Border, limits are the themes of Parashat ‘Sh’lach L’cha’

Rabbi Lane Steinger

By Rabbi Lane Steinger

This week’s Torah Portion, Sh’lach L’cha, Numbers 13:1-15:41, is all about borders, boundaries and limits. The Sidrah starts with the story of the scouts, twelve in all, one leader from each tribe, dispatched by Moses at God’s behest across the Jordan River-the eastern boundary of the land-to reconnoiter Canaan. The Parashah concludes with the divine admonition for the Israelites “to make for themselves tzitzit-ritual fringes on the borders of their garments throughout the ages” (Numbers 15:38). As Rashi noted (on 15:39), the Torah Reading is tied together by use of the verb tur/to explore. In the beginning of Sh’lach L’cha, the assignment for the scouts is “va’yaturu et eretz k’na’an/they shall explore the land of Canaan” (13:2; also see 13:17); at the end of the Sidrah, a blue thread in each tzitzit will serve as a reminder of “all the mitzvot” and will avert the wearer-and all those who see it-from “taturu/exploring after hearts and eyes in lustful urge” (15:39).

Between the opening and the closing of Sh’lach L’cha we learn (once again) of the limitations both of the Israelites’ faithfulness and also of God’s patience. The people, disheartened by the discouraging report of ten of the twelve scouts, carp, kvetch, complain and conspire to “head back to Egypt” (14:3-4). The Holy One, incensed at the Israelites’ perfidy, resolves to wipe them out (14:11-12). Only Moses’ intercession on their behalf preserves the people (14:13-20). The Eternal One forgives the Israelites, but even this pardon is circumscribed: of all those who came out of Egypt only Joshua and Caleb (the two scouts who lauded the land and encouraged the people to cross the Jordan) and the children will be allowed to enter Canaan (14:21-34).

It seems to me that there is an inverse ratio between the Israelites’ faith and the divine forbearance and forgiveness: the more faithful the people, the more patient and forgiving is God. I’d like to think that the message here is not simply to believe and to obey the divine commandments, but to identify which limitations are unsurpassable, to encourage oneself and aid others in going beyond the limits which can be exceeded, and, as it were, to assist God in maximizing the divine potential. Perhaps this is the great challenge, opportunity and responsibility of being Jewish: to recognize the boundaries and the limitations which are there for us-and for God-and to work as partners with one another and with the Holy One in going to and if need be past, the limits which constrain us.

Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan (may his memory be for blessing), the Founder of Jewish Reconstructionism, put it this way in the book, “Judaism as a Civilization”:

“…the attributes of God, which once were externalized and concrete, [can] be translated into modern terms and made relevant to modern thinking and living. Men [and women] attributed to God their own highest desires and aspirations. They called … [God] creator, protector, helper, sovereign and redeemer. These terms can now be identified with the highest and most significant aims of human existence, and achieve a new force and vitality through this conscious process of identification. We can no longer believe that God is a mighty sovereign, or that the universe is the work of … [God’s] hands… however, we can see that God is manifest in all creativity and in all … that make[s] for the enhancement of human life.”

In Numbers Rabah, part of the great collection of rabbinic Midrash, the interpretations of

Sh’lach L’cha commence with the halakhic-Jewish legal question: “Is it [permitted] to embark on the Great Sea three days before the Sabbath?” (Numbers Rabah 16:1.) The answer basically is it depends. It depends on the distance to the destination and the purpose for the voyage. The bounds and the limits, and the responses to them must be assessed, adapted and adjusted to fit together.

There are limitations and boundaries for all of us-even, so to speak, for God. The question is how we deal with them ourselves and how we help one another-even God-in dealing with them as well.

D’var Torah

Rabbi Lane Steinger serves Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community and is also a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.