Parshat Shlach - What's on the Agenda?

The Torah places special emphasis on visual symbolism.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

Judaism Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

“And God spoke to Moshe, saying: Send for yourself men to scout out the Land of Canaan…” (Numbers 13:1-2) Rashi, invoking the well-known explanation of Midrash Tanchuma, explains that the dispatch of men to scout out the Land was not initiated by God, but that it was more of a divine concession: “Send for yourself” indicates that the Children of Israel instigated this mission, as we see clearly in Sefer Deuteronomy (1:22), “And you all approached me, and you said, ‘Let us send men before us to scout out the Land…’”

Being that the dispatch of the Meraglim (the Twelve Spies) was initiated by the Children of Israel, and God's charge to send these men was prompted by the people and was not a real mitzvah (divine command), why does the Torah in this week’s parshah (portion) phrase it as if it was a real mitzvah, “And God spoke to Moshe, saying: Send for yourself men to scout out the Land of Canaan…”? Why does the Torah not present it here as a proposal of the people, as the Torah does in Deuteronomy?

Any time that the written word and actual meaning of the Torah differ, there is a special message conveyed by the written word. Such is the case here.

Rashi, quoting the words of Chazal (the Sages) in the Talmud (Sotah 34b-35a), explains that the Meraglim presented their case against entering the Land of Israel quite cunningly, for although the Meraglim from the start opposed entering the Land of Israel, even before they had seen the Land, they commenced their report with favorable information in order to appear “kosher” and secure legitimacy, and only afterwards did they begin their sinful harangue. The Meraglim had an agenda, masterfully conceived and executed with chilling effect.

This notion of the Meraglim being driven by a preconceived agenda is at the foundation of their sin and provides an answer to the question raised above regarding the divine charge to dispatch scouts.

Yes, the idea to dispatch scouts was of course initiated by the Children of Israel, but since it was so very ingrained in their psyche as being correct and necessary, when God told Moshe to send scouts, it was interpreted by the people not as a concession but as an objective mitzvah! In other words, the Torah presents God's mandate to dispatch scouts as a divine imperative, rather than as a special allowance, as that is how the Children of Israel viewed it; their preconceived agenda for an evaluation of the feasibility of conquering the Land of Israel, reflective of their doubts and lack of faith, clouded their ability to be objective, such that they interpreted God's words as a regular mitzvah reflective of His own desire.   

Kalev (Caleb), one of the two righteous Meraglim, visited Me'arat Ha-Machpelah in Chevron (the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hevron) in supplication when scouting out the Land of Israel, to pray that he not be influenced by the ten evil Meraglim. (Rashi on Numbers 13:22, from Sotah 34b) What is the significance of this? Why could Kalev not make this supplication elsewhere?

The source of the promise of the Land of Israel to the Jewish People is the Avot, the Patriarchs. God pledged to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that their progeny would inherit the Land. Kalev traveled to Hevron to reconnect with this mesorah (tradition), which was the antidote to the pernicious agenda of the ten evil Meraglim. Kalev was inspired and fortified at Me'arat Ha-Machpelah to stand up for the mesorah, for God's promise of the successful entry and conquest of the Land. This is why Kalev needed to visit Me'arat Ha-Machpelah and could not fulfill his quest and make supplication elsewhere.

There is yet another level of instruction here: Kalev’s trek to Hevron teaches us how to remain objective and avoid being taken in by subjective religious agendas. Kalev realized that the only way to interpret God's charge to send scouts was to view the matter through the lens of mesorah, for popular sentiments and attitudes can influence how one interprets things. Kalev knew that the exclusive means to approach our relationship with the Land of Israel was through the mesorah transmitted by the Avot. Kalev set an example and established precedent by turning to mesorah for interpretation and guidance particularly during times of confusion and chaos.

The parshah concludes with the mitzvah of Tzitzit, which has a deep connection with the above lesson.

In presenting the mitzvah of Tzitzit, the Torah places special emphasis on visual symbolism. "And you shall see it (tzitzit) and remember all of the mitzvot of God and perform them; and you shall not go astray after your hearts and eyes..." (15:39) Rashi explains (ibid., from Midrash Tanchuma) that "the eye sees, and the heart desires, and the body performs the sin." If this is the meaning of the Torah's exhortation, why does the pasuk (verse) warn against going "astray after your hearts and eyes"? Should not the eyes - which first detect the forbidden act, according to Rashi - precede the hearts in the pasuk, for the heart follows the eye? Shouldn't the pasuk, per Rashi's interpretation, instead read, "and you shall not go astray after your eyes and hearts", as the eye first sees and the heart thereupon desires? Why does the sequence in the pasuk place the hearts before the eyes?

The answer is that a person who wittingly transgresses the Torah usually has an initial proclivity or interest in doing that which is assur (off-limits). Rarely does a fully committed, zealous soul suddenly stumble into intentional sin. It can certainly happen, but such an occurrence often indicates an inner lacking which was heretofore unknown. When a person's heart is not in the right place, even slightly, it prompts him to open his eyes and pursue that which he should avoid. When the heart is not in the right place, such that the individual has an underlying interest to sin, and he finds himself in circumstances which present an averah (forbidden act), he will likely eyeball the opportunity to sin by following through.

Thus, although on a practical level, the eyes direct the heart to the averah, on a deeper level, the heart first puts the eyes on the lookout for opportunities which are not allowed. This is why the pasuk mentions the hearts and then the eyes.

This concept is at the core of the Chet Ha-Meraglim (Sin of the Spies), for the hearts of the ten evil Spies were not in the right place from the start; this clouded their vision and placed a negative agenda onto their task. This stark connection between the mitzvah of Tzitzit and the Chet Ha-Meraglim is glaringly evident in the Torah's very text, for the same exact term used to introduce the charge to dispatch scouts, "v'yaturu" ("and they shall scout out" - ibid. 13:2), appears in the exhortation that explains the mitzvah of Tzitzit, "v'lo taturu" ("and you shall not go astray" - ibid. 15:39 with Rashi).

Tzitzit reminds the Jew that he is charged to be an eved Hashem, a servant of God, connecting him to God's truth and message all the while he may be exposed to all sorts of outside influences. The Meraglim strayed in their charge due to an agenda that distorted their vision, eviscerated their faith and disconnected them from God. Tzitzit sends a message of staying focused, free of preconceived agendas, on the true divine mandate, connected to God in vision and heart.