Rules and laws can balance human wilfulness


You can divide the biblical book of Numbers into two parts. The divide occurs in last week’s parasha of BeHa’alot-cha. Right in the middle, there are two verses that are set off from the rest by two “upside down nuns.” Up to these verses, we read about the organization of the Israelite encampment and the formation they took as they marched through the Sinai Peninsula.

Following these verses we come across a whole series of different ways in which the Israelites managed to display their lack of faith and had to suffer Divine displeasure as a consequence.


This week’s sedra of Sh’lach-l’cha describes one of these tragic incidents: “The incident of the Twelve Spies.” The details are well known and can be found in Numbers 13 and 14. Essentially, the Israelites express a lack of faith in God’s ability to assist them in conquering those nations which inhabit the land of Canaan and which God has promised will become their own. In expressing their unhappiness, they wail all night saying, “Had we only died in Egypt or had we only died in this wilderness. Why is God bringing us to this land just to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be taken as spoils (of war). It would be better for us to return to Egypt.”

God is so “disgusted” with the Israelites’ lack of faith that Moses has to plead on their behalf for God to spare them. Though Moses is successful, God still determines that the Israelites will now have to wander in the desert for forty years so as to allow the present adult generation, who displayed such a lack of faith, to die off and be replaced by the generation of under twenties.

Tradition attributes the following Divine response: “You wept all night for no reason, so I’ll give you a reason to weep!” This whole incident happened on what would be the same day as the destruction of the two Temples — the Ninth day of Av!

Yet the parasha follows this tragic event with a note of hope. Chapter 15 speaks about laws that are predicated on occupying the Land of Israel: laws involving sacrifices and their accompanying offerings of wine and flour and oil; laws involving challah –a certain percentage of the dough to be given to the priest; laws concerning ways to seek forgiveness in the event of committing sins whether by the community or by an individual.

The parasha concludes with the law about the fringes (tzitzit) which is to serve as a reminder of all the other laws.

There is a sense that these rules and laws come to provide a balance to human wilfulness. In a world that is filled with cynicism, with a need for personal survival at any cost, with a sense of entitlement to comfort and luxury, we can see the possibility of the human reach in an opposite direction: the ability we all have to put community needs in front of our our own personal ambitions and provide living recognition of the generations that have passed on, and hope for those who will take our place in the future.

Rabbi Mordecai Miller of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel prepared this week’s Torah Portion.