June 5th, 2021: Parashat Shelach – Stay Focused

Follow along in the AUDIO PODCAST, and click on the play button below, reading along with the notes, as you listen to today's Parashat:

Numbers 13:1-15:41

Let’s start with a very brief summary of this week’s parashat: Hashem instructed Moses to “send forth” (שְׁלַח, pronounced “shelach”) spies to spy out the Land of Canaan. The Nation of Israel was on the eve of entering and taking possession of the Land. Twelve distinguished men, 1 from each tribe, were sent out and returned – with 10 of them bearing a negative report, and the remaining 2 countering with a positive report. The people were swayed by the majority report and were ready to spring a cout d’état on Moses until Hashem intervened. Hashem’s wrath was kindled and He was ready to annihilate the nation if not for the advocacy of Moses on Israel’s behalf. Hashem listened to Moses’ plea and held back His wrath, but determined that the nation would not enter the Land for another 40 years – 1 year for each of the 40 days that the spies spent in the Land – until all of the current generation died off in the Wilderness.

We open up with Hashem saying the following to Moses:

שְׁלַח־לְךָ֣ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְיָתֻ֙רוּ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֥י נֹתֵ֖ן לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל

Send forth for yourself men, and let them spy out the Land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel…” (Numbers 13:2)

The most obvious question is: Why the need to spy out the Land? If it was promised to the Nation of Israel going all the way to Abraham, could they not just waltz right in? Did they not have a covenant with the Almighty God of the Universe? The same Almighty God that freed them from their bondage in Egypt through 10 mighty plagues, and brought them through the midst of the Sea of Reeds?

The easy answer is: The Nation of Israel did what any other nation would logically do – they sent select men to spy out the Land – to evaluate it from every angle as per Moses’ specific questions: “See the land – what is it? And the people that dwells in it – are they strong or weak? Are they few or numerous? And how is the land in which they dwell – is it good or is it bad? And how are the cities in which they dwell – are they in open cities or in fortified cities? And how is the land – is it fertile or is it lean? Are there trees in it or not?” (Numbers 13:18-20)

But that does not answer why Hashem instructed Moses to carry out this spy mission. Let’s analyze the verse. Hashem instructed Moses: “Send forthfor yourself… men”. Why say “for yourself”? Would it not have sufficed to simply say, “Send forth men”?

The style of speaking here is as if Hashem was responding to a situation – as if there was already a preconceived plan to spy out the Land, formulated by the people. The language is not dissimilar to how Hashem spoke to Abraham in Parashat Lech Lecha:

לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥

Go for yourself from your land…” (Genesis 12:1)

Similarly in Genesis 12, we are not given the preceding circumstances, but there was certainly something that occurred to this passage that caused Hashem to say this to Abraham.

If we look forward to Parashat Devarim, we read a different perspective: “Then I [Moses] said to you, “You have come until the mountain of the Amorite that Hashem, our God, gives us. See – Hashem, your God, has placed the land before you; go up and take possession, as Hashem, God of your forefathers, has spoken to you. Do not fear and do not lose resolve.” You approached me, all of you, and said, “Let us send men ahead of us and let them spy out the land, and bring word back to us: the road on which we should ascend and the cities to which we should come.” The matter was good in my eyes… (Deuteronomy 1:19-23)

It was the people that requested this action to send spies into the Land, “it was good in [Moses’] eyes”, meaning that Moses found the mission favourable, and Hashem gave the instruction to proceed with the mission.

As per Hashem’s instructions, Moses vetted the 12 men who were characterized as “’distinguished’ men, heads of the Children of Israel.

Perhaps it is for this very reason that Moses was concerned and cautious. It is at this point that Moses changed Hoshea’s name to Joshua:

וַיִּקְרָ֥א מֹשֶׁ֛ה לְהוֹשֵׁ֥עַ בִּן־נ֖וּן יְהוֹשֻֽׁעַ׃

“And Moses called Hoshea son of Nun “Yehoshua”.” (Numbers 13:16)

Why did Moses single out Joshua for this unique event? Yes, Joshua was Moses’ servant, student and protégé. Yet, that doesn’t fully explain why this happened. Prior to this verse, we are told the names of each of the spies. If we evaluate the meanings of the names, an interesting pattern is revealed. We find that some of the individual’s names suggested questionable character traits – for instance, Sethur means “contradicted”, and Nachbi means “hidden”. Perhaps this was a reason for Moses to suspect that a plot was afoot. Nevertheless, he found it necessary to rename Hoshea (meaning “salvation”) to Yehoshua (meaning “Hashem saves”), by adding a ‘yod’ letter to his name. This name change speaks volumes – Moses felt that Joshua needed a new name to empower him against any such plot. Note: This is similar to Hashem changing the name of Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah (by adding a ‘heh’ letter to both their names). As an aside, the ‘yod’ and ‘heh’ are two of the letters that make up the Ineffable Name of Hashem (Y-H-V-H).

However the plot occurred, it was either that [1] all of the spies left with good intentions but that 10 were corrupted along the way; or [2] that there was deceit planted from the start amongst some of them by others in the Camp looking to supplant Moses’ leadership (think to next week’s parashat and Korach’s revolt). Whatever the reason, there was ultimately a plot that was schemed, and Hashem allowed it to happen.

We already saw special treatment by Moses for Joshua, but what about Caleb – the second spy – that returned with a favourable report? Perhaps Moses suspected him as being a part of the plot and counted him along with the others. One meaning of his name is “like the heart” meaning he could be swayed one way or another. It says later: “They ascended in the south and “he” arrived at Hebron, where there were Ahiman, Shechai and Talmai, the offspring of the giant.” (Numbers 13:22)

Who is “he” referring to? None other than Caleb, to whom Hashem said: “Because a different spirit was with him and he followed after Me wholeheartedly, I shall bring him to the land to which he came, and his offspring will drive out its inhabitants” (Numbers 14:24), and who requested the promise be upheld to him by Joshua: “Joshua blessed him and gave Hebron to Caleb son of Jephunneh as a heritage.” (Joshua 14:13).

What is so significant about this you may ask? The question is – what was at Hebron that led Caleb to risk his life to go there? The Cave of Machpelah, the burial tomb of Abraham (and Sarah), Isaac (and Rebekah), and Jacob (and Leah). At this point in the history of the Nation of Israel, this was the only real, tangible connection they had to the Land. It was a place of remembrance – a powerful reminder of the nation’s heritage, and the Covenant made by Hashem with Abraham hundreds of years earlier. Caleb went there to find strength – he went out of his way, risked his life to connect with his ancestors and rekindle the purpose and drive to carry out this mission and remember why he was there.

Let’s return back to the opening verse. The verse continues to say: “let them spy out the Land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel.” Hashem referred to the Land of Canaan as His to give. This points to the ultimate test here from Hashem: The spies needed to recognize that the Land was a gift from Hashem. The Land was beyond the ability of Israel to conquer – Israel could not take the Land by any natural means. It was only by the mighty hand of Hashem that they could accomplish this, and they had to recognize this.

Or HaChaim comments: “The spies must be made to realize that the purpose of the spying is not to assess whether the Jews have the strength to conquer the Land and drive out its people, because it is absolutely certain that using only their own strength, they are not able to stand even against the smallest of the Canaanite cities, let alone conquer the entire Land! Rather, they must understand that this is the Land that I am "giving" to the Children of Israel. It is not a conquest, but a gift from Hashem; and since it is coming to them as a gift, it falls upon the Giver (Hashem) to expel those who have seized it (the Canaanites). Hashem would do wonders to bring down the towering ones of Canaan, and defeat that great and towering nation, numerous and mighty, and Hashem showed them the might of Canaan only so that the beneficiary of Hashem's miracle in Canaan (the Jewish nation) would be aware of this miracle… When the spies would see the Amalekites, and the offspring of giants, and the immense strength of the fortified cities of Canaan, they would not be alarmed or frightened, for they would understand that they were not coming to inherit the Land through the strength of Israel, but only through the might of the All-Powerful Creator, since it is He Who is giving them the Land!”

When the spies returned at the end of the 40 days, they reported:

בָּ֕אנוּ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֣ר שְׁלַחְתָּ֑נוּ וְ֠גַם זָבַ֨ת חָלָ֥ב וּדְבַ֛שׁ הִ֖וא וְזֶה־פִּרְיָֽהּ׃

אֶפֶס כִּֽי־עַ֣ז הָעָ֔ם הַיֹּשֵׁ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְהֶֽעָרִ֗ים בְּצֻר֤וֹת גְּדֹלֹת֙ מְאֹ֔ד וְגַם־יְלִדֵ֥י הָֽעֲנָ֖ק רָאִ֥ינוּ


“We arrived at the land to which you sent us, and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. But [“efes”] – the people that dwells in the land is powerful, the cities are very fortified and large, and we also saw there the offspring of the giant.” (Numbers 13:27-28)

Everything in this statement was accurate of the Land; however, the 10 spies added the word “efes” (“but”). As Ramban comments: “Their iniquity was in using the word "efes" which indicates something void and beyond the abilities of man”.

This is why Caleb interjected and said, “We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it!” (Numbers 13:30). It was after this point that the 10 spies elaborated on the impossibility of conquering the Land, feeding fear into the hearts and minds of the people of Israel.

The people responded and said: “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, or would that we had died in this wilderness! (Numbers 14:2)

With this statement, the Children of Israel sealed their fate in the Wilderness.

Hashem said to Moses:

“To what point will this people anger Me, and how long will they not have faith in Me, despite all the signs that I have performed in its midst? I will smite them with the plague and annihilate them, and I shall make you a greater and more powerful nation than they.” (Numbers 14:11)

This is a repeat of what happened at Mount Sinai when the people sinned with the Golden Calf. In a similar fashion, Moses stepped in, interceding and advocating on behalf of the people, and pointing out to Hashem that such an act would be a desecration of His Name amongst the nations.

At this point, Moses said:

וְעַתָּ֕ה יִגְדַּל־נָ֖א כֹּ֣חַ אֲדֹנָ֑י כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּ֖רְתָּ לֵאמֹֽר׃

“And now – may now the strength of my Lord be magnified as You have spoken, saying…” (Numbers 14:17)

This is a powerful opening to Moses’ petition for mercy. The use of the word “now” twice can be explained as an allusion to repentance (teshuvah). The second use of the word “now” (נָא, pronounced “na”) is what stresses that the magnification of Hashem's Name could occur only “now”, after the sin of the spies – that Hashem should accept the teshuvah of the Jewish people. Why? As Or HaChaim says: “There is a greater sanctification of Hashem's Name when the wicked better their ways than when the righteous persist in their righteous ways. This, then, is what Moses meant when he said, "may the strength of my Lord "now" be magnified" – that is, he was saying that more greatness would be ascribed to Hashem "now", should the Jewish people repent after having participated in the rebellion instigated by the spies. By accepting their teshuvah in the current situation rather than killing them, Hashem would cause His honour to be magnified. And we can say that with the word "na", “now”, the verse also alludes to the proper time for teshuvah – because it is only “now”, while a person is alive, that they can do teshuvah.”

On a deeper level, perhaps Moses was looking beyond just this generation and well into the future when he spoke these words. Moses used the title “Adonai” (“master”) here, alluding to the future Mashiach. This could be used in conjunction with Psalm 110:1: “Hashem declared to “my master”, “Sit at My right hand while I make your enemies your footstool.” (Psalm 110:1). Perhaps he was pointing to a future redeemer that would be a greater point of salvation. More on this later.

Hashem listened to Moses’ plea and responded: “I have forgiven them in accordance with your words.” (Numbers 14:20) However, he continued, “But your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness. Your children will roam in the wilderness for forty years and bear your guilt, until your carcasses shall cease to be in the Wilderness” (Numbers 14:32-34).

Moses advocated on behalf of the people, but his advocating could only go so far. It is as though the people condemned themselves by their own mouths when they said “would that we had died in this wilderness!” (Numbers 14:2)

The people reacted by mourning exceedingly. Was this mourning genuine? No. The next morning, they said: “We are ready, and we shall ascend to the place of which Hashem has spoken, for we have sinned.” (Numbers 14:40). However, Moses warned them that Hashem was not with them, and they were beaten back by the Amalekites and Canaanites. They had not learned their lesson. They were attempting to once again take action into their own hands.

Nevertheless, Hashem still consoled the people by saying these words: “When you will come to the Land of your dwelling places that I give you” (Numbers 15:2). His promise to His people still stood; however, it would not crystalize for another 40 years.

Throughout the Wilderness thus far, the people lacked substantial faith in Hashem, they had such short-term memories after all that Hashem had done for them in bringing them up out of Egypt. I think of the beautiful Song of the Sea, as the people sung after their great salvation on the shore of the Sea of Reed, this one line:

מִֽי־כָמֹ֤כָה בָּֽאֵלִם֙ יְהוָ֔ה מִ֥י כָּמֹ֖כָה נֶאְדָּ֣ר בַּקֹּ֑דֶשׁ נוֹרָ֥א תְהִלֹּ֖ת עֹ֥שֵׂה פֶֽלֶא׃

“Who is like You, Hashem, among the gods? Who is like You; glorified in holiness, awesome in praise, producing wonders?” (Exodus 15:11).

The people had just witnessed such a mighty act of salvation, and they responded giving praise to Hashem. However, this sentiment did not last up until this point because of their short-sightedness.

With this test of the spies, Hashem let them go through with their plot. He said, “Perhaps they will return from the Land and speak with one voice of the goodness of the Land to which I am giving them”. Rather, they lost sight of Hashem. Once the spies were removed from the Camp, from the influence of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), from the guidance of Moses their leader and tzaddik (righteous one), the real testing began. The only ones to stand firmly in Hashem were Joshua and Caleb.

In the Haftarah, Joshua sent out a spy mission of his own in their first conquest in the Land, that of the city of Jericho. He did not send 12 men, but rather only 2. He surely took a page out of the experience here. What was the result? The two men returned with favourable reports and confidence, grounded in their faith in Hashem. And it was shocking that those in the Land were still living in fear of the Israelites, and this was 40 years later!

What are we to take from this story? Just like the spies, we venture into unknown territory each and every day as we leave the safety net of our homes and congregations. It is much easier to proclaim that Hashem is our Almighty God and that our faith is unwavering when we are in the company of like-minded individuals. The true testing begins when we leave that safety net. What do we have to remind us who we are connected to? Joshua found strength in the new name that Moses gave to him. Caleb found his connection at the Cave of Machpelah. These were reminders to the two men that they were connected to Hashem. This gave them strength to stand up to the negative report of the other 10 spies.

As for us? We have Yeshua HaMashiach – the promised Mashiach, the greater point of salvation. He may not be physically here with us, but he is our connection to Hashem – it is through him that we are saved. What is the meaning of the name “Yeshua”? “He will save”. We have been saved through him, through the self-nullifying action of his death. Yeshua HaMashiach may not have accomplished all of the mandate of the Mashiach during his tenure on earth, but he promised to come once more.

Moreover, what did Yeshua say to his disciples prior to his death?

וַיִּקַּח אֶת־הַלֶּחֶם וַיְבָרֶךְ וַיִּבְצַע וַיִּתֵּן לָהֶם וַיֹּאמַר זֶה גוּפִי הַנִּתָּן בַּעַדְכֶם זֹאת עֲשׂוֹּ


וְכֵן גַּם־אֶת־הַכּוֹס אַחַר הַסְּעוּדָה לֵאמֹר זוֹ הַכּוֹס הִיא הַבְּרִית הַחֲדָשָׁה בְּדָמִי

הַנִּשְׁפָּךְ בַּעַדְכֶם׃

“He took the bread, made a berachah (blessing), and broke it. He gave it to them and said, ‘This is my body, which is given on your behalf. Do this in my remembrance.’ He did likewise with the cup after the meal, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out on your behalf.’” (Luke 22:19-20)

Yeshua gave his disciples (and us) emblems to remember him by, infused with deep symbolism of his great act of self-sacrifice, so that we may be reminded of what he did for us and to replicate him in our everyday lives until he returns once more. Yeshua only mirrored Hashem throughout his life. Only by replicating Yeshua can we accomplish the same. Only then can we face obstacles in our lives and recognize that through Hashem, we can be victorious!

May we be like Joshua and Caleb, and find those connections that keep us focused on Hashem. May we remind ourselves each and every day of the great salvation that we have attained through Yeshua HaMashiach, bringing us into connection with our Heavenly Father. Amen.

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