SPIES LIKE US
After the redemption from Egyptian bondage and the supernatural events which encompassed it, a series of crises stood between the Jewish nation and their homeland. The attempt to spy out the land of Canaan, which is described in this week's Torah portion, resulted in the culmination of these crises.
After the redemption from Egyptian bondage and the supernatural events which encompassed it, a series of crises stood between the Jewish nation and their homeland. The attempt to spy out the land of Canaan, which is described in this week's Torah portion, resulted in the culmination of these crises. The mission was, in part, designed to improve national morale. However, the report brought back was of a strong, indigenous population who could not be uprooted. The would-be morale booster created national hysteria. G-d punished the Jewish people for their reaction as the verse states, "In this wilderness shall your carcasses drop" (Numbers 14:29). The generation of Jews who left Egypt would live out their days in the desert wilderness, never to see their homeland.
This episode presents us with a serious difficulty, for it was G-d Himself who told Moses to send the spies. Ultimately, the men were sent to determine the feasibility of war. Thus, the spies were merely carrying out their mission in describing the difficulty of the situation. Furthermore, the people seem justified in their response. All that occurred was a natural outcome of the Divine command. Why did G-d's wrath burn at the execution of His own word?
In addressing this issue, our sages pointed to a superfluity in the wording of G-d's command to Moses, "Send for yourself men," (Numbers 13:2). The seemingly unnecessary phrase "for yourself" is a reference to Moses' personal desire to send men (see Midrash Tanchuma 5 and Rashi's commentary). In essence, Moses is being told by Hashem, "Send for yourself men, as it is in accordance with your desire and not necessarily mine." We find in Deuteronomy when the Torah describes this incident (1:22) that the people actually approached Moses and requested a mission of spies to scout out the land. Moses realized that, in spite of the miraculous nature of the time, the nation was not psychologically prepared to go to battle without the normal means of preparation i.e. scouting out the land and its inhabitants.
We can relate to a nation's desire to gain perspective on its upcoming battles. However, given the history of the Jewish people, the need for the mission suggested a flaw in the character of the nation. As we know, the exodus from Egypt was accompanied by supernatural events. As the Nile, the source of Egyptian life, turned to blood the world saw that, in reality, G-d alone is the source of all life. With the parting of the Red Sea, the Jews experienced G-d's capacity to reverse nature for the sake of his people. In their very sustenance, the Jews received nutrition from above as the manna descended into the camp every morning. Such an astounding precedent of Divine guidance, coupled with Hashem's promise to lead the Jewish conquest of Canaan (Exodus 6:4), should have enabled the Jews to live with a profound recognition of G-d in their midst.
Our sages state that G-d punishes measures for measure. If we recognize the special relationship that G-d wills to have with us, He sees to it that the relationship, with all of its ramifications, is carried out. However, if we deny that relationship, G-d, too, turns away from us, leaving us subject to the harsh forces of nature and history. At the time of the exodus, the Jewish people were shown with great clarity that G-d was willing to act as their redeemer through supernatural means. By relying on natural war preparations, the Jewish people showed an unwillingness to totally confront G-d in the framework which He was willing to relate with them. It reflected the nation's inability to totally recognize the relationship which G-d wanted to have with His people. G-d was willing to acquiesce and tell Moses to send men. After all, the Talmud states, "In the direction which a person desires to go, he shall be led" (Tractate Makot 10b). However, the need for the mission stemmed from the nation's flaw, not Divine will.
At the end of this week's Torah portion, we find that we are commanded to wear tzitzit (fringes on four-cornered garments). What is the reason for the juxtaposition of the commandment of tzitzit and the episode of the spies? Our sages, in their explanation of the commandment of tzitzit, shed light on this question. The Talmud (Tractate Menachot) states that as we look at the blue thread on the tzitzit we will be inspired to look at the blue sea, which in turn will lead us to look up to the blue sky. Water, or in this case the sea, is a symbol of Torah, the spiritual dimension of G-d's creation. Hence, the Talmud is telling us that tzitzit inspire a process of probing into the spiritual side of G-d's world. That process ultimately leads us to look up to the heavens, to G-d Himself.
In short, the commandment of tzitzit was given so that with the very shirt on our back we will come to reflect on G-d's presence in this world. The nation who, after all the miracles, could not properly recognize their relationship with G-d was told to put tzitzit on the corners of their garments. They were being told to invest the process of reflection on G-d into the most mundane aspects of human activity. The generation of the spies knew that there was a G-d who made spectacular miracles. The commandment of tzitzit was a new means to recognize the relationship which these miracles demanded.
Kenneth Brodkin, who is studying at Yeshiva Toras Moshe in Israel, is married to Aviel Cortell of Atlanta.
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