Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Shelach Numbers 13:1-15:41
Efrat, Israel - How can we understand the “sin of the scouts,” of the ten princes of the tribes? Why did they hold back from attempting to conquer the Land of Israel - especially after they had just seen the miracles of the Almighty in freeing them from Egyptian servitude? And what is the lesson that we must derive today from that traumatic transgression in the desert?
Our Torah portion opens: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Send forth for yourselves men to spy out the Land of Canaan which I am giving to the children of Israel, one leading personage, each from his father’s tribe…’” (Numbers 13:1,2). The classical commentator Rashi immediately (ad loc) cites the Midrash (Tanhuma 5), “What is the connection between this Biblical segment of the scouts and the Biblical segment of Miriam (at the conclusion of last week’s Torah reading)? It is the fact that she was punished for speaking evil words against her brother Moses, and these wicked ‘leaders’ saw and did not internalize the lesson.” Is then the sin of slander - Miriam’s slander against Moses and the scouts’ slander against the Land of Israel - the connection point between the Biblical segments and the major transgression of the desert generation? It seems to me that the issue must be a bit deeper!
Let us take a second look at Miriam’s slander: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman.” (Numbers 12:1). Now Moses had married his Midianite wife Zipporah a long time before; apparently Miriam was not now suddenly criticizing her sister-in-law. And the Biblical text explicitly states that Miriam and Aaron were directing their criticism against Moses, not against Zipporah!
Rashi explains the description Cushite (literally Ethiopian or black) to refer to Zipporah’s extraordinary beauty, “teaching us that everyone admired her beauty,”… she being beautiful in looks as well as in deeds. He goes on to comment that his siblings were upset with Moses “because he had married this woman and now divorced her” (Rashi, ad loc). And Miriam and Aaron express their disapproval of the divorce by saying, “Was it then only to Moses that the Lord spoke? Did He not speak to us as well?” (Numbers 12:2) Apparently brother and sister are referring to the Divine commandment immediately following the Revelation at Sinai - since for three days preceding the Divine Revelation, G-d had ordained that no husband have any physical contact with his wife (Exodus 19:15) - enjoining the resumption of normal marital relations: “Go say to them, ‘Return to your tents’” (Deuteronomy 5:27). Since Moses himself did not return to his wife, they criticize him. Moses obviously retorted that the Almighty had indeed singled him out for special conduct, insisting - immediately after instructing the Israelite men to return to their wives - “But as for you (Moses), stand here with Me and I shall speak to you the entire commandment, and the decrees and the ordinances…” (ibid, 28). You, Moses, shall not return to your family! Apparently his siblings did not accept Moses’ response, insisting that G-d spoke to them as well, and Moses was certainly included in the general command to return to the wives. They could not accept the notion that Moses had a unique and suis generis relationship with G-d.
From this perspective, the fundamental transgression of Miriam (who seems to have been the instigator of this discussion) was not so much the slander as it was her inability to recognize the unique prophecy of Moses; and if Moses’ relationship to G-d was not unique, then the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses’ Divine revelation, likewise would lose its unique status. Indeed, the Divine response to the siblings following their criticism is a resounding defense of Moses and his very special position vis a vis G-d: “Not so (as are the other prophets) is My servant Moses; in My entire house he is the trusted one. Mouth to mouth do I speak to him, in a clear vision and not in riddles…” (Numbers 12:7-9).
The great philosopher - legalist of the twelfth century, Maimonides, uses the very verses with which we are dealing to prove the uniqueness of Moses’ prophecy and therefore of his Torah: “When G-d told the Israelites to return to their homes but directed Moses to stand with Him, He was testifying that Moses was in a constant state of prophecy… His mind (active intellect) was bound up with the mind (active intellect) of the Rock of Ages, whose glory did not leave Moses for an instant… Moses was sanctified as one of the Divine messengers (malakhim) (Laws of Torah Fundamentals, 7,6). For an individual such as Moses, who reached the highest level of intellect and spirituality which any human being could ever achieve, it became virtually impossible to return home and bond with wife and children; Moses bonded with the Divine!
Just as the real transgression of Miriam lay in her inability to see the absolute uniqueness of Moses, so did the real transgression of the scouts lay in their inability to see the absolute uniqueness of the Land of Israel for the people of Israel.
The Scouts investigated the Land of Israel as any would be settlers would investigate any land they hoped to conquer and inhabit; they were blind to the very special relationship which G-d had to this land for His people, and His promise that they would be able to conquer it.
Indeed, the portion of Shelach concludes with the commandment of ritual fringes, the blue and white strings appended to our four-cornered garments. Rav Joseph Soloveitchik ztz”l explains this unique command and its relationship to our Torah portions as follows: white represents clarity, logic, rational truth; blue, symbolizing the infinity of the oceans and the heavens, represents longing, infinity, mystery, supra-rational. Torah, the Land of Israel and the people of Israel are a combination of logic and love, natural and super-natural, mathematic reason and miraculous romance. This message had to be taught to both Miriam and the scouts. Our generation must understand that “to live in Israel and to believe in miracles is to be a realist.”