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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

How can we know what is right? שְׁלַח-לְךָ

Posted by rabbiart on June 17, 2008

This week we read the parshah known as “Shlach” or “Shlach Lecha”.  The word שְׁלַח  means “send.”  The addition of the next word – לְךָ  (lecha) – makes the opening of the parsha very similar to the Lech-Lecha, the third parshah of the Torah; the parshah where Abraham begins his journey to the unspecified destination that HaShem promises to show him.  A collection of men, one from each tribe, is assembled.  HaShem instructs Moshe, and Moshe instructs the men, to tour the land, and to bring back a report.  At the end of instructing them, Moshe tells them to be strong and to bring back samples of the land.  Moshe does not ask them for a recommended course of action. The rest, of course is history.  They go, they return, and ten of the twelve scare the Israelites so badly that they descend upon Moshe and Aharon and announce they will choose new leadership and return to Egypt!

The Talmud Bavli reports an ongoing dispute between the disciples of R. Hillel and R. Shammai. The dispute is ultimately resolved when a voice from heaven proclaims “these and these are the words of the living G-d, but the halachah is according to Bet Hillel.  In our parshah we also have a dispute, which given our country’s current adventure in Iraq, seems eerily familiar to something we are living through in our day.  One side argues we will not be successful, and the other side relies on faith.  How do we determine if “both sides” are speaking the words of the living G-d, and if the argument is “for the sake of heaven”?

The conversation that takes place once the spies return is a model of an argument not for the sake of heaven. When we examine closely what takes place, we see an escalation of claims designed to win debating points rather than a quest for understanding or truth.

The first report of the spies reads as a matter of fact.  They report that the  people are fierce and the cities are fortified.  It appears from the text that the people are agitated upon hearing this, so Caleb calms them, and advocates for continuing because, he says, “we are able”.

The other spies (except Joshua of course) now say directly what they had previously implied; the inhabitants are stronger and the Israelites are unable.  Perhaps this is not persuasive, for in the next verse we read that they spread an evil report. Where before they had said the land flowed with milk and honey, they now say the land eats its inhabitants.  Where originally they had merely said the inhabitants were strong, now they claim that compared to the inhabitants they (the spies) were like grasshoppers.

This is a Torah portion that cries out to be read as a commentary on our time, and yes, specifically, our adventure in Iraq.  And it is not easy to discern what we should learn. We have two sides advocating for radically different courses of action.  One side says  “this is what G-d wants” and “if we believe we can be successful, we will be”.  The other side issues cautionary warnings that the task at hand is more difficult than it appears, and that failure rather than success, is the most likely outcome.  Then fueled by shame and emotions, the people act hastily and against the counsel of leadership… and fail.

It’s easy to read the Torah’s story in the Torah’s context and discern it’s lesson for the Torah’s time.  It’s more difficult to parse out what the Torah is telling us about the crucial issues that we are living with in our time and place.  But ultimately, that is what Torah study is all about.

Shabbat Shalom

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One Response to “How can we know what is right? שְׁלַח-לְךָ”

  1. Shirley Gould said

    The question for our time is what to do about our knowledge, or our feelings, that something is terribly amiss in the world. It is clear we need to be informed, but then what? In the Torah it is written, but for us it is a mystery.

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