Shelach: Running from reality

Hyim Shafner

By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach, the Jewish people have completed the short trek from Mount Sinai to the Land of Israel. God tells them to send the heads of each tribe as spies to spy out the Land of Israel. After 40 days the spies return. Ten spies bring a bad report of the land and two, Caleb and Joshua, a good report. The 10 spies reported that indeed it is a land flowing with milk and honey but the inhabitants are strong and fortified and the Amalekites (who had already attacked and injured the Jews) live there.

Though Caleb and Joshua assure the people that with God’s help they will be able to go into the Promised Land, the 10 spies reiterate how strong the inhabitants are and that the Jewish people will not be able to take the land. The Jewish people in their cowardice follow the 10 spies and as a result they are doomed to spend 40 years traveling in the desert until a new generation of Jews, born in the desert, come to Israel and enters the land.

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It seems from the verses that the Jewish people, on one hand only a year out of a centuries long slavery, but on the other having witnessed God splitting the sea for them and the Torah given at Mount Sinai, were afraid that they would not be able to take the land and defeat the powers there. This was perhaps the Jewish people’s moment of greatest defeat. Fear of being able, even with God’s help, to take the land resulted in the first Jewish exile. The rabbis tell us that all future destructions in Jewish history have their root in this moment of fear, recoil, and lack of trust.

The Torah follows this episode with several commandments which apply only in the Land of Israel and seem to have little connection to the story. “God said to Moses, tell the Jewish people: after you come into the land which I am giving to you…when you bring a sacrifice, bring a grain offering with it and a wine libation…When you eat from the bread of the land, give part to God, from the first of your dough shall you bring an offering to God.” 

Why command the Jewish people now to bring the first of their bread and to make part of their grain and wine into a sacrifice? In fact, these commandments are introduced with the words, “When you enter the land,” and the Jewish people have just been told they would not enter the land for 40 years.  Is God just rubbing salt in their wounds? 

I think the Torah is teaching us a profound lesson. We often think that the Jewish people’s fear of entering the Land of Israel was trepidation at the thought of having to fight the nations of Canaan. Such fear would be strange though for a people who have seen God split the sea for them. 

Perhaps their fear at this moment is much deeper. While traveling in the desert all was provided to them as manna from heaven, all was holy in their experience for God dwelled in the midst of their camp, open miracles abundant. To enter the land means to become a real people, a people who will have to run a nation and a society. To enter Israel means to live in the gritty reality of life, to collect garbage as a Jewish nation, set up security provisions, a government, build roads, put out fires, and produce goods and services. This does not sound like much of a spiritual undertaking.  The people want to connect to God, to the spirit, for which the desert is an optimal place. But they have no clue how to do this in the stark, gritty realities of running a land.  

Often I think we today are the same way. We may be passionate about returning to the Promised Land because we envision a Jerusalem of Gold, a high spiritual level, a land where the Jewish people can be unified, free and Godly.  Then we visit Israel and realize the streets are dirty, the people pushy, and the hotels expensive. We mourn the loss of our fantasy, our Jerusalem of Gold.  

So precisely here the Torah teaches the most important lesson of returning to Israel. Bread and wine are the two things that are made by humans, the fruits and vegetables grow on trees but not so bread and wine, these take human sweat.  In fact because they are uniquely human products of production they receive a special blessing before they are eaten.  The Torah teaches the Jewish people here to see the production of goods in the land as a holy undertaking. “Bring the first of your labor to the temple,” to God.  Sanctify the mundane by putting God first and foremost. This is the magic of the Land of Israel. Not a miraculous place where all of one’s needs are provided in order that we might be able to live a life of study and prayer, but a land in which working the field, pressing the grapes and making the bread is a truly holy undertaking.