty of instruction to wear fringes on clothing – they are an external reminder of an internal belief system. When we see them we are to think of God’s commandments, directives which exist only in relation to our acceptance of them. Both eyes and heart have to work together, we cannot assume we know what it is all about.

Rabbinic tradition teaches that the mitzvah of tzitzit is equal to all the other mitzvot together, as we are told “look and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them.” Yet the commandment only comes into force if we are wearing a four cornered garment. And this mitzvah can be observed in two different ways – either as tallit katan, an undergarment which only we will see and know of, or as the tallit which we wrap around ourselves, and which we present to the outside world. This resonates with our hearts and eyes – one reflects the internal system with which we see the world, the other acts as the external nudge which forces us to think about what is out there. Hearts and eyes. We need them both.

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.