Shelach-Lekha: Reminder

June 14, 2017 at 8:34 pm | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | Leave a comment
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Living in the present is hard. Even when humans have a plan for the future, we crave knowledge of what benefits and obstacles we will encounter. The more we believe we know about what lies ahead, the more secure we feel—unless the new information makes us panic.

The Israelites reach Kadesh Barnea, on the southern border of Canaan, at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”). God tells Moses to send scouts to bring back advance knowledge for the people.

“Send for yourself men, veyaturu the land of Canaan which I am giving to the Israelites. Send one man for each tribe of their fathers, each a leader among them.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:2)

veyaturu (וְיָתֻרוּ) = and they shall scout out, reconnoiter, wander around and investigate. (A form of the verb tur, תּוּר.)

God does not say what aspects of the land the twelve representatives should investigate. Moses gives them more detailed instructions, addressing first the people’s insecurity about how hard it will be to overcome the indigenous population, then their insecurity about how well they can live in Canaan.

And Moses sent them latur the land of Canaan, and he said to them: “Go up this way through the Negev, and you shall go up into the hill-country. And you shall see the land: what it is and the people who are dwelling on it. Are they strong or feeble, are they few or many? And what is the land where they are dwelling? Is it good or is it bad? And what are the towns where they are dwelling? Are they open camps, or fortified places? And what is the land? Is it fat or is it thin? Are there trees, or none?” (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:17-20)

latur (לָתוּר) = to scout out, reconnoiter, wander around and investigate. (Also a form of the verb tur, תּוּר.)

Scouts return with produce

All twelves scouts return with glowing reports about the fertility of the land, but ten out of twelve describe the towns of the hill-country to the north as large and fortified, and its residents as mighty giants. These ten scouts frighten most of the Israelites and their fellow-travelers into abandoning the commitment they made when they followed the God of Moses out of Egypt, and calling for a return to Egypt.

Then the scouts Joshua and Caleb say:

Only do not rebel against God, and you need not fear the people the land, because they are our food!1  Their protection has left them, but God is with us.  Do not fear them! (Numbers 14:9)

The crowd reaches for stones to throw at the two scouts. They stop only because God’s glory appears (probably as cloud or fire, the usual manifestations). God decrees that they must stay in the wilderness for another 39 years. When they decide to cross into Canaan anyway, perhaps hoping to change God’s mind, they are defeated in battle. (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Too Late.)

The Torah portion closes with God giving more instructions about animal offerings, declaring a death sentence for a man gathering wood on Shabbat, and ordering the Israelites to wear fringes on the corners of their garments. According to some modern scholars, these three passages were written by different scribes and inserted into the main story by a later redactor.2

However, I believe the teaching about the fringes offers a solution to the human tendency revealed by the story of the scouts. When potentially adverse information makes our plan look iffy, we refuse to move forward with it, because we do not trust ourselves, our fellow humans, or “God” (which might mean the mastermind of the universe, fate, the deep soul, or something else). Instead we tend to panic and clutch at a less reasonable alternative plans—especially if they are seductive, like the Israelites’ false memories of security and plentiful food in Egypt.

Tzitzit

At the end of the Torah portion, God tells Moses:

Speak to the Israelites, and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves tzitzit on the kenafayim of their begadim through their generations, and place on the tzitzit of the kanaf a thread of tekheilet.  And it shall be a tzitzit for you, and you shall look at it and you shall remember all the commandments of God and you shall do them; and lo taturu after your heart or after your eyes, after that which seduces you. Thus you shall remember and do all My commandments, and you shall become holy to your God. (Numbers 15:38-40)

tzitzit (צִיצִת) = fringe(s), tassel(s), tuft(s). (From the same root as tzitz, צִיצ = flower, bud; the gold medallion on the high priest’s forehead. See my post Tetzavveh: Holy Flower.)

kenafayim (כְּנָפַיִם) = plural of kanaf (כָּנָף) = wing, corner, edge, hem, skirt.

begadim (בְּגָדִים) = plural of beged (בּגֶד) = clothing, garment, outer wrapping; unfaithfulness, treachery.

Wool dyed
with tekheilet

tekheilet (תְּכֵלֶת) = blue dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail. (The cord fastening the tzitz to the high priest’s forehead is dyed tehkeilet, as are parts of the curtains of the Tent of Meeting, and cloths that cover the holy ark, table, lampstand, and incense altar when they are moved. See my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.)

lo taturu (lo, לֺא = not + taturu, תָתֻרוּ = another form of the verb tur, תּוּר.) = you shall not scout out, reconnoiter, wander around investigating.

On a simple level, God asks people—from the Israelites on the border of Canaan down through the generations to Jews today—to attach fringes that include blue threads to the corner hems of their clothing. We must look at them, and remember all the divine rules we are supposed to follow. Then instead of carrying out whatever fantasy pops up in our hearts, or succumbing to whatever temptation we see in the world, we will remember God and follow the rules, thereby becoming holy people.

On a more poetic level, God asks people to make flowers of thread reminiscent of the flower of gold on the high priest’s forehead. Each thread flower must include a thread dyed the same blue as the cord around the high priest’s head and the cloth used for the sanctuary. These reminders of holiness shall be like wings, lifting us away from our outer covering of unfaithfulness to our God. When we look at our tzitzit, we shall want to become holy people, so we shall follow God’s rules instead of straying after temporary seductions.

When I pray the morning service, I look at the tzitzit on the corners of my prayer shawl when I first put it on, and at several points in the daily prayer service when holding up tzitzit is customary. Following Jewish tradition, I kiss my tzitzit when I read out the passage from Numbers 15:37-41, from the end of this week’s Torah portion.

Is this reminder enough to make me faithful to God? Maybe not to the God of Israel, since I do not follow most of the rules that observant Orthodox Jews follow. But looking at the tzitzit does remind me not to panic when I receive upsetting information regarding the possible future. It reminds me to move forward anyway, keeping my commitments to myself, to my fellow human beings, and to the “God” that I am grounded in. It reminds me that what happens to me is not as important as how well I behave.

May we all find more ways to be mindful, so that when panic threatens we will remind ourselves of the deep commitments that give our lives meaning, and rise toward the holiness of being steadfast in our dedication to the good.

1  They are our food” is an idiom meaning: They are helpless against us, we can eat them up as a predator eats its prey.

2  One example is Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 203, pp. 266-268.

Shelach-Lekha: Mutual Distrust

June 9, 2015 at 10:08 am | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Moses reaches the end of his rope in last week’s Torah portion, and protests to God:

Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Did I myself become pregnant with all this people, or did I myself give birth to them, that you say to me: Carry them in your bosom, like the omein carries the one who suckles, to the land that You swore to their forefathers? … I am not able to carry all this people by myself alone, because they are too heavy for me! If At must do thus to me, please kill me altogether, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and don’t let me see my badness! (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:12-15)

omein (אֹמֵן) = guardian, substitute parent. (The feminine form, omenet (אֹמֶנֶת) means a wet nurse or nanny.  Moses views himself as both omein and omenet. See my post Beha-alotkha: Moses as Wet-Nurse.)

at (אַתְּ) = you, feminine form.  (The masculine form of “you” is atah, אַתָּה.)

I think Moses’ use of the feminine form here alludes to God’s responsibility for the people. If Moses is like an omenet for the Israelites, so is God.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”), the God character reaches the end of his (or her) rope.

God said to Moses: How long will this people spurn me, and how long lo ya-aminu me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (Numbers 14:11)

lo ya-aminu = will they not trust.  Lo (לֹא) = not. Ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = they will believe, be convinced by, put trust in, have faith in, rely upon.

Ya-aminu comes from the same root verb, aman (אמן), as the nouns omein and omenet. An omein and an omenet must be reliable so that their young charges can believe and trust them.

Both Moses and God are reliable parental substitutes during the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai. Whenever something bad happens—the Egyptian army catching up with them at the Reed Sea, or a shortage of water or food—the people panic, afraid that their god has abandoned them.  Each time, Moses speaks to God, and God takes care of the problem.

One breach of trust is recorded in the book of Exodus/Shemot: the episode of the Golden Calf.  Moses and God take turns becoming enraged; Moses has 3,000 calf-worshiping men killed by the sword, and God strikes down many of the survivors. Moses has to talk God out of annihilating the Israelites altogether.

After that, the remaining Israelites spend a quiet year eating God’s manna and fabricating the tent sanctuary and its holy objects. God issues rules with dire penalties, but does not kill any more people—until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, after they leave Mount Sinai.scouts with grapes 1

In this week’s Torah portion, the people reach the wilderness of Paran on the border of Canaan.  Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land, and they return 40 days later with a gigantic grape cluster as well as pomegranates and figs.  Ten of the scouts report that the human inhabitants of Canaan are also gigantic, and say:

We are not able to go up against that population, because it is stronger than we! …and all the people that we saw in its midst were men of unusual size …and we were in our own eyes like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.  (13:31-33)

The ten pessimistic scouts assume the Israelites would have to conquer Canaan by their own efforts, without any help from God.  The rest of the Israelite men—except for Moses, Aaron, and the other two scouts, Caleb and Joshua—make the same assumption. The people weep all night, complaining:

If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness, if only we had died!  And why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? And our young children will be the [enemy’s] plunder.  Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?—So they said, each man to his brother: Let us pick a leader and return to Egypt! (Numbers 14:2-4)

The next morning everyone assembles.  Caleb and Joshua say:

If God is pleased with us, then [God] will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. However, do not rebel against God! And you, do not be afraid of the people of the land, because …God is with us! (14:8-9)

The trouble with this argument is that it begins: “If God is pleased with us”.  The people have every reason to think God is not pleased with them. After all, since they left Mount Sinai they have complained twice, and both times God flew into a rage and killed many of them.  Now they have just spent the night complaining about God’s plan to send them into Canaan.

Perhaps because they feel doomed anyway, the people vent their frustration on Caleb and Joshua, threatening to stone them.

Then the glory of God appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the Children of Israel. God said to Moses: How long will this people spurn Me, and how long lo ya-aminu Me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (14:10-11)

Apparently the God character in this story thinks that the Israelites doubt his ability to give them a miraculous victory in Canaan. In fact, the people never doubt God’s power, only God’s love.  They doubt God’s commitment to protecting them.

And they are right. In a private conversation with Moses, God once again declares he will wipe out the Israelites and start over:

I will strike with a pestilence, and I will dispossess them, and I will make you a greater and more powerful nation than they!  (Numbers 14:12)

Moses once again talks him out of it. God still kills the ten scouts who spoke against entering Canaan immediately.  And God swears that only Caleb, Joshua, and the Israelites who are currently under age 20 will enter Canaan and get a share of the land. Everyone else will die in the wilderness—gradually, over the next 38 years. The people must now spend 40 years in the wilderness before they can enter Canaan.  (This total includes the two years that have already passed since the people left Egypt.)

The next morning, some of the men confess they were wrong, and try to get back into God’s good graces by launching an assault across the border of Canaan. But God has made up his mind; he lets the Canaanites defeat them.

It is possible to argue that God does care about the Israelites—if you grant that:

1) God has so little respect for the people that “he” administers corporeal punishment without attempting to explain himself, and

2) God considers the Israelites a single entity, rather than a group of individuals.

This is not the kind of omein that medieval theologians pictured when they decided that God must be omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, and personal. Nor is it the kind of deity that anyone today would want to trust or believe in.

God said to Moses: How long will this people spurn me, and how long lo ya-aminu me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (14:11)

I think the answer that this god deserves is: “As long as it takes for You to become as wise, just, and kind as the best human being.”

Needless to say, I do not believe in the existence of the anthropomorphic God in the first five books of the Torah, the one who has vast magical powers but very limited understanding.

But what was life like for the people who took this part of the Bible literally, and not only believed the God character in this story existed, but thought of him as a father-figure (omein), and strove to trust him?

What is life like for the people who still do so today?

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