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Daniel D. Stuhlman

Parashat Shelah-Lecha

This week we read about the sending of the spies by Moshe to the land of Canaan, the future Land of Israel, to learn about the people and the geography. Each tribe had representatives and are named in the first verses of this parasha. This was a turning point in the journey out of Egypt.  Up until this time, the Israelites were not destined to wander for 40 years.  After the poor report it was realized that all of the previous slaves needed to die off.

Of all the men sent on this mission only Yehoshua was mentioned earlier in the Torah.  Yehoshua had military experience in the war against Amalek and was the first person to greet Moshe when he came down from Mt. Sinai.  The third time we see Yehoshua is when he defends the honor of Moshe against the inappropriate prophecies of Eldad and Meidad (Bamidbar 11:28).

In a parasha class this week someone asked, “If God had promised the land to the Israelites, why were spies needed?” This kind of question can be answered on several levels, but I’ll answer it from the practical or logistical perspective.  While God gave Moshe and the Israelites the plan, the implementation was dependent on the ability of the people.  Already on the journey from Egypt, people had rebelled.  The incident with the Golden Calf showed that some people did not believe in the mission to settle the Land.  In the organization the leader may have the vision and ability to allocate resources, but the people have to take over the daily tasks.  The sending of the spies was needed to investigate the strengths and weaknesses of the inhabitants and the geography.  This was also a test.  Could God trust the current people to conquer the Land?

When the spies returned with a negative report the people questioned the Divine commands and plans.  Yehoshua and Caleb gave people hope.  The cluster of grapes they carried was both a real artifact of the Land and a symbol of God’s words and plans.  Yehoshua and Caleb did not know at the time that the cluster grapes would be a symbol for modern Israeli tourism or that grapes would become wine, the beverage that helps sanctify the Shabbat and holidays. There is a connection between welcoming the Shabbat and entering the Land of Israel.  The day is not holy without sanctification and the Land is not ours without the philosophical, religious, and physical conquest.  Promising the Land, points us in the right direction; conquest makes it ours.

Discussion questions:

  1. If you sent people to investigate and they returned with a glowing report because they didn’t want to disappoint you would you be able to accomplish the mission?  In other words, how do you get the information that you need even if the answer is not what you want?  Can you accept bad news?
  2. What was the “real” sin of the spies?
About the Author
Lives in Chicago, Illinois USA. Academic and synagogue librarian for more than 40 years. Graduate of Columbia University in the City of New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Jewish University of America. MHL and DHL in Tanah. Gabbai Sheni of Kehilath Jacob Beth Shmuel in Chicago for more than 40 years.
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