Parashat Shlach Lecha – Erev Shabbat 19 June 2020
Week of 14-20 June 2020
Torah portion: Numbers 13:1-15:41 Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24
Theme: Sin and Torah

In this week’s Parasha we encounter the tale of the emissaries (ˀanashim, “men”), sent into the land of Canaan to provide an account of both the territory and its inhabitants. Upon the return of these emissaries—after a period of 40 days—there are conflicting reports as to the strength of the inhabitants of the nature of land itself. In order to consider what this story might mean for readers today I would like to begin by exploring two words: sin and Torah.

                The most commonly used word for sin in the Tanakh comes from the root chetʾ and means, “to be mistaken, to be found deficient or lacking, to be at fault, to miss a specified goal or mark” (AYBD, 6:32, italics mine). Torah comes from the root yarah, which means, “to shoot” or “to reach the mark” (Green, Kindle, 1554). This leads to the interpretation of sin as missing what we are shooting at. In Jewish thought, the Torah is the target, or goal, to which people aspire or direct their thought and actions. When people miss the mark, or target, it is rarely because they intended to, but rather because they have lost sight of what there were aiming at in the first place.

                Following this line of thought, the sin of the emissaries might have been that they believed that the Canaanites were so strong that not even God could defeat them. Numbers 13:31 reads “We cannot attack that people for it is stronger than we” (mimenu). Mimenu can also be read as “than God” (Plaut, 994). Had the emissaries actually suggested that not even God could protect the Children of Israel from the Canaanites? The Talmud suggests that “Israel was punished for this lack of faith in God, not for disbelief in its own strength” (Sotah 35a, in Plaut, 995). They missed the point (the goal or mark), made so often in the Torah that the Eternal One would be with them.

The consequence of this lack of faith was that they were overcome by a sense of fear and “broke into loud cries” that they would rather have died in Egypt than in the wilderness” (14:1-2). In response, the Eternal One asks why they have failed to believe, despite all the signs performed in their midst. Further, they will be disinherited and struck down with pestilence (14:11-12).

What follows is a little confusing but might reflect the heightened sense of emotion as Moses confronts the Eternal (Plaut, 983). In short, he argues that the act of slaughtering the Israelites in the wilderness is akin to admitting that it is not in the Eternal’s power to bring them into the land (14:13-16). In a final move (14:18), Moses partially quotes the “attributes” of the divine from Exodus 34:6-7, before asking the Eternal: “Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.” In response, the Eternal One says, “I pardon you as you have asked” (14:18-20). These final two verses (19-20) are part of the Yom Kippur evening liturgy immediately following the Kol Nidrei (Plaut, 984).

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. How seriously do I take the promise that God will be with me? How often do I miss the mark? 2. How often do I let trust rule over fear and uncertainty, or does my lack of faith resign me to wander in the wilderness, despite the mercy of the Eternal One?

Bibliography: Freedman, D.N., ed., Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Doubleday: 1992); Green, A., These Are the Words, 2nd edn. (Jewish Lights: 2012); Plaut, W.G. and Stein, D.E., eds., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised (New York: 2006).

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