Thursday, June 16, 2022

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Sh'lach Le'cha - Bamidbar (Numbers) 13 - 15

 "And YHVH spoke to Moses, saying, 'Send out for yourself men and they shall spy out the land of Canaan…” (Num. 13:1-2). In the course of their second year of wandering in the desert, it was time for the Israelites to 'touch base' with the Promised Land. Twelve leaders of the tribes were therefore commissioned "to spy out" this piece of property (Cf. Dvarim 1:22-23, where it says that the people had initiated this expedition, which was looked upon favorably by YHVH).  These leaders were singled out individually, as we read in 13:2,3: “… from each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a leader among them… all of them men, heads of the children of Israel”.  The Hebrew is even more emphatic; for “from each tribe… every one…” it reads: “one man, one man” and continues, “every elevated leader… all of them men, the heads of the sons of Israel” (italics added). These individuals were assigned a complex task that potentially could turn in various directions, as the Hebrew verb for "spying out" - "tour" - implies. Aside from "spying out", "tour" also means "to observe, seek, search, reconnoiter, explore, examine and follow". However, "tour's" primal meaning is to “turn".

In the middle of last week's Parashat B'ha'a’lot’cha we read: "And they set forward from the mount of YHVH three days' journey; and the ark of the covenant of YHVH went before them three days' journey, to seek out [“tour”] a resting-place for them" (10:33 italics added). We are thus informed that before any "touring" could take place, and before any human reports could be filed, it was first and foremost YHVH Himself who did the "seeking" - "tour" - of a resting place for His people. In that was also a promise that He would continue to do so not only in the wilderness but also in the land which they were about to enter and possess. Let us now follow the band of twelve on their journey. 

Which way will they turn, as they set forth on their "touring" expedition? Will their mission be marked by genuine exploration and seeking YHVH's face, clinging to Him when faced with challenges (of which there will be no shortage in the new territory)? Will they see the land through His eyes, or will their experience prove to be a mere sightseeing tour, inspecting the 'attractions' of the land and expressing dissatisfaction if their expectations are not met? And above all, since these men were singled out so categorically, inferring that each of them was a strong individual; would they be able to come to an agreement at the end of the day?

When YHVH tells Moshe to send the twelve He says, "shla'ch le'cha", meaning "send forth for yourself [or, on your behalf]…" recalling a similar and a likewise vigorous call many years beforehand. “Lech le'cha", or "go forth (for yourself)" (Gen. 12:1), were the words that set off Avram from his "land and from [his] kindred, and from [his] father's house", toward the land which YHVH was about to show him. Both dispatches were marked by a certain sense of expediency and urgency to “get going". The first 'send-off’ was followed implicitly, resulting in a successful mission despite a number of setbacks. Although living as a nomad, Avram/Avraham was no "tourist" in the Promised Land. He took YHVH at His word, to “rise up, walk through the land, its length and its breadth, for I will give it to you" (Gen. 13:17). When Moshe heard the words "sh'lach le'cha", the centuries-old story of the father of the Hebrew nation must have resounded in his heart. What wouldn't he have given to be numbered among the twelve?! What, then, does he have in mind when he follows YHVH's instruction to "sent them to spy out, to examine, to check - "la'tour" - the land of Canaan…”? (Num. 13:17).

Moshe’s instructions are very specific: "And you shall see the land, what it is, and the people who are living on it, whether it is strong or feeble; whether it is few or many; and what the land is… whether good or bad; and what are the cities… whether in camps or in fortresses; and what the land is, whether it is fat or lean; whether wood is in it or not…" (verses 18-20). Moshe is seeking information of facts and figures that are necessary for strategic purposes, and not for scrutinizing Elohim's plan for the nation of Yisrael. Additionally, the responses of the delegates will expose their deep inner convictions, “whether strong or feeble”, “whether good or bad”, and ‘whether full of faith or following natural inclinations".

But regardless of what the intelligence will turn out to be, the Nation’s leader has a certain end view in mind: "And you shall make yourselves strong and shall take of the fruit of the land" (13:20, literal translation, italics added). Paraphrased, Moshe's words may sound something like this, "If you rely on YHVH's strength and on the power of His might, you shall succeed and partake of the fruit of the land". This appears, then, to be the nature of the "tour" that Moshe had intended for the dozen leaders. Hopefully, these leaders’ reports will be a testimony of encouragement, in order to build up their compatriots’ faith.

The Biblical narrative elaborates on the mission, and so we read the ‘headlines’: "And they went up and spied out the land… And they returned from spying out the land at the end of forty days… And they reported to him… "(13:21, 25, 27 italics added).  The faithful messengers apparently did according to Moshe's bidding, and in addition also found the land to be "flowing with milk and honey" (verse 27), evidence of which was the fruit that they had picked and which they were now bringing to their leader, just as he had asked them to do. So far so good…

However, what started out as a promising report suddenly came to a screeching halt: "e'fes!” "E'fes" translated here as "however" or “nevertheless” (13:28), is followed by the envoys' very negative descriptions.  The literal meanings of "e'fes" are: “to cease or come to an end" and hence "extremity" (such as "ends of the earth" in Deut. 33:17), as well as "naught or nothing" (Is. 34:12), and "only." "E'fes" turns what promised to be a positive report into an extremely negative one.  One of the characteristics, which the report attributed to the land, was that it “devours its inhabitants”, or literally “eats up” its inhabitants (13:32).  Verse 30 depicts a conflict of opinions, as Calev (Caleb) “stills the people", assuring them of their ability to take the land.  A little later on Calev and Yehoshua continue to exhort the people: “Only do not rebel against YHVH, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and YHVH is with us. Do not fear them” (14:9 italics added). Thus, instead of the land devouring them, they would devour (or consume) their future enemies, if they would only obey YHVH.

Additionally, the two faithful messengers observe, “their protection has departed from them”, which in Hebrew is, “their shadow has departed…” Calev and Yehoshua paint a totally different picture from the one that was just presented. They counter the description of “men of great stature, giants” (ref. 13:32,33) with a depiction that ascribes to the enemy “no shadow”, as if he has no substance at all, so as not to even cast a (proverbial) shadow.

But when the evil reporting does not cease, "Joshua the son of Nun, and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, of those who spied out the land, tore their garments; and they spoke to all the congregation of the sons of Israel, saying, 'The land into which we passed, to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land'" (14:6-7 italics added). The eyes of these two devoted witnesses had seen something altogether different when they made their "tour" of the Land of C’na’an; evidently, they were of "another spirit" (v. 24), and thus both of them were to be rewarded by entering the land and possessing it (ref. v. 24, 30). As for the rest, their punishment was pronounced by YHVH: "By the number of the days in which you spied out [“tour”] the land, forty days, a day for a year, a day for a year; you shall bear your iniquities forty years…" (v. 34).  The "tour" of the other ten resulted in what became for the entire body of the People of Yisrael a wandering “tour” in the wilderness, while for those dispatched it spelled an immediate death by a plague (ref. v.37).

By following their own hearts and inclinations these leaders, who had been granted the privilege of walking ahead of the nation, brought calamity not only upon themselves but also upon the entire nation.  This type of "going about after your own heart and your own eyes after which you go astray" (15:39, italics added) is, once again, defined by the verb "tour".  Thus, at the very end of Parashat Sh’lach Le'cha provision is made against the inherent condition of following, or going about after one's own heart and senses.  Hence the "tzitzit" (root, tzadi, vav, tzadi meaning “bloom, burst out”, and by inference “protrude out” of one’s clothing, which explains the shape of the “fringes”), is introduced "to look at and remember all the commandments of YHVH, so as to do them and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined in order that you may remember to do all My commandments, and be holy to your Elohim” (15:39-40). 

Let’s read part of this excerpt again, but this time in its literal translation: “and you shall not tour after your heart and after your eyes [leading] you to commit harlotry”. In other words, the unsteady and shifty heart is inclined to “tour”, to be followed by the eyes that are so easily given to deception, all of this culminating in harlotry. The “touring” hearts and eyes in the previous section, pertaining to the spies, certainly proved this description of the inner heart process to be true. 

Appended to the tzitzit injunction are the words, "I am YHVH your Elohim who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your Elohim. I am YHVH your Elohim" (v. 41), to which we may add from Deuteronomy 1:33, "Who goes before you in the way to seek out ["la'tour"] a place for your camping, in fire by night, to show you the way in which you should go, and in a cloud by the day" (italics added, see also Ezekiel 20:6), as we also saw in last week's Parasha. Ultimately, for all of our own seeking, searching and exploration - our so-called touring expeditions - it is YHVH who goes before us to “seek out - 'tour' – “a place” and “rest” for us, so that we, in turn, may turn to Him.

Bוא as if to underscore that in spite of what has just taken place, the aftermath of the negative report, and the response of the people, the following chapter starts with "when you have come into the land you are to inhabit… and you make a burnt offering" (15:2-3). The promise to enter the land still stands firm and sure…  



Note: The English words "turn" and "tour" are derivatives of the Hebrew "tour", which we have just examined, having found their way to the English language via the Old French "tourner", meaning "to turn" (ref. The Word, Isaac E. Mozeson, Shapolsky Publishers, New York, 1989).

The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Francis Brown Hendrickson. Publishers,  Peabody, Mass. 1979.

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