Shlah Lekha

by Halina Rubinstein

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses decides to send
scouts on a reconnaisance mission to Canaan. Twelve
men, one from each tribe, are chosen and given
specific instructions on what they have to observe.
They come back with a sample of the land’s
indigenous fruits and a mixed review. They all
report that the land flows with ‘milk and honey’ but
their agreement ends here; of the twelve scouts, ten
give a frightening report of a land that eats up its
inhabitants and is populated by powerful giants.
Upon hearing this, the people start crying in sheer
terror, and they not only complain but rebel and
contemplate going back to Egypt. Only Joshua and
Caleb encourage the people to continue with the plan
of entering the land. They reassure the Israelites
that they will prevail; but these words only provoke
the mutinous people even more and the people are
ready to stone Joshua and Caleb to death.

The result of this act of disbelief incenses God. He
will not tolerate any more murmuring and complaints.
He kills the ten scouts who by their negative
reports alarmed and demoralized the Israelites. But
God also knows that there is definitely no
possibility that these people will change, most
certainly not after God has made His power and
providence manifest in so many tangible ways. In His
wrath, God is ready to annihilate the entire people
on the spot but Moses’ eloquent intercession saves
them. Instead, they will wander for forty years in
the desert, the time it will take for the generation
of the Exodus to die. Only their children, together
with Caleb and Joshua, will merit entering and
conquering the promised land.

The second part of the parashah details some
of the sacrifices that will take place upon entering
the land. The taking of hallah (dough
offering to the proests) is here prescribed, as is
the sin offering. The portion ends with the
commandment of Tzitzit (fringes).

This parashah is wrought with textual twists,
grammatical nuances and philosophical questions
regarding God’s omniscience and freedom of choice.
From all these riches, I have chosen the episode of
the scouts to draw a parallel with modern Zionism
and then tie it, as it were, with the closing
paragraph on tzitzit.

Let me take a detour — no pun intended. My most
intense Jewish experience growing up in Mexico City
was my life in the ‘ken‘ as we used to call
the house that our zionist group rented and where
our activities took place. There were many groups
representing the varied Zionist parties of Israel
during the 1950’s through the 1970’s; Mapai
(Yihud Habonim), Herut (Beitar), Mizrachi (Bnei
Akiva), Progresivim (Hanoar Hatzioni)
Mapam (Hashomer Hatzair). From the time I was
eight years old and through my teens — culminating
with a year leadership training in Israel — the
Zionist dream was mine; the young people in these
‘clubs’ were the future of the young State and many
of my friends made aliyah and settled in Israel.
However, with the exception of the very small Bnei
, this was a secular movement. We never
went to services. We stayed outside the synagogues
during the holidays and we shunned any religious
thinking. Little did I know then that the Zionist dream
originated in our sacred text and that the impetus
that fed modern Zionism in its many forms was part
of our biblical and rabbinical heritage. Note for
instance these words written by Aaron David Gordon
in 1911:

There is only one way that can lead to
our renaissance–the way . . . of mobilizing all our
national energies, of absolute and sacrificial
devotion to our ideal and our task . . . A people can
acquire its land only by its own effort, by
realizing the potentialities of its body and its
soul, by unfolding and revealing its inner self.
. . . a parasitical people is not a living people. Our
people can be brought to life only if each one of us
recreates himself through labor . . . Should he fall
short of achieving this self-rehabilitation, the
next generation or the one thereafter will complete
the process. This is how we can, in time, have good
farmers, good laborers, good Jews and good human
beings. (Cited in The Zionist Idea , edited by
Arthur Hertzberg)

Gordon could have been writing these words with the
backdrop of Parashat Shlah Lekha, I am not
suggesting that he did, only that the spirit of
Scripture, through our religious impulse, has been
transmitted through the generations shaping our
national dreams and our cultural output. Our new
ideologies are shaped by atavistic experiences and,
although ideologies change and are constantly being
reformulated, we keep recovering those experiences
through our peculiar historical memory. As the
historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi writes:

The collective memories of the Jewish
people were the function of the shared faith,
cohesiveness and will of the group itself,
transmitting and recreating its past through an
entire complex of interlocking social and religious
institutions that functioned organically to achieve
this. (Zachor, p.94)

However, if I am drawing parallels, what am I to
make of the last part of this parashah that,
as noted already by our classical commentators, is
linguistically linked to the beginning?

The parashah opens with the following words:
“And YHVH spoke to Moses, saying: Send men to scout
(v’yaturu) the land of Canaan…”
(Num. 13:1-2)

And it ends with the commandments of tzitzit
thus: “That shall be your fringe; look at it and
recall all the commandments of YHVH and observe
them, so that you do not follow (v’lo taturu)
after your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.”
(Num. 15:39)

Rashi explains – “So that you do not follow (v’lo
taturu)” – like ‘from scouting (mi-tur) the Land’
(13:25). The heart and eyes are the spies for the
body. They are its agents for sinning: the eye sees,
the heart covets and the body commits the
transgression. – [Mid. Tanchuma 15].

In a grammatical sweep, the possession of the land is
linked to wearing a garment designed to distinguish
and define the Israelites and give them an identity
that is specifically theirs – sort of a ‘Jewish
uniform’ that serves as a constant monitor of the
obligation to perform all of the mitzvot.
Moreover, this piece of clothing is a constant
reminder of God’s providence and the conscious
knowledge that the Land is a gift from God to the
people of Israel; as Rashi continues:

On the four corners of their garments
(`al kanfei vigdeikhem) – Corresponding to [the
verse said in connection with the exodus from Egypt]
‘I carried you on the wings of (`al kanfei) eagles’
(Exod. 19:4). On the four corners, but not on a
garment of three or five [corners]. [This]
corresponds to the four expressions of redemption
that were said in Egypt: ‘I will bring you out . . .
I will save you . . . I will redeem you . . . I will
take you.” (Exod. 6:6-7).

Although today we may not all wear the talit
under our garments and the talit gadol
we only wear during prayer, it should be a clear
message that the land of Israel is the vessel of
God’s grace and requires us to honor it with a clear
purpose of who we are and why we are here. It
demands acting in a way that allows the Divine
Presence to permeate every aspect of life in Israel,
made holy to us through its consecration to our
people. We have a special responsibility to guard
it, maintain it and keep it, even if we are not
counted among its citizens. Martin Buber said, ‘The
great values we have produced issued from a marriage
of a people and a faith . . . The values of [the state
of] Israel cannot be reborn outside the sphere of
this union and its uniqueness.’ (Israel and the
World, 1948)