Judaism: Shlach: Spies and Ties
Daniel PinnerDaniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher and an electrician by profession; a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.
Parshat Sh’lach Lecha begins by relating the most notorious sin in our national history: Moshe despatched twelve spies from the Paran Desert, whose task was to reconnoitre the Land of Israel and return with a report of what challenges the Children of Israel were about to face in their conquest of the Promised Land and how to overcome those challenges.
Ten of those twelve spies betrayed the trust that Moshe placed in them: they overstepped their brief by far, and instead of reporting to the nation how best to conquer the Land, they plunged them into despair with their demoralizing report of how dangerous the conquest was to be.
And the nation, frightened and plunged into despair, gave up on the good Land which G-d had ordained for them.
We live with the consequences of that heinous act until today: the spies returned and delivered their evil report on the eighth of Av; and the next day, the ninth of Av, instead of becoming the day of national celebration, the day on which we entered our Land joyously, became the millennia-long annual day of disaster and mourning. “G-d said: You cried this night for no reason?! – I will yet give you a reason to cry on this night throughout the generations!” (Ta’anit 29a, Sotah 35a, Sanhedrin 104b; Numbers Rabbah 16:20 et al).
All seemed lost. Yet after this depressing fiasco, G-d continued immediately by giving several mitzvot: sacrifices, challah, and finally tzitzit (Numbers 15:37-41).
When dividing up the Torah into its weekly portions, why did the Rabbis decide to finish the Parshah which begins with the sin of the spies with the mitzvah of tzitzit? Is there any connexion between these two topics?
Let us start by observing that the Torah uses a very unusual expression in introducing the mitzvah of tzitzit: “Va-yomer HaShem el Moshe le-mor…” (“and HaShem said to Moshe, saying…”), which phrase occurs only five times throughout the Torah; the Torah almost always uses the phrase “Va-yedabber HaShem el Moshe le-mor…” (“and HaShem spoke to Moshe, saying…”), which phrase occurs 70 times.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) gives a very enlightening explanation: when the Torah uses the word “va-yomer” instead of “va-yedabber”, it either clarifies mitzvot which had already been given (as with Exodus 12:43, Exodus 31:12, Numbers 15:35); or it is the consequence of an already-given mitzvah (as with Leviticus 16:1); or where the law that follows it is connected to some event that preceded it (as with Numbers 18:1). Hence by introducing the mitzvah of tzitzit with the word “va-yomer” instead of “va-yedabber”, the Torah connects it not only to the immediately-preceding event (the man who violated Shabbat by gathering sticks), but to all the events of Parashat Sh’lach Lecha, starting with the sin of the spies.
When Moshe sent the spies to reconnoitre the Land, the verb he used was “la-tur” (13:2, 16, 17); this is usually translated as “spy out”, but is better rendered “wander through”. And, as Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes, the Torah uses the self-same verb in the mitzvah of tzitzit: “You will see it, and you will remember all of HaShem’s mitzvot and you will do them; and you will not stray after your heart and your eyes…” (15:39). The verb here is “taturu”, usually translated as “stray after”, but better rendered “wander through”.
Rabbi Hirsch explains that the verb “la-tur” denotes making the effort to search out and discover how anything can be used for positive value. When the person is influenced by his subjective desires (what his eyes see and his heart desires), then the judgement of his own thoughts will call anything “good” which is in accordance with his own sensuous nature; and will call “bad” anything which does not satisfy it.
But when G-d and His Torah are our foundation, and we subordinate the desires and dislikes of our heart to His desires and dislikes, then we feel at one with G-d. We no longer feel that power and greatness lie in satisfying our senses or the dictates of our minds, but rather in exerting our moral will, which we will have absorbed into G-d’s Will.
With G-d, we feel our own strength and power over our own world, and the most gigantic force in the world shrinks to pygmy-like nothingness.
Part of the sin of the spies – if not its very foundation – was their interpreting of the situation according to their subjective fears: “We saw the Nephilim, the sons of the giant from the Nephilim! We were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and that’s how we were in their eyes!” (13:33).
The way we view the world directly influences the way the world views us: if we are in our own eyes as grasshoppers, then inevitably that is how others will view us. But the tzitzit are our constant reminder of G-d above: “you will see it and remember all HaShem’s mitzvot and do them” (15:39). As with the desires and dislikes of our heart, so are our fears and hopes completely transformed when they serve G-d instead of our own hearts.
When we see ourselves as G-d’s holy nation and act accordingly, then inevitably the rest of the world will see us in the same way and will relate to us accordingly. And the techelet – the sky-blue thread of the tzitzit which reflects G-d’s Sapphire Throne (Sotah 17a, Menachot 43b, Yerushalmi Brachot 1:2, Bamidbar Rabbah 4:13 et. al.) – reminds us that we are G-d’s holy nation.
This is of course the antithesis of the sin of the spies, and therefore its rectification. Moshe sent the spies on their mission with the word “u-re’item” – “and you will see the Land…” (Numbers 13:18). And when the ten spies delivered their evil report, three times they used the verb “we saw”, each time to demoralize the nation: “Also the children of the giant we saw there” (v.28); “the entire nation that we saw there are men of great stature” (v. 32); “We saw the Nephilim, the sons of the giant” (v.33).
The tzitzit rectifies the sin of the spies’ seeing. Commanding us to wear tzitzit, the Torah uses the identical verb which Moshe had used when sending out the spies: “u-re’item” – “you will see it and remember all HaShem’s mitzvot and do them” (15:39).
The mitzvah of tzitzit finishes with the words, “I am HaShem your G-d, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt to be your G-d; I am HaShem your G-d” (Numbers 15:41), with which Parashat Sh’lach Lecha concludes. The Midrash gives a starkly powerful commentary on this verse: “‘I am HaShem’ – I am the Judge and I am faithful to pay you your recompense. ‘Your G-d’ – your Dread and your Judge. ‘Who brought you out from the land of Egypt’ – I brought you out from the land of Egypt in order for you to accept the mitzvah of tzitzit upon yourselves; because everyone who acknowledges the mitzvah of tzitzit acknowledges the Exodus from Egypt, while anyone who denies the mitzvah of tzitzit denies the Exodus from Egypt… Twice in the mitzvah of tzitzit the Torah says ‘I am HaShem your G-d’: I am HaShem your G-d Who punishes those who negate this mitzvah and deny it; and I am HaShem your G-d Who rewards those who keep this mitzvah and acknowledge it” (Sifri Zuta 15:41).
The mitzvah of tzitzit is indeed the impetus for rectifying the sin of the spies: the tzitzit, with its techelet, the sky-blue reflection of G-d’s heavenly Throne, inspires us to look up to G-d, to follow Him, to reject the gloomy defeatism of the ten spies; the tzitzit exhorts us to follow Joshua and Caleb who desperately tried to lead us into the Land: “We will assuredly ascend and inherit it, for we can surely do that!” (Numbers 13:30); “The Land through which we passed, spying it out – the Land is very very good! If HaShem desires us, He will bring us to this Land and give it to us – a Land which flows with milk and honey. Just don’t rebel against HaShem! And you – don’t fear the nation of the Land, because they are our bread. Their protection has departed from them; HaShem is with us – do not fear them!” (14:7-9).
So it is entirely consistent that the generation which decided, over a century ago, to throw off the shackles of exile and of the ten spies, and to return to the Land of Israel and inherit it, decided that the national symbol would be modelled after the tzitzit.
Binyamin Ze’ev (Theodore) Herzl had proposed that the flag of the Jewish State be seven golden stars on a white field. In his words, “the white background symbolizes the purity of our new life, and the seven stars represent the seven golden hours of our working-day”.
Herzl’s proposal was hugely unpopular: the Zionist movement overwhelmingly wanted a specifically Jewish flag. During the preparations for the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, the arguments flew over what flag to adopt.
Suddenly, one of Herzl’s close friends, David Wolffsohn, stood up and declaimed: “Why do we have to search? Here is our national flag!” He then held up his prayer shawl which was white with a blue stripe along each margin. Wolffsohn, who had a solid Jewish religious upbringing which remained with him for life, later described the event:
“At the behest of our leader, Herzl, I came to Basel to make preparations for the Zionist Congress. Among many other problems that occupied me then was... what flag would we hang in the Congress Hall? Then an idea struck me. We have a flag – and it is blue-and-white. The tallit with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this tallit from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations. So I ordered a blue and white flag with the Shield of David painted upon it. That is how the national flag, that flew over the Congress Hall, came into being”.
A third of a century earlier, another Jewish poet, Ludwig August Frankl, who retained a powerful Jewish identity even though he was not religious, had penned a stirring poem, Die Farben Judas (Judea’s Colours):
“When sublime feelings his heart fill,
He is mantled in the colours of his country.
He stands in prayer, wrapped
In a sparkling robe of white.
“The hems of the white robe
Are crowned with broad stripes of blue;
Like the robe of the High Priest
Adorned with bands of blue threads.
“These are the colours of the beloved country.
Blue and white are the borders of Judah.
White is the radiance of the priesthood,
And blue, the splendours of the firmament.”
The identification between the tzitzit and the Land of Israel has been seared deep into the Jewish national psyche. And these last few generations – these generations of redemption, the generations which are finally casting off the legacy of the ten spies – have instinctively chosen a representation of the tzitzit as their national banner. The tzitzit is not only the strings which we tie to our garments; it is also the spiritual strings that tie us to the Land of Israel.