Parshat Shelach

Torah Reading for Week of June 10-16, 2012

“Check it Out for Yourself”
By Rabbi Yocheved Mintz ’04

This week’s Torah portion is sometimes called “Sh’lach” and sometimes called “Sh’lach-L’cha,” as the title is taken from the first significant words of the passage.  “Sh’lach” means “Send,” and one might be justified in translating the divine command to Moses as “Send men to scout the land of Canaan…” But the Hebrew actually reads “Sh’lach-l’cha” which intimates something a little different:  “Send for yourself.”  The meaning then shifts and makes us wonder just why the Almighty asks Moses to direct, for himself, the tribal representatives to scout out the Promised Land, if the land has already been divinely promised to the Children of Israel anyway?

Taking midrashic license, we can conjure up what a previous conversation between G-d and Moses might have been, in order to make sense of this curious opening to this chapter.

Mosheleh,” the All-Understanding One might have said.  “What’s eating you?  You look troubled.”

Moses replies:  “You can see right through me, can’t You.  I am troubled.  You keep showing how powerfully awesome You are, yet it doesn’t take very much for these people to start kvetching about every little thing and whining that things were better when they were in their narrow straits.  G’valt!  It’s been over a year since You brought us out of Mitzrayim, and we’re so close to the land You promised us, yet they can’t seem to shake this slave-mentality they have.  I’m worried that they may still not believe in You and may not be ready to enter the land.”

“Funny you should be thinking that,” replies the One-Who-Knows-Our-Innermost-Thoughts.  “So, nu, why don’t you send, for yourself, men to scout out the land of Canaan, which I am giving the Israelite people?”

So Moses did send out twelve men, one leader of each tribe, and they took 40 days to scout out the land, but, when they gave their assessment, ten of them gave disastrously negative reports. They gave highly exaggerated accounts of anakim (a breed of giants) occupying the land:  “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we looked the same to them.”  (Numbers 13:33)

While Caleb and Joshua didn’t actually refute the descriptions of their ten counterparts, they clearly objected to their conclusion that the Israelites could not conquer the land.  “The land we passed through to explore,” they asserted, “is exceedingly good.”  And, although they conceded that the cities were large and fortified, they tried to convince the Israelites that there was no reason to fear either the strength of the cities or that of the anakim, “for they are lachmeinu, their strength is gone.” Rashi, translating “lachmeinu” to mean “our bread,” interprets Caleb and Joshua’s statement to mean that the Children of Israel could easily overcome the Canaanites, virtually swallowing them up as one swallows bread.  Rabbi Pinchas Peli, a 20th century scholar, notes that “lachmeinu” also comes from the same root as that for “milchama,” which means “war.” He therefore interprets Caleb and Joshua’s statement as somewhat of a rallying cry…”As to the giant anakim, of which you are so afraid, they are lachmeinu—our war; we personally will take care of them.”  Peli reminds us that they did indeed take care of them, some 45 years later, and that account is written up in the book of Joshua, chapters 11 and 14.  Nevertheless, the rally cry and more accurate and positive assessments of Caleb and Joshua fell on deaf ears.  The people were gripped in fear, and mass hysteria ensued, along with a break-down in leadership.

Moses had needed to check it out for himself, to send out the spies so that he could assess if the people were sufficiently distanced from their slave mentality so that they could put their trust in G-d, obey Moses’ leadership, and be worthy of entering the land.  And he saw that they were not.  The people of that generation, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua would die out in the 40 years to which the Israelites were then doomed to wander in the wilderness.

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