This Week’s Torah Portions (Sh’lach): Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
We don’t know what we want, as the saga of Numbers shows us clearly. Upon hearing that Canaan might be difficult to conquer, the people speak out in fear and mistrust of God. But then, when told they will not be allowed to enter the land, and that only their children will, suddenly they want and try to take on their own the very same land they rejected. This week’s portion in Numbers is about the tragedy of faithlessness mixed with hope based in God’s character.
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What we will eat is the bread of the land. We will eat it because God is bringing us to the land. Our outlook now depends on our willingness to believe.
A Few Highlights from the Hebrew and the Commentary
Numbers 13:2 — shelach-lecha anashim veyaturu et-eretz Cana’an, שְׁלַח־לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת־אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, “send for yourself men to spy out the land of Canaan.” In Numbers, God gives this instruction. In the Deuteronomy version, the people suggest the idea (“Let us send men before us, that they may explore the land for us,” Deut 1:22). The idea of it was good. The people would see the land, that it was a great place for grapes and grain. They would hopefully catch a vision for life as free men and women living on the land under a covenant relationship with God. Instead they worried about the struggle. We miss so much in life by focusing on the wrong part of what we see.
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Numbers 13:17 — halō tōv lanu shuv mitzraymah,הֲלוֹא טוֹב לָנוּ שׁוּב מִצְרָיְמָה, “would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” How could a group of people be so wrong? How could they say something that so betrays the one who delivered them? They were used to being slaves. They had lived in servitude but the paradox of enslavement is that often times slaves have a kind of security free people do not. While slaves they were mistreated, but they were protected and fed. Now they fear a situation they do not know, one in which they will be responsible for their crops and their land. A ruling class provided everything for them in Egypt. Now, they must believe that God will bless the work of their hands and provide for them. Because the majority of the people would prefer enslavement with security to freedom with uncertainty, God will make them wait for the next generation to enter the land.
Numbers 14:39 — veyitabbelu ha’am me’ōd, וַיִּתְאַבְּלוּ הָעָם מְאֹד, “and the people mourned greatly.” We don’t know what we want. We complain. We reject the good. When we get what we said we want, we find ourselves utterly alone and unfulfilled. In fear of the struggle, the people said they’d be better off if they’d never left Egypt. Surely the inhabitants of Canaan will kill them. But then God says, “You won’t go in to the land, but your children will.” Doomed to wait out an entire generation in the desert, they mourn greatly. The thing they said they didn’t want, they now, against the directions of God, try and obtain it on their own by attacking a Canaanite outpost to begin conquering the land. We are most to be pitied when we wallow in our negativity. What we think we want is the good without the effort, the victory without the struggle, gain without toil. The Promised Land has a path leading into it and the path is the purpose. What we need is change, transformation, that makes the good worth having. Paradise is for people who can appreciate it.
Numbers 15:19 — vehayah be’achal’chem milechem ha’aretz, וְהָיָה בַּאֲכָלְכֶם מִלֶּחֶם הָאָרֶץ, “and when you eat from the bread of the land.” The promise of a blessed future seems remote to us, a distant vision hard to hold on to. But, since it depends on God’s ability to follow through, it is really tangible and near. The people will wander until their children are ready to inherit Canaan. For a tiny nation of freed slaves, a land where they grow their own grain is a dream worthy of their aspiration. They long to eat the first bread which they will sow, tend, harvest, thresh, mill, knead, and bake themselves. When they do, the first pinch of dough belongs to God. Torah does not specify, but modern custom dictates that this pinch, this challah offering, be burned. In our time, challah refers to a distinctive kind of Jewish bread. In Torah the word means “an offering to entreat favor.”
Outlines of the Week, Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
NUMBERS 13:1-20 The command to send scouts into Canaan (1-2), heads of tribes chosen (3-16), instructions for the scouts (17-20).
NUMBERS 13:21-14:7 The scouts find grapes abundant at Eshcol (13:21-24), the first report of the scouts (35-29), Caleb’s positive report (30), the negative report of others (31-33), the people of Israel lose faith (14:1-3), the call to return to Egypt (4-7).
NUMBERS 14:8-25 Joshua and Caleb’s impassioned speech for faithfulness (8-9), the people want to stone them (10), God announces his intention to smite the people (11-12), Moses reminds God of his own words (13-19), God’s verdict: none but Caleb will enter the land (20-25).
NUMBERS 14:26 – 15:7 Sentenced to forty years and death in the desert (14:26-35), all the scouts but Joshua and Caleb die of a plague (36-38), the mourning people try to conquer the land without God’s blessing (39-45), the laws of grain and drink offerings to accompany animal offerings (15:1-7).
NUMBERS 15:8-16 More laws of grain and drink offerings to accompany animal offerings (8-16).
NUMBERS 15:17-26 First portion of the dough [challah] offered to God (17-21), community offering for inadvertent sin (22-26).
NUMBERS 15:27-41 Individual offering for inadvertent sin (27-29), high-handed sin and being cut off (30-31), a wood-gatherer stoned (32-36), fringes (tzitzit) as reminders (37-41).
To read full commentary on Numbers 13:1 -15:41, click here.
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