Five Rashis, Shelach: Staying separate, joining together

The opening incident of the parsha is the spies, and several Rashis emphasize that the dangers of the endeavor were known ahead of time to more than one actor in the story.

Giving Them Their Rope

On the first words of the parsha, Rashi says that Hashem tells Moshe שלח לך, send for you, because Hashem didn’t think it was a great idea. Rashi has Hashem saying “I told you it’s good; if you want to check it out, I’ll give you room to make the error of the spies, and then you won’t live to take hold of it.”

It’s not only Hashem. Rashi to 13;17 thinks Moshe changed Hoshea’s name to Yehoshua (the name by which we know him) as a prayer that Hashem should save him (י-ה יושיעך, which compresses into יהושע) from the counsel of the spies. Six verses later, the verse describes the route they took. Rashi explains the verse using the singular for going to Chevron as indicating that only Calev went, to pray at the graves of the Patriarchs/ Matriarchs, that he not be lured by his colleagues to join their perspective.

That Moshe and Calev felt the need to pray shows a sometimes overlooked part of the problem — it was very tempting to join the spies. They weren’t saying something obviously outrageous, which only a little faith would show to be false. They were presenting the most sensible read of what they had seen. With only a little more temptation, perhaps Yehoshua and Calev, the heroes of the story, would have been drawn to join them.

It’s a reminder that that which can turn out to be tremendously wrong doesn’t always seem that way in the moment. Moshe isn’t confident Yehoshua will resist, without Divine assistance, nor is Calev sure of himself. Because the clearer path was to agree with the spies, not solely because there’s safety in numbers or for convenience, but because by all human logic, they were right.

Except that they weren’t.

Accurate Pictures of Hashem

When Moshe prays to Hashem to avert the destruction the Jews have brought on themselves by crying over the spies’ report, 14;18, he includes an edited version of the י”ג מדות, the Thirteen Attributes that Hashem had taught him on Sinai.  In a chapter of my We’re Missing the Point, I suggested that Moshe had understood that these Attributes aren’t a mantra to be recited mindlessly, to produce their magical outcome, and that Moshe’s invoking of them was a sign that he understood them well enough to know which ones fit here.

That would explain, for example, why אמת is left out — perhaps Hashem’s Attribute of Truth would not have allowed for forgiveness, so he omitted it (as he was allowed to do; I think that’s part of the point of the Attributes, that we can invoke some or all, as they are relevant).

If so, it’s interesting to see that he does include ונקה לא ינקה, which Rashi understands to mean that Hashem wipes away the sins of the penitent, but not of those who are not. Why mention that Hashem doesn’t wipe away the sins of the unrepentant? I think it might have been Moshe’s way of assuring Hashem that he wasn’t asking for Hashem to spare an unrepentant people, was implying to Hashem that he, Moshe, was confident the people would understand what they had done wrong, and then Hashem could be menakeh, wipe away this sin.

Even if absolute truth or other Attributes could not be a force here, the awareness that repentance was necessary for forgiveness could be, since Moshe would bring the Jews to that realization.

Just One Shabbos

15;32 tells of the Jewish people finding a man gathering sticks on Shabbat, a violation. Rashi comments that this tells the shame of the Jewish people, that they only managed to keep that first Shabbat.  That is part of the fuel behind the tradition (based on two statements on Shabbat 118b) that if all Jews just kept one more Shabbat, Mashiach would come.

Here, I am struck by Rashi’s formulation, that this story speaks negatively of the Jewish people. In a nation of 600,000 men, let alone women and children, having one person “go rogue,” as it were, and violate Shabbat would not today be seen as revealing a flaw in the nation as a whole.

Rashi made a similar comment in last week’s parsha, that the Torah revealed a flaw in the nation in that they only observed one Pesach sacrifice. There, though, it was the nation as a whole that did not act as it could have. Here, it’s one person whom they find and bring to justice. What does that say about the people as a whole?

The answer is embedded in the question, it seems to me. Rashi assumes that a nation is to some extent characterized by each of its members (although more so by the larger groupings of those members).  A fully faithful nation would not have even one violator.

That a Jew could decide to violate Shabbat (perhaps especially because it was so new) speaks to how well the nation had committed to such observance. Even if many Jews were very devoted, they had not succeeded in making that so part of the nation’s core that no Jew could imagine violating it. What seems like a personal issue is also a communal one — a nation, state, or city where absolutely no one murders anyone else is a different polity than where even one murder happens a year.

In recent weeks, as I’ve been reviewing some of R. Lichtenstein, zt”l’s writings, I’ve also been reminded of the value he saw in citing phrases or selections from English literature that expressed an idea with particular felicity. For all that I am largely ignorant of that literature, and certainly of poetry (I say that as fact, without false humility, nor with any illusions that I am not, probably, the poorer for it), this assumption of Rashi’s reminds me of a phrase which turns out to be part of John Donne’s Meditation XVII,

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

When the mekoshesh is caught, we are all caught; when one of us fails to keep Shabbat, it reflects on us all.

Eyes and Heart — Separate or Together?

15;39 says that seeing our tzitzit will helps us resist being drawn after our hearts and eyes. Rambam in Sefer haMitzvot separates those, the heart indicating thoughts that draw us far from Hashem, particularly heretical ones. Rashi on the words ולא תתורו says instead that the eyes and heart work together, the eye seeing that which is forbidden and the heart desiring it, then leading the body to engage in that sin.

Rashi does not seem to have focused on purely internal or intellectual sins. For Rashi, sin is that which comes from outside of us, tempting us to do that which Hashem said not to. To avoid that temptation, we need to control our eyes; should that fail, should the sight and therefore the awareness of sin come into our consciousness, we have to resist letting it impact our hearts and emotions, nip the desire for that sin in the bud, before it invades our bodies and leads us down a path similar to the one of the man who embarrassed us all with his violation of Shabbat.

From the start of the parsha to the end, we have reminders of how linked we are, internally and interpersonally. The actions of the spies affect us all, such that Calev and Yehoshua couldn’t be fully confident they wouldn’t be drawn in, Moshe’s prayer on our behalf has to note that it’s only if we repent that Hashem can grant us forgiveness, the mekoshesh makes clear that individual failures are also communal ones, and the need for our eyes and hearts to cooperate shows that sin is a whole body experience, not distinct parts working well or poorly.

A project in memory of Baruch Leib haKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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