Rabbi Asher Sabag
Former Shaliach in Chicago

Our parsha contains one of the harshest episodes in Jewish history. After years of exile and suffering, the sons are finally on their way back to the land of their forefathers – the land which was promised to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. But at the exact moment when one would have anticipated tears of happiness and emotion, the nation cries a “cry for generations”.

Discussing the sin of the dor hamidbar (the generation of the desert) – the generation which Chazal call “dor de’ah” (literally, the generation of wisdom); the one generation which merited receiving the Torah – is surely not easy. Yet, sadly, history has a way of repeating itself, and the spies’ complaints are still being heard. Therefore, we must address their words – just as the Torah itself focuses on the complaints and their outcome.

The parsha opens with the sin of the spies and its ramifications and then recounts the sin of the ma’apilim (those who tried to go up to Eretz Yisrael on their own) – which was a result of the sin of the spies. Afterwards, the Torah moves on to a discussion of seemingly unrelated mitzvot. What is the Torah trying to teach us and how are these topics connected to the beginning of theparsha?

In order, the topics are: the minchat nesachim (the libation offering), hafrashat challah (separating challah), sh’gagat avodah zarah (the requisite atonement for an unintentional sin of idolatry for an individual and for the public), the mekoshesh etzim (the wood-gatherer), and the mitzvah of tzitzit.

Some commentaries interpret the spies’ assertion, “a land that consumes its inhabitants,” (Bamidbar 13:32) conceptually. The spies were complaining about the “earthliness” – the materialism to which Bnei Yisrael would be exposed upon their entrance toEretz Yisrael. In other words, the spies were lamenting the fact that Am Yisrael would have to work the land, become involved in the real world, and would thus lose the spirituality which they had achieved in the midbar. The nation had just spent an entire year camped near Har Sinai, next to the mishkan Hashem, while learning Torah directly from Moshe Rabbenu. Should they abandon all that for the sake of agriculture? Is that not a waste of time and a bitul Torah – both quantitatively and qualitatively? It is much “easier” to observe the mitzvot and learn Torah in chu”l, the spies claimed; a continuous sojourn in Eretz Yisrael will lead to a decline in the nation’s spiritual condition.

The spies also claimed:

“However, the people who inhabit the land are mighty… There we saw the Nefilim, the sons of the giant, descended from the Nefilim; in our eyes, we were like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.” (Bamidbar 13:28-33)

The “Jewish” edge is found in the beit midrash – not the “field”. We cannot compete on a materialistic level with the land’s inhabitants who are considered to be “giants” in terms of materialism. In contrast, we are mere “grasshoppers”; we cannot fight this materialism. Nonetheless, we can defeat it, and that is why we were given the spirit. We must focus on this spirit within our “shtetls”.

This is the message that the Torah is teaching us with two of the aforementioned mitzvot: nesachim and challah.

Every korban (sacrifice) includes a minchat nesachim which is derived from a plant source (i.e., wheat and wine). The Gemara (BT Brachot 14b) compares one who recites kriat shema without tefillin to one who offers a zevach (offering) without nesachim. According to the Gemara, both resemble one who bears false witness.

We can understand how this applies to tefillin. After all, the first paragraph of shema includes the words, “bind them as a sign”. One who recites these words without tefillin is, in effect, bearing false witness about himself. But why is this comparison extended to a zevach and nesachim?

Kriat shema is an acceptance of the yoke of Heaven. Laying tefillin – which represent the mind and heart’s subjugation to Hashem’s Will – is the act which bears witness to this acceptance. Thus, one who recites kriat shema without tefillin bears false witness about himself.

A person offers a zevach in order to get closer to Hashem. However, when the person refrains from adding an “earthly” or “pragmatic” aspect to the korban, his expressed desire for closeness is not real, because there is nothing to testify to its truth. But by adding to the korban an element which comes from the ground, the one bringing the korban indicates that he is even willing to subjugate his materialism in order to achieve this closeness. In other words, this is a true testimonial.

Due to their fear of losing their spiritual edge, the spies lost sight of the fact that this edge was meant for practical application. Their task was to use this edge in order to influence from above and, thereby, to spread kedushah (holiness).

Yehoshua and Calev allude to the spies’ second complaint when they say:

“And you will not fear the people of the land for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them.” (Bamidbar 14:9)

What does, “for they are our bread,” mean?

The Torah states:

“And it shall be when you eat from the bread of the land; you shall set aside an offering (trumah) for Hashem.” (Bamidbar 15:19)

The “bread” – i.e. materialism – contains a latent Divine element, a sanctified aspect which Am Yisrael must discover and bring to light.

The spies’ assertion that materialism belongs to the inhabitants of the land is a false claim. “They are our bread” – this bread is ours. We are charged with finding it and separating the trumah for Hashem from it.

The spies slandered Eretz Yisrael through their mistaken belief that dwelling in Eretz Yisrael has no significance. Their error caused considerable damage, as portrayed by the issue of sh’gagat avodah zarah and the mekoshesh.

The Gemara (BT Ketubot 110b) states:

“Whoever dwells in chu”l resembles one who is Godless.”

With good reason, the Torah discusses one who commits idolatry unintentionally immediately after the episode of the spies.

The Name “Elokim” signifies the latent Godliness which is concealed within all the powers of nature. In contrast, “Hashem” represents the Divine forces which are revealed supernaturally. Even if one who dwells in chu”l merits a Divine Revelation, he still “resembles one who is Godless,” because in chu”l, kedushah is apparent in neither the material nor the act of observing themitzvot (such as Eretz Yisrael-dependent mitzvot). The spies caused a schism, c”v, between HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s Names: Hashem and Elokim.

An idolater does the same thing – albeit in the opposite direction. He separates Godliness, which influences from Above, from the Divine powers which are manifest in reality, by serving one of these powers instead of serving Hashem. Therefore, his punishment is severe, even if he sinned unintentionally.

The episode of the mekoshesh is further evidence of the damage caused by the spies. Focusing on spirituality to the exclusion of pragmatism leads to the neglect of the practical mitzvot and to the mistaken belief that the main thing is the “spirit of themitzvah”. Although the mekoshesh may have observed Shabbat in a spiritual sense, he did not understand that his action marred Shabbat’s sanctity.

Jewish history is replete with many similar examples – ranging from Christianity, which abolished the practical mitzvot and emphasized spirituality, to the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightment), which distinguished between a life of actions and the Torah.

Chazal ask why the Torah states:

“Since it was not specified what should be done to him.” (Bamidbar 15:34)

After all, everyone knew that one who desecrates Shabbat is to be put to death. Chazal’s answer is that no one knew how he was to die. According to what we have learned, we can perhaps say that the sin of the spies, which formed a schism between actions and intentions, led to confusion within Am Yisrael, and therefore, they did not know what to do with the mekoshesh.

Our parsha concludes with the mitzvah of tzitzit, which may be the Torah’s suggested solution to the spies’ problem. Tzitzitsymbolize all the mitzvot: The gematria of “tzitzit” is 608, and there are 5 knots; the total is taryag (the 613 mitzvot). The tzitzitare placed on a man’s clothing – on the four corners of his garment. The relationship between the Torah and the mitzvot is like the relationship between attire and content. One cannot reach the content without donning the apparel, and vice versa: one cannot see the content without the attire. (A person is recognized by his manner of dress.) In order to obtain the Torah, we must observe the mitzvot.

Therefore, in reference to tzitzit, the Torah states:

“This shall be tzitzit for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of Hashem to perform them; and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you stray.” (Bamidbar 15:39)

HaKadosh Baruch Hu tells Shlomo HaMelech:

“And My Eyes and My Heart shall be there all the days” (Melachim I 9:3)

Only a careful observer will be able to discern Hashem’s Presence.

Although the spies “spied out” (toru) the land, they were unable to discern Eretz Yisrael’s higher connection. Instead, they “strayed” (toru) after their eyes (“in our eyes, we were like grasshoppers”) and hearts (“our brothers have melted our hearts”).

The spies strayed with their eyes when they thought that the midbar was the ideal place to become closer to Hashem. They were afraid that they would be replaced as the heads of the assembly (“the eyes of the assembly”), and so they refused to recognize that Eretz Yisrael is the place that “the eyes of Hashem, your God, are on it from the beginning of the year.”

In addition, they erred with their hearts. They focused on externals, such as the ananei hakavod and all the miracles, and ignored the inner message: the heart. Also, the pride of their hearts led them astray. Finally, the heart is a symbol of prophecy, and Eretz Yisrael is, of course, the land of prophecy.

We must take this lesson to our own hearts. As the spies themselves proved, even the greatest of men are likely to stumble in this regard. Therefore, we must not let ourselves be tempted by enticing explanations about how galut is better “spiritually” and how it is easier to observe the mitzvot there – no matter who the speaker.

We conclude with Yeshaya HaNavi’s blessing:

“He will raise a banner for the nations and assemble the lost of Yisrael; and the dispersed ones of Yehudah, He will gather from the four corners of the earth.” (Yeshaya 11:12)