The Sin of the Spies Almost Kills Us, Delays Our Observance of Challah

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Shelach

What I Should Be Doing, But Won’t

I started looking at HaKetav VeHaKabbalah to learn from R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg’s reconciliations of Chazal’s reading of the text with the peshat, or plainsense, one. By that standard, we should be studying his first comment to Bamidbar 15;18. Chazal read the word be-vo’achem, when you arrive, to time the obligation in challah–a gift for a kohen from flour turned into dough—to the moment the Jews enter the Land. Other tithes only took effect fourteen years later, after conquest and parceling out of Eretz Yisrael to the tribes.

The usual reading says Chazal distinguished be-vo’achem, when you arrive in Israel, from ki tavo’u, when you shall arrive. R. Mecklenburg disagrees, think it all about the speaker’s intent, and proceeds to demonstrate. Very grammatical, and I am…not.

Seek a better teacher; his next comment works better for me.

Laws Matter, Even When Laws Don’t Matter

While we just said the obligation of challah, giving some of newly made dough to a kohen, started upon entry into the Land, Chullin 17a understood the Torah to allow the Jews to eat pig during those same years. According to one view, the permission extended to all pig, not only what they took as spoils of war.

They’re giving challah while eating chazer-treif, pig level non-kosher, the height of prohibited food?! R. Mecklenburg shares the view of Turei Even (the Talmud commentary of R. Aryeh Leib b. Asher, better known as Sha’agas Aryeh). He said the Torah permitted only what would never be acceptable (meat improperly slaughtered or from a non-kosher animal), but what could be made acceptable had to be, such as by giving challah.

It reminds me of the rabbinic idea of davar she-yesh lo matirin, while mixtures nullify small amounts of prohibited foods, the strategy does not work for food that can be rendered permissible some other way, including by waiting for some external event.

When it’s easy to act according to halachah, we don’t allow ourselves not to, even at times the Torah said we could ignore more serious transgressions. The rule of law always matters, even when we are at the same time pushing aside or ignoring other laws. A lesson for our times, too, I think.

A Primer on Effective Prayer

R. Hirsch illuminates our understanding of Moshe’s plea on behalf of the Jewish people in two ways, on 14;17. First, Moshe expresses the hope koach Adnut, the “strength” of the Master (the Name that starts aleph daled) shall be increased.

R. Hirsch points out what many today deny, Hashem’s power could be shown by immediately destroying those who deserve it. [I think people today would deny two parts of that claim, first, that anyone might deserve destruction, and, second, that Hashem acting punitively could ever enhance His reputation. Jewish tradition asserted both, unambiguously, people or groups of people can, sadly, incur liability for death, and the world sees Hashem more correctly when forced to recognize Hashem’s power to judge according to ultimate truth rather than what we all decide is true.]

Moshe is cleverer than that, says while Hashem’s otzmah (power?) might be shown that way, His koach, “strength,” purposes in the world, will be more greatly enhanced by bringing rebellious subjects (hence the use of the Name of Aleph Daled, says R. Hirsch) back to observance, to where they fulfill the goal they originally rejected.

[It’s an idea I particularly like when we consider prayer in general: what in our begging God would, as it were, change God’s mind? If the divine wisdom has decided some feared future should come to us, what does our saying “please, please” change? R. Hirsch’s reading of Moshe suggests one answer: we can articulate an alternate path where more or higher values will be achieved. Not that Hashem didn’t “know” that alternative, but that our promoting it is a factor in Hashem agreeing to try it.]

Picking and Choosing Middot

R. Hirsch also notices Moshe invokes some of the middot Hashem taught him at Sinai, those most relevant to saving the Jews here. Erech apayim, long to anger, refers to Hashem’s choosing to wait for a sinner to realize his/her error, improve, and achieve whatever goal Hashem had originally set out. [For those who might try to emulate Hashem, as we are commanded to, the question of time frames can be tricky—Hashem has all of history to wait and give more chances, where most of us do not.]

Rav chessed, bestower of much grace, refers to the willingness to give, over and over, even if the recipient wasted many previous opportunities, and nosei avon va-fasha is the readiness to ignore/set aside deliberate, even rebellious sins, should repentance come along.

Finally, perhaps most savingly, the idea of God visiting the sins of the father on the children (which tradition limited to where the children sadly continue the ancestor’s path) tells R. Hirsch Hashem takes the long view, sees this current sinner in the context of his descendants as well.

[R. Soloveitchik made a similar point about God’s judgment on Yom Kippur, how the “books of the dead” include those who are already in the next world, judged anew each year based on how their legacy has inspired children and grandchildren to act as Hashem wants.]

With all of this, Moshe still also says God never wipes away a sin without repentance.

R. Hirsch finds three lessons in Moshe’s prayer: 1) we have the ability/right to suggest alternate ways to achieve the goal of the world recognizing Hashem, and sometimes Hashem will “take” our suggestion 2) We are supposed to “use” the Thirteen Middot, not just say them as one undifferentiated unit, pick the ones most relevant to our current situation, and 3) he defines the Middot referenced here, an insight into some of the kinds of conduct ascribed to God we are supposed to strive to bring into our own lives.

Doing Their Job, Then a Job They Weren’t Supposed To

Malbim thinks Moshe sent the spies to scout the beauty of the Land, not try to plan for its conquest (God’s “job”). He was sending them to excite the people about their new home, not develop a military plan [I believe Ramban says the opposite, the spies job was to scout out the best attack plan, not judge the quality of the Land; it shows the challenge of learning Chumash with commentators, that important rabbis took opposing views of a question, and we have to pick which to adopt as our understanding.

They started out that way, 13;21 says, toured the Land for its nice areas, like tourists, where they wouldn’t expect to nor did they find soldiers or military installations. On the way back, they decide to look at the military aspects, and had to split up. Fortified areas would be on the lookout for those asking too many questions, where open cities wouldn’t suspect groups of tourists of being spies, since spies would care about the parts of the Land most relevant to conquest.

When it says “he” came to Chevron—Rashi thought the Torah used the singular to hint only Kalev went—Malbim thinks the rest of the verse tells us why they scattered, because Chevron was a defense city, where the giants lived, ready to repel invaders.

For Malbim, it shows one untruth in the spies’ report: they say they saw giants, when they saw them only in Chevron, as part of the army. And not part of the report Moshe sent them to gather.

Three lessons I wish we all would learn: laws matter, even when some laws are appropriately set aside; the best prayer starts with a clear understanding of Hashem’s view of the world, and strives to show how our desired future meets that view; and when we’re given a job, we should do the job we are given, not decide we know better. Or disaster may come.

About Gidon Rothstein

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