Parshat Shelach

Torah Reading for Week of May 30 – June 5, 2021


By Rabbi/Cantor Eva Robbins ’04 & 15, AJRCA Professor of Liturgical Studies


If you just listen to the opening words, Sh’lach l’cha, you can’t help but be reminded of a much earlier parshah, Lech L’cha, when Gd sends Avraham forward towards the promised land. This is a direct command from G-d.  In this Parsha, the instructions are to Moses to command others, yet no less potent. The difference between the two words, leich and sh’lach is the last letter, chaf in the former and chet in the latter.  Both letters are gutturals, and we hear them as having the same meaning, ‘Go.’ These two parshiot have a powerful connection. They reflect an underlying need of the Holy One to sometimes challenge or offer opportunities to express faith and trust. For our great sages, this was Avraham’s first test, and clearly, what is happening in this Torah portion is a test as well. Though not the first for the people who were freed from Egypt, certainly the most critical, for it is the last straw for G-d, who imposes a severe consequence when they fail.

The people finally face their challenge, standing on the precipice of entering the land. Yet first they must explore what lies ahead. Twelve leaders, one from each tribe, must spy and check it out before inhabiting it. Why? God had certainly demonstrated so many all-powerful miracles and wonders while supporting their journey – devastating plagues, drowning Pharoah’s army, persistent presence through pillars of clouds and fire, miraculous food and water etc. Whatever they had faced they were not alone, and yet, something has shifted. Not only are they asked to ‘test the waters,’ once again (like at Red Sea) but God is testing them.

This is the big moment. They sinned, they kvetched, and even made T’shuvah, sharing in creating a home, the Mishkan, for God, healing the rift that the sin of the Golden Calf had opened. They had finally made it. How is it they fail so badly?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, points out the accompanying Haftorah tells us that the inhabitants of the land were terrified of the Israelites and in fact created high walls to protect themselves. Yet, ten of our leaders see themselves as ‘grasshoppers,’ small, insecure, and feeble. They lack confidence, inner strength, and most importantly trust in G-d’s presence. Unlike Avraham, whose faith was secure, these men projected a lie. The lie infected all the people who sadly want to return to Egypt. They failed miserably. Forced to wander the desert till they die, their children and grandchildren would receive the reward.

How infectious and destructive are lies people believe and pass on. Their fears and insecurities turn into projections. This reality is undermining democracy at this very moment.

The Hebrew for test is ‘nes,’ which also means a banner and a miracle. We are all tested every day. Though these messages are not verbally communicated by G-d or Moshe, they are communicated as opportunities for each of us to tap into our inner strength and faith, often turning into the little miracles we experience every day. This is the ‘banner’ we can lift proudly, that we faced what is before us knowing we are not alone.