Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Sh'lach Le'cha - Bamidbar (Numbers) 13 - 15

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Sh'lach Le'cha - Bamidbar (Numbers) 13 - 15

"And YHVH spoke to Moses, saying, 'Send men for you, and they shall spy out the land of Canaan…one man, every one a leader among them'" (Num. 13:1). Being into their second year of wandering in the desert, it was time for the Israelites to 'touch base' with the Promised Land. Twelve leaders of the tribes were commissioned "to spy it out." These leaders are singled out individually, as we read in chapter 13:2,3: “.. from each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a leader among them… all of them men, heads of the children of Israel.” The Hebrew is even more emphatic, for “from each tribe… every one…” reads: “one man, one man” and continues, “every elevated leaders… all of them men, the heads of the sons of Israel.” These individuals were assigned the task that typically had the potential of becoming multi-facetted, turning in various directions, as the verb itself for "spying out" - "tour" - implies. Aside from "spying out," "tour" also means "to observe, seek, search, reconnoiter, explore, examine and follow." However, "tour's" primal meaning is “to turn". [1]

In the middle of last week's Parashat B'ha'a’lot’cha we read: "And they set forward from the mount of YHVH three days' journey; and the ark of the covenant of YHVH went before them three days' journey, to seek out a resting-place for them" (10:33 italics added). We are thus informed that before any "touring" could take place, before any human reports could be filed, it was first and foremost YHVH Himself who did the "seeking" - "tour" - of a resting place for His people. Let us now follow this band of twelve on their physical and spiritual journey.

Which way will they turn, as they set forth on their "touring" mission? Will theirs be a journey of real exploration, a seeking out of YHVH's face and a clinging to Him when faced with challenges (of which there will be no shortage in the new territory)? Will they see the land from His point of view, or will their experience prove to be a mere sightseeing tour, inspecting the 'attractions' of the land and expressing dissatisfaction if their expectations are not met? And above all, since these men were singled out so categorically, inferring that each of them was a strong individual; would they be able to come to agreement at the end of the day?

When YHVH tells Moshe to send the twelve He says, "shla'ch le'cha," meaning "send forth for yourself [or, on your behalf]…" recalling to mind a similar, and likewise vigorous call many years beforehand. Lech le'cha," or "go forth (for yourself)" (Gen. 12:1), were the words Avram was sent forth with from his "land and from [his] kindred, and from [his] father's house," going to the land which YHVH was about to show him. Both dispatches are marked by a certain sense of expediency and urgency to “get going." The first 'send off’' was followed implicitly, resulting in a successful mission despite a number of setbacks. Although living as a nomad, Avram/Avraham was no "tourist" in the Promised Land. He took YHVH at His word, to “rise up, walk through the land, its length and its breadth, for I will give it to you" (Gen. 13:17). When Moshe heard the words "sh'lach le'cha," the centuries-old story of the father of the Hebrew nation must have resounded in his heart. What wouldn't he have given to be numbered among the twelve?! What, then, does he have in mind when he follows YHVH's instruction to "sent them to spy out, to examine, to check - "la'tour" - the land of Canaan…”? (verse 17). Moshe specified: "And you shall see the land, what it is, and the people who are living on it, whether it is strong or feeble; whether it is few or many; and what the land is… whether good or bad; and what are the cities… whether in camps or in fortresses; and what the land is, whether it is fat or lean; whether wood is in it or not" (verses 18-20). Moshe is seeking information of facts and figures that are necessary for a strategic purpose, and not for scrutinizing Elohim's plan for the nation of Yisrael.

But, regardless of what that intelligence will turn out to be, the bottom line, according to the Nation’s leader is: "And you shall make yourselves strong and shall take of the fruit of the land" (v. 20, italics added). Paraphrased, Moshe's words may sound something like this, "If you rely on YHVH's strength and on the power of His might, you shall succeed and partake of the fruit of the land." This appears, then, to be the nature of the "tour" that Moshe had intended for the dozen leaders to take.

The Biblical narrative elaborates on the mission, and so we read the ‘headlines’: "And they went up and spied out the land…And they returned from spying out the land at the end of forty days…And they reported to him… " (13:21, 25, 27 italics added). The faithful messengers apparently did according to Moshe's bidding, and in addition also found the land to be "flowing with milk and honey" (verse 27), evidence of which was the fruit that they had picked and which they were now bringing to their leader, just as he had asked them to do. So far so good…

But what started out as a promising report suddenly came to a screeching halt: "e'fes" ! "E'fes" translated "but" or "however" (v. 28), is followed by the envoys' very negative descriptions. The literal meaning of "e'fes" is to “cease or come to an end", and hence "extremity" ("ends of the earth", Duet. 33:17), "naught or nothing" (Is. 34:12), and "only," which is actually the way it is used in our text. "E'fes" turns what promised to be a positive report into an extremely negative one. One of the characteristics which the report attributed to the land was that it “devours its inhabitants,” or literally “eats up” its inhabitants (13:32). Verse 30 depicts a conflict of opinions, as Calev (Caleb) "[stills] the people," assuring them of their ability to take the land. A little further Calev and Yehoshua continue to exhort the people: “Only do not rebel against YHVH, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and YHVH is with us. Do not fear them” (14:9). Thus, instead of the land devouring them, their future enemies were to become their ‘consumption,’ if they would only obey YHVH. Additionally, for “their protection has departed from them,” the Hebrew says, “their shadow has departed…” Calev and Yehoshua paint a totally different picture from the one that was just presented. They counter the description of “men of great stature, giants” (ref. 13:32,33) with a depiction which ascribes to the enemy “no shadow," as if he is of no substance at all, not even having a (proverbial) shadow.

But when the evil reporting does not cease, "Joshua the son of Nun, and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, of those who spied out the land, tore their garments; and they spoke to all the congregation of the sons of Israel, saying, 'The land into which we passed, to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land'" (14:6,7 italics added). The eyes of these two devoted witnesses had seen something altogether different when they made their "tour" of the Land of C’na’an; evidently they were of "another spirit" (verse 24), and thus both of them were to be rewarded by being brought into the land and by possessing it (ref. v. 24, 30). As for the rest, their punishment was pronounced by YHVH: "By the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a day for a year, a day for a year; you shall bear your iniquities forty years…" (verse 34). The "tour" of the other ten resulted in what became for the entire body of the People of Yisrael a wandering 'tour' of the wilderness, and for themselves - death by a plague (ref. v.37).

By following their own hearts and inclinations these leaders, who had been granted the privilege of walking ahead of the nation, brought calamity not only upon themselves, but also upon the entire nation. This type of "going about after your own heart and your own eyes after which you go astray" (15:39, italics added) is, once again, defined by the verb "tour." Thus, at the very end of Parashat Sh’lach Le'cha provision is made against the inherent condition of following, or going about after one's own heart. Hence the "tzitzit" (root tzadi, vav, tzadi meaning “bloom, burst out” and by inference “protrude” of one’s clothing which explains the shape of “fringes”), are introduced: "to look at and remember all the commandments of YHVH, so as to do them and not follow – tour – after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you played the harlot, in order that you may remember to do all My commandments, and be holy to your Elohim” (15:39-40). Appended to this injunction are the words, "I am YHVH your Elohim who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your Elohim. I am YHVH your Elohim" (v. 41), "Who goes before you in the way to seek out ["la'tour"] a place for your camping, in fire by night, to show you the way in which you should go, and in a cloud by the day" (italics added. Deut. 1:33, ref. also Ezekiel 20:6), as we also saw in last week's Parasha. Ultimately, for all of our own seeking, searching and exploration - our so called touring expeditions - it is He who goes before us to “seek out - 'tour' - a place and a rest” for us, so that we, in turn, may turn to Him.

Note: The English words "turn" and "tour" are derivatives of the Hebrew "tour," which we have just examined, having found their way to the English language via the Old French "tourner," meaning "to turn" (ref. The Word, Isaac E. Mozeson, Shapolsky Publishers, New York, 1989).

[1] The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Francis Brown Hendrickson. Publishers,
Peabody, Mass. 1979.