28 June, 2024

Week of 23-29 June 2024

Torah portion: Numbers 13:1-15:41   Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24

Theme: A Reliable Sign

The opening line of the parashah exposes the high drama of this period in the wilderness of Paran. The parashah presents the Lord instructing Moses to send scouts to the land of Canaan; however, in Deuteronomy 1:22-23 Moses says to the people, “Then you all came to me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead of us to explore the country …’ This seemed good advice to me and I selected twelve men from among you.’’ The need to scout the land appears to be motivated by a lack of trust. Yet the divine promise frames the parashah: in 13:1 “the land of Canaan which I am giving to the people of Israel”; in 15:1 “the land I am giving you to settle in; in 15:18 “the land to which I am taking you.” Those affirmations lead to the statement in 15:41 of the crucial relationship at the heart of the desert journey: “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God” (Lieber).

 Anguish reverberates throughout the parashah. At Kadesh, the scouts return, they confirm that it is a land of milk and honey: they display a huge branch of luscious grapes from Wadi Echcol, but they also identify the powerful Anakites, Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites, who inhabit the region in large, fortified cities. And so, the calumnies begin about “the land that devours its settlers” (13:32). The whole community wept all night (14:1). Recriminations are directed at Moses and Aaron, who fall prostrate before the assembly. Joshua and Caleb tear their clothes in mourning, but exhort the community: “If the LORD is pleased with us, he will bring us into the land” (14:8). When the people threaten to stone them, the LORD appears in the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites (14:10).

 In exasperation, the LORD threatens to inflict pestilence on the people and to disown them. At this decisive moment, the quality of Moses’ relationship with God is revealed in his magnificent appeal for God to pardon his people. God forgives, but sets conditions: those who spurned him will wander in the wilderness for forty years (14:29-35); only Joshua and Caleb and the new generation will be spared. Defiantly the people move on, without Moses; at Hormah, they suffer a shattering blow.

Chapter 15 is a radical departure from the journey narrative. It focuses on the various offerings that are to be made to the Lord, for both Israelites and strangers, with particular attention to expiation for sin, once the community is settled in the land. The final words of the parashah are devoted to the fringe or tzitzit (blue cord) to be sown on each corner of a garment, as a reminder of their covenant with God, and so, of the commitment to be holy.  Not a blue cord, but a crimson one, ties the haftarah to the parashah; on Joshua’s instruction, a crimson cord tied to a window would be “a reliable sign” (Joshua 2:12) to the Israelite invaders to spare the home of the harlot, Rahab at Jericho, for having sheltered the spies whom Joshua had sent. Clearly, the dramatic tone of the parashah, finds an echo in the haftarah.

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Reflect on another biblical passage in which you see both lack of trust and divine assurance. 2. What is a symbol/sign of your commitment in faith that means a lot to you?

Bibliography: Plaut, W. G., The Torah, Union of American Hebrew Congregations (New York: 1981); Lieber, D. L., Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, The Rabbinical Assembly, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (New York, 2001).

This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by
Diane Willey, nds, Canada, Bat Kol Alumna 2005, 2006

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