By Ruth Bernstone
June 25, 2005 – 18 Sivan 5765
The Torah portion for this Shabbat from Numbers takes place as the Israelites are about to enter the land of Canaan which God has promised to give them. It begins by God telling Moses to send the chieftains from each of the twelve tribes to scout the land of Canaan . Moses tells the chieftains to go from the desert to the hills to assess the numbers and strength of the people, their fortifications, the quality of the soil, etc. and to bring back some fruit – it was grape harvesting season.
So the chiefs went and scouted the land for 40 days – an important number – and brought back a branch with grapes, pomegranates and figs from a place to be called Eschol, named after the grapes.
When they returned, they showed Moses, Aaron and all the Israelites the fruit they had collected and reported that the land did indeed flow with milk and honey. They also reported that they saw Anakites in the large, well-fortified cities, Amalekites in the Negev , Hittitles, Jebusites and Aniorites in the hill country and Canannites by the Sea and along the Jordan .
Caleb, Chieftain of the tribe of Judah , urged the Israelites to go to Canaan , saying they would, with God’s help, be able to overcome it and it would become theirs. But all the other chieftains, except for Caleb and Joshua, discouraged the Israelites, saying the people in Canaan were too strong, and they spread false charges about Canaan , saying things such as “the country devours its settlers” and “we looked like grasshoppers to those men of great size.”
The Israelites wept and cried out that they wished they had died in Egypt or that they preferred to die in the wilderness than by the sword, even that it would be better to go back to Egypt and slavery than to see their wives and children carried off.
Joshua and Caleb tried to encourage the Israelites by telling them that Canaan was a wonderful land and not to fear the people of Canaan because the Lord would be with them and protect them as he had before. As the Israelites threatened Caleb and Joshua with stones, God appeared to them and threatened to strike them down with pestilence for having no faith in God even after all the signs God had sent them.
But Moses intervened on their behalf once more, reminding God that if he killed them, other countries would think their God was too weak to bring them into the land he had promised them and Moses prayed to God to forgive them once again. So God did pardon them, but declared that none of the men over 20 years of age who had seen God’s presence and signs would enter the land of Canaan , except for Caleb and Joshua. They and their children shall roam the wilderness for 40 years – a year for each day the scouts were gone – and suffer for their faithlessness. And those scouts who spread false charges died of the plague, by the will of God.
The Israelites were overcome with grief at this punishment. The next day they decided to go to Canaan to do as they should have before, but Moses told them it was too late now, that they were disobeying God’s commandment again, and that they would be beaten because God was not with them now. Yet they defiantly marched on without the Lord’s Ark or Moses and were dealt a “shattering blow.”
The next sections describe God’s instructions on what to do when they entered Canaan in 40 years, various burnt offerings, the treatment of strangers, the setting aside of a piece of bread from each loaf as a gift to God and the wearing of the fringe and blue cord to remind them of all God’s commandments. It also describes the punishments for unintentional and willful failure to observe the commandments, with those acting defiantly being cut off from their people. A story is told of how a man who cut wood on the Sabbath was ordered by God to be put to death which was done by stoning.
The parshat ends with “I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God;I, the Lord your God.”
This story can be looked at from many perspectives, of course. It reminds Rabbi Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, the story of a man who dreams he is a gigantic bug and awakens to the truth that, hemmed in by narrow family and social class expectations and professional responsibilities, “he has accepted an ordinary, mediocre, useless life.” Rabbi Feinstein asks the question “What is it in the human soul that kills our dreams and turns us into bugs?” His answer to why the Israelites lost hope and gave up everything they had dreamed of, the Promised Land – is fear. Fear of freedom, of responsibility for their own destiny, fear of the new and different, and an uncertain future – in a phrase, a lack of vision. We, too can be afraid of these things, and lack or lose the vision of what we want our world and our children’s world to be. And it’s so easy to get busy with work, family, activities, and obligations that we forget who we are. Do we have a vision of what we want our Hawaii community and our Jewish community to look like? And do we act in such a way as to make that vision come true? Are we optimistic that, if we proceed in a Godlike way, we can succeed with God’s help? In Rabbi Feldman’s words, the Israelites were made to wander in the wilderness for 40 years until “they could figure out who they are and where they are going” and that “they carry the dreams of God” and before them, and us, “lies God’s Promised land.” What are the dreams that give our lives a sense of Godly purpose and how can we keep those dreams alive?