This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl
Before I deliver my D’var Torah today, I must ask us all to pause for a moment of reflection. The last several weeks have been very painful for all of us. Terrorism in the form of the events on Westminster Bridge, in Manchester, on London Bridge and in Borough Market, and the tragic fire in Grenfell Tower have left us all shaken to the core. We must find the time to pray for the families who have lost loved ones that they may with time find comfort. We must also pray for those who are still struggling to recover from both physical and psychological injuries. We must do whatever we can to help through charitable donations. The most recent and horrifying fire is not the same as the terrorist incidents which preceded it, but in both cases whatever can be done to prevent future occurrences whether by increased security in one case or greater attention to secure building codes in the other must be done, and we must encourage our government to do so. At the same time, we must feel and express gratitude to the first responders of fire and police, along with all those numerous people who stepped up as rescuers and opened their hearts and homes to those in need.
The Sedra of Shelach Lecha is a pivotal one in the history of the Jewish people in terms of their faith in themselves and their faith in God. Moses sent out twelve spies to reconnoiter the land of Israel before entering it. It is, of course, the sensible thing to do so the the people will know what to do and what is expected of them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out well. Ten out of the twelve scouts return with a pessimistic report; the people are doomed to failure in conquering the land. Only Joshua and Caleb express optimism. The result is that the Jewish people are not permitted to enter the land until the negative and faithless generation which left Egypt has died out.
On one level, their negativism comes from a lack of faith in themselves. This is expressed in their perception that the land is occupied by giants, but even more in their perception of themselves as the size of grasshoppers. Far worse, is their lack of faith in God which is implied in the declaration in their report: “We are not able to go up against the people for they are stronger than we (Numbers 13:31). The last two words in Hebrew are critical because the word “mimenu” can mean two different things. It can mean “than we,” or it can mean “than He (God).”
Rashi, the great medieval commentator (1035-1104), citing the Midrash, says that “they meant it in reference to Him that is Above;” their true denial was of God’s power, not of their own. Therefore, God would be responsible for their familiar. They could blame it all on Him. That, it seems to me, is the best reason why they were not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Not only did they show a tremendous lack of faith, but also a reluctance to accept responsibility. God is not powerful enough, and our failure will be His fault.
On another level, they were turned back at the border, because of the manner in which the faithless delivered their report. And here to, as before, one word made a difference. Look at Numbers 13:27-28: “We came into the Land whither Thou sent us, and surely it flowers with milk and honey and this is the fruit of it. Nevertheless, the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great, and moreover we saw the children of Anak there….” I bonded the word “nevertheless” because that one word took and otherwise objective report and slanted it toward the negative in a subtle and sneaky way. The listener would think he was hearing the truth offered with objectivity but would end up feeling pessimistic. This is the manipulative technique of the propagandist who shades the truth just enough to accomplish his goal to mislead others.
Professor Nehama Leibowitz, the renowned modern Biblical commentator, offer a wonderful illustration of this this technique from a 15th century commentator Isaac Arama. Again note the bolder words: “It can be compared to a man who says to his agent- Go to the warehouse and have a look at the tallit the merchant has in stock. Examine it carefully for the quality of the fabric, for size, appearance and price and let me know, as I wish to purchase it. If the agent returns and says that he had a look at it and the wool is pure, it is long and wide, greenish and reddish in color and the price a hundred gold pieces, he has carried out his mission correctly. But if he said- I had a look at it, the wool is pure, it is long and wide, but it is greenish and reddish in color, and it is very dearly priced at 100 gold pieces, then he has exceeded the bounds of his mission and become instead an advisor.”
How interesting! What a difference a word or two here and there can make! Such is a reminder that we have to be careful listeners and readers of all reports which are presented to us. As you can see from this Sedra, life or death decisions depended on the honesty of the spies. The ten could clearly could not be trusted because of the style not only the content of their reporting. It was clearly not truthful and certainly slanted. What was worse than their report was that they were lacking in faith both in God and in themselves. The people would have to wait to cross the border.