Sunday, June 23, 2024

Readings for Saturday, June 29, 2024

Readings for Saturday, June 29, 2024

Shelach-Lecha (Send forth)

13:1-15:41 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Shelach-Lecha is the fourth sedrah in Bamidbar (Numbers).  The Sedrah takes its name from the first words of the second sentence in the sedrah, “Send forth (Shelach-Lecha) men, if you please and let them spy out the Land Of Canaan.”  The sedrah divides into three parts:  The Story of the Spies; The Response to the Spies; and Laws of Hope, Penitence and Protection.

The Story of the Spies (13:1-31) The story is a simple one with a conventional interpretation.  Moshe chooses a leader from each of the twelve tribes to reconnoiter Canaan.  He tells them how to enter the land and gives them a list of questions to answer when they return.  The spies return after forty days and report to Moshe, Aaron and the whole House of Israel.  They begin with a glowing report about the land itself, describing it as a place flowing with milk and honey.  But then they exceed their mission by announcing that the Israelites will not be able to conquer the land.  The inhabitants are too strong and too numerous.  Only Joshua and Caleb disagree.  Caleb assures the people that the conquest is possible.  But the other ten leaders drown him out saying the inhabitants are like giants and the Israelites are like grasshoppers by comparison.  Based on conventional interpretation, the leaders erred in at least two ways.  First, they did more than what was required.  They were told to gather specific information.  Instead, they not only gathered the information, they also gave their opinion.  This is another instance where we are reminded that we are required to do what the Torah commands, no less, but also, no more.  It is hard enough to get what is commanded right, without adding anything else to the list.  Second, they forgot that God had said He would deliver the land to the Israelites.  The spies were really saying that God was not strong enough to deliver on His promise.

The Response to the Spies (14:1-45) The spies have spoken.  Now the people respond.  They ignore Joshua and Caleb and accept the judgment of the Ten.  As has happened before, the Israelites yearn for Egypt.  They rebel against God and Moshe.  "Let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt."  In a re-play of the Golden Calf, God threatens to exterminate the people but Moshe placates Him by appealing to God’s vanity.  God agrees to spare the nation, but He will punish the generation that doubted Him.  God will make their prophecy come true.  They keep saying that He brought them out of Egypt so that they might perish in the Wilderness.  Well, perish they will.  Instead, their children (those under the age of twenty) will go into the land promised them by God.  As for the ten spies, they are to die immediately from a special plague.  Only Joshua and Caleb are to be spared.  The rewards of leadership are great.  The penalty for leading the people astray is also great.  As if to show how totally they misunderstood their special relationship with God, the Israelites now decide that they will in fact go into the land.  They go out to fight the Amalekites and the Canaanites without the symbols of God’s presence i.e., the Holy Ark or Moshe.  Of course they suffer a disastrous defeat.  The key to understanding this episode may lie in the first verse of Chapter 14, “The entire assembly rose up and issued its voice; the people wept that night.”  The people had all night to consider their response.  They had all night to remember all of the miracles that God had performed and they still rebelled.  And as if that were not enough, Caleb and Joshua gave them one more reminder, “…do not rebel against God!  God is with us.  Do not fear them.” (14:10).  In other words, the Israelites had plenty of time to consider their course of action and they made the wrong choice.  To the extent that one reads the Torah as history, the events in chapters 13 and 14 are a calamity for the Israelites.  The fulfillment of God’s promise about the Promised Land is delayed for a generation.  The Israelites will struggle and suffer many unfortunate events during their extended sojourn.  This is a classic case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Laws of Hope, Penitence and Protection (15:1-40)  Just when the Israelites are at their lowest ebb, God sends a message of hope.  He begins describing a series of commandments with the words, “Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them:  When you will come to the Land of your dwelling places that I give you.”  In other words, here is a set of commandments that you will follow once you arrive in Canaan.  By giving laws at this point in the narrative that can only be fulfilled once the Israelites enter Canaan, God is reassuring them that He will keep His word and that the next generation will inherit the Promised Land.  In verses 1 through 16, God provides rules concerning Grain Offerings and Wine Libations.  From the point of view of the modern reader these ancient commands provide a reminder that from the earliest time in our history the same of rules were to apply to the proselyte as well as to the rest of the congregation.  In other words, regardless of how one becomes a Jew, once you are Jew you are treated the same as everybody else.  Next come the rules of Challah, the portion of dough to be given to the Kohanim when making bread (15:17-21).  Like the commandments concerning Grain Offerings and Wine Libations, the ritual of Challah is also to be performed only when the next generation enters the Promised Land.  The practice has carried over to our own times.  (See Themes below)

The Story of the Spies could have conveyed the notion that God did not forgive sinners.  Such is not the case.  So the text continues with methods for atoning for unintentional sin (defined here as Idol Worship) whether it be by the whole community or the individual (15:22-29).  But just as there was no forgiveness for the arrogant ten spies, so is there no forgiveness for the arrogant sinner, the person “who acts defiantly” (15:30-31).  To drive home this theme of the arrogant sinner, the sedrah follows with the story of the Israelite gathering wood on Shabbat (15:32-36).  Having heard the Revelation at Sinai, the miscreant knew that violating Shabbat was a capital crime.  In gathering wood, he seemed to be showing utter contempt for the law since he was twice violating the Shabbat (working by gathering wood) so he could violate it again (kindling a fire).  The death penalty imposed here met the later Halachic rules for its implementation - the offender was warned that what he was doing carried the death penalty and that there were at least two witnesses to the crime.  The Bible has no problem in naming sinners.  So why does the wood gather remain unnamed?   Possibly as a way of carrying out the second part of the punishment for violating Shabbat - the cutting off of the soul from among the people (Shemot 31:14).  What better way to “cut off” the soul than to blot out a person’s name?  At the end of the sedrah, God commands the Israelites to wear fringes or tzitzit on the corners of their garments (15:37-40).  When the Israelites look upon the tzitzit, they are to remember all of the commandments and remember that they are supposed to abide by them.  In so doing, they will also remember not to follow their inclinations.  If the wood gatherer had worn tzitzit, he might have remembered the rules of Shabbat and that he was to observe them.  And if the spies had had tzitzit they might have remembered that they were to trust in God and not follow their own inclinations concerning entering the Promised Land.


385.         The obligation to set aside a portion of Challah (dough) for the priest (15:18-21).
386.         The commandment to wear tzitzit (fringes) on a four-cornered garment (15:37-38).
387.         The prohibition against going astray after the desires of one’s heart and eyes (15:39).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

The Spies

Usually, the Story of the Spies portrays the Ten as cowards who are afraid to fight for the land; as leaders lacking in faith in God.  The story may be viewed in another way.  Possibly the Ten were afraid that they would lose their ability to follow the teachings of the Torah if they left the Wilderness and entered Canaan.  In the Wilderness, God provided everything - manna to eat, water on demand, even clothes that did not wear out.  In the Wilderness the Israelites were close to God with a Cloud by day and a Pillar of Fire by night.  Of course there were the Tabernacle and Moshe as well, further cementing the Israelites to God and the Torah.  But once they entered the land, they “were like grasshopper” i.e., they would have to work to survive.  Yes, the grapes were huge and there was an abundance of milk and honey.  But this meant labor and labor would take time away from Torah.  Therefore, the Ten brought back their report so that the Israelites would stay in the Wilderness and be close to God.  What they had failed to see was that the Israelites would misinterpret their report and use it as an excuse to return to Egypt.  When Caleb says, “The Lord is with us.  Do not fear them”, he is thought to be saying that the Lord is with us do not fear that being in the land will separate us from Him.  The Ten did not understand that the challenge of the Jew then, as now, is to take the Torah from Sinai and make it a part of the world.  This cannot be done in the Wilderness.  It can only be done in the real world, in this case the Promised Land.  “Rabban Gamliel, the son of Yehudah haNasi, says:  “The study of Torah combined with a worldly occupation is an excellent thing…any study of torah when not accompanied by a trade must fail in the end and become the cause of sin.”  (Pirke Avot 2:2)  For a more lucid treatment of this, I suggest you read Torah Studies by Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, pages 239 through 245.

Overstepping Their Bounds

In “The Facts, Just the Facts,” journalist, linguist and author Hillel Halkin questions the harsh treatment of the Spies.  In the end, all ten die because of their role played out in this week’s Torah portion.  Moses tells them to go and see what the land is like; see whether the people living there are weak or strong and see if the cities are undefended or fortified.  In a manner that would have made a CIA handler proud, they come back and describe the territory (a land of milk and honey), described the inhabitants (tall and strong) and describe the urban areas (large and fortified).  Although the Torah does not say so directly, the Israelites must have been scared by what they heard, for as Halkin points out the text goes from the negative report of the spies to Caleb’s angry rebuttal.  “But Caleb quieted the people…’Let us go up at once and occupy it (the land).…’”  Caleb would only have uttered such words if the people had responded to the report of the spies with fear.  And here is where the spies go beyond their mission.  Halkin contends that they shift from reporting the facts - the assigned mission of spies - to shaping public opinion.  First the spies tell the people that the inhabitants of the land are stronger than the Israelites and therefore the Israelites cannot go up against them.  Then they really step over the line by declaring the Promised Land is “a land that devours its inhabitants.”  If the spies were telling the truth when they said it was a land of milk and honey, then how did it all of a sudden become a land that would devour the Israelites?  They have made the same mistake that some modern intelligence services have made when they have massaged the data to fit somebody else’s notion of reality.  The CIA or Mossad would fire such people.  The spies got the death penalty because in massaging the data they were saying that God was wrong, that God had lied to the people - blasphemy.

Spies - Who Sent Them

“And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying:  Send thou men that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I give to the children of Israel…” (Numbers 13:1&2).  A literal reading would seem to indicate that God was the one who was responsible for sending the spies; that he told Moses to send them.  But according to tradition, as can be seen from the notes in three Chumashim - Hertz, Stone & Etz Hayim - this was not the case.  According to Etz Hayim, the Hebrew שלח לכה Shelach Lecha literally means “‘send for yourself.’  That is for your own purposes (not Mine).  God seems to be saying ‘I have told you already that the land is good and that I will give it to you.  If you need human confirmation of that, go ahead and send scouts.”  Hertz follows the same line of reasoning.  Stone goes one better and cites “the Sages and Rashi” who contend that “the people came to Moses and asked him to dispatch spies to reconnoiter Canaan and report to them.” (This would explain why the spies gave their report to the entire nation instead of just to Moses.)  “Moses consulted God who said,  ‘I have told them the Land is good.  (But since they question Me), I will let them test my veracity at the risk of being misled and losing their chance to enter the Land.’  Although Moses apparently approved the demand, he actually hoped that his agreeing would dissuade the people from pressing their request….Moses thought that his willingness to let the people have their way would convince them that they had nothing to fear.  He was mistaken; they wanted to hear about the land” from their fellow Israelites.  However, Meir Shalev, in his book Beginnings does not let God off the hook.  He reads the text literally and blames the whole misadventure on the Lord.  There is not room here to explain his line of thought, but it is worth the read.  In fact, the chapter entitled “The First Spies” would seem to be a davar torah that covers both the Torah portion and the haftarah which deals with another spy story.

Spies - Who Sent Them II

In Chapter 1, verse 22 of Devarim, Moses gives his version of who sent the spies.  “And you came near unto me and you said; Let us send men before us that they may search out for us the land and bring us word again (concerning) the way by which we must go up and the cities unto which we shall come.”  The reason for the mission of the spies is described differently here than in this weekly portion.  The version in Devarim does not sound like a challenge to God but a reasonable request to send out scouts to provide a line of march as the Israelites enter enemy territory.  This raises even more questions, not the least of which is, was there more than one episode with spies; are we seeing an attempt to harmonize two different events?’  I haven’t an answer, but if you do, please let me know.

Spies - Modern Lessons

Why did the spies overstep the bounds of their mission?  Why did they go from gatherers of intelligence to molders of public opinion?  Maybe we can answer these questions if we ask a couple of others first.  Who were the spies?  Why were they chosen for the mission?  One can safely assume that they were prominent members of their respective tribes.  Based on what we known about Joshua, we can assume that they were younger men.  This means that being chosen as spies might have been their first big assignment.  And they handled it well; bringing back the kind of facts which they had been asked to gather.  But when they saw the reaction of the people and saw that the people were listening to them and not Moses, it “went to their heads.”  Could it have been that these ten young guys were just impressed with themselves, impressed with the fact that Israelites were paying attention to them and not to the Big Guy who talked to God; that they just couldn’t give up the limelight?  Instead they just kept right on talking, loving all of that attention until it was too late.  Maybe if Moses had chosen more mature men for the role, or mixed the group so it would include the young as well as the more mature, the outcome might have been different.  Could this be one more example of what we now call a bad hiring decision?  The Bible offers many examples of this.  For example, Saul failed because he was the wrong man for the job.  David succeeded because Samuel hired the right man for the job the second time around.  And of course, as we will see with the Haftarah, Joshua does what Moses did not - he hired the right men to be spies the second time around.


Why is “ten” considered the minimum number for a Minyan?  God asks, “How much longer shall that wicked congregation (edah) keep muttering against me?” (14:26).  In using the term edah” which means congregation or community, God is referring to the Ten Spies.  As Rabbi Leo Trepp points out, “In this typical example of rabbinical interpretation of a Torah text (Mishnah Sanhedrin 1: 6), the biblical congregation of scouts who defeated God’s plan is replaced by the true congregation of worshipers who promote God’s plan.”


The Challah referred to here is not the loaf of bread we eat on Shabbat.  Rather, it is the small portion, usually about an ounce, removed from the dough and burned when baking bread.  If the dough is made from one of five grains and the flour weighs more than three pounds a blessing is recited:  “Baruch atah adonoi elohainu melech haolom asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vtzivanu l’hafrish challah.  (Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to separate challah).”  There are many texts that give a fuller explanation of this topic.  One you might consider is a cookbook par excellence called Spice and Spirit.  The mitzvah of Challah is one of three that is assigned to women.  Just as the woman shapes the Challah, so does she shape the home and the home is the Jew’s spiritual fortress.


The verses concerning Tzitzit (15:37-41) were considered so important by the Rabbis, that they were made the third paragraph of the Shema.  These verses gave rise to the wearing of the tallit or prayer shawl, which is donned before praying in the morning.  Observant Jews also wear a fringed under garment called a tallit katan (little tallit).  The exposed fringes help them to better observe the injunction to wear the fringes and look upon them so that one does not go astray.  In its formative period, the Reform Movement attempted to do away with the Tallit.  Today, the tallit is reappearing in many Reform Congregations thanks in no small part to the effect of the feminist movement on Judaism.  The feminists made the wearing of the tallit an outward sign of the changes they were seeking in 20th century Judaism.  Should women wear tallit?  That is an interesting question worthy of discussion.  Rashi’s daughters were reported to have worn tefillin.  Since one usually puts on a tallit before putting on tefillin, did Rashi’s daughters each wear a tallit?  An even more interesting questions might be, what about women who seek the tallit as they flee the Challah?

Women and Tzitzit - Part II

Maggie Anton, the author of three books about Rashi’s daughters,, was kind enough to respond to the question posed in my commentary above about women and Tzitzit.  “The tallit or prayer shawl as we know it today did not exists in Rashi's time. I believe it came into use in the 13th century.  What Rashi's community had then were tzitzit that were attached to the 4-cornered garments they already had, cloaks and mantles, which were worn outdoors and could be used by men and/or women.  Machzor Vitry states that if a woman wore tzitzit, she was required to make the blessing.  However it appears that most Jews did not attach tzitzit to their garments.”  The Machzor Vitry she refers to is a work by Rav Simcha of Vitri, France, who died in 1105 and was student of Rashi.  “This halachic work focuses mainly around the daily and Shabbat prayer services, and includes halachic decisions from his teacher Rashi or from other early scholars.  It also includes halachic decisions on issues of kashrut, family purity, tefillin, mezuzah, and ethics.”  Why do we study this each year?  We study because there is always something more to learn.

Tisha B’Av

According to some, the spies gave their report on Tisha B’Av.  This is supposedly why this date marked the advent of other calamities including the destruction of both of the Temples, the expulsion from Spain and the start of World War I.  I am not saying I believe this; merely passing along a little more food for thought.

Ancient Profession

Based on Meir Shalev’s reading of the Bible, spies and the work of espionage are very ancient endeavors.  The first mention comes in Beresihit (Genesis) when Joseph declares that his brothers are spies who “have come to see the nakedness of the land.”  Joseph knew the accusation was false but in making the charge it is obvious that ancient world already knew what spies were and held their work in contempt.  For more on the early Biblical view of spying from Joseph to Moses, to Joshua, to King David read “The First Spies,” one of the many fascinating chapters in Beginnings by Meir Shalev.

Lech Lecha versus Shelach Lecha

Earlier in the year we read Lech Lecha - Go to yourself.  This week read Shelach Lecha - Send for yourself.  The second word in each reading is the same.  But the first word for each reading and the outcomes are so very different. In “Go for yourself” Abraham heeds the call of the Lord and arrives in the Promised Land where the Covenant is created.  In “Send for yourself” the Israelite deny the call of the Lord and refused to move forward to the Promised Land.  “Yourself” reminds us of the importance of human action.  But the variation on the first word reminds us that when “yourself” acts, “yourself” acts in a way that is consistent with the Divine Will.

Ephraim and Judah Together - For Once

For most of Jewish history, Ephraim and Judah were opposed to each other.  The most famous instance came when Jeroboam, the son of King Solomon, met with the tribal leaders from the north led by Ephraim which resulted in the split into the Southern and Northern Kingdoms.  Ironically in this week’s reading we find Caleb from the tribe of Judah and Joshua from the tribe of Ephraim standing against the other ten spies and calling for the Jewish people to have faith in the Lord and not be afraid to enter the Promised Land.  Yet the people ignored them and the rest is, as they say, history.  The lesson in leadership that we can take from this might be that no matter how strong the words of the leaders are, it takes the support of followers to make things happen.


2:1-24 Joshua

The Man:  The Book of Joshua is the first book in the second part of the TaNaCh called Neviim or Prophets.  Along with Judges, Samuel and Kings, Joshua makes up the section of Neviim known as the Former Prophets.  Together these books provide a historic narrative that runs from the death of Moshe to the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E.  Authorship of the book is ascribed to different individuals including Joshua, Eleazar (the son of Aaron) and Pinchas (the grandson of Aaron).  The Book of Joshua follows logically from the material read at the end of Devarim.  Basically, the book of Joshua describes the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites.  There are those who contend that the instead of the Pentateuch we should have the Hexateuch made up of the Five Books of Moshe and Joshua.  While Moshe may have died before the opening lines of Joshua are read, the constant use of his name gives this concept a philosophic as well as historic basis for consideration.  Joshua is a book of completion.  The book ends with death of Joshua who dies at the age of 110.  The text then references the burial of Joseph’s bones.  Joseph also died at age 110.  In other words, the book ends with a reference to the man who started the cycle by taking us out of Canaan (Joseph) and to the man who completed the cycle by conquering Canaan (Joshua).  The book also marks the completion of Moshe’s work.  Moshe took us to the borders of the Promised Land.  But it was Joshua who completed the work of Moshe by conquering the Promised Land.  Hence it is a book of completions in the plural.

We know little about the personal life of Joshua.  He is the son of Nun and a member of the tribe of Ephraim.  The text gives him no family.  It is only in legend that he marries Rahab, the reformed harlot who provides him with daughters, but no sons.  Actually, Joshua first appears in the Torah as the one whom Moshe commands to select men to fight against the Amalekites.  In other words, from the start, Joshua appears as a warrior and as Moshe’s first lieutenant or aid de camp.  It is Joshua who ascends part of the way to the top of Sinai with Moshe and Joshua who comes back down with him at the time of the Golden Calf.  It is Joshua, along with Caleb, who disputes the claims of the other spies and urges the Israelites to enter the Promised Land.  Despite all of this, when it comes time to choose Moshe’s successor, Moshe only asks God to choose a worthy person.  He does not ask that Joshua get the job.  Rather, Joshua is chosen by God as Moshe’s successor.  Moshe is the sun.  Joshua is the Moon.  Moshe is called the servant of the Lord.  Joshua is called the disciple of Moshe.  It is an interesting contrast in the roles and personae of the two men.

Joshua is an enigmatic, troubling figure.  He has drawn the attention of writers as diverse as Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz whose monographs are the source of much of the material you read here.  Joshua is portrayed as a man of the Torah.  He is the second link in the tradition cited in Pirke Avot.  In the opening chapter of his book, God tells him that his success will be dependent on faithfully adhering to the Torah.  Joshua is the political/military leader.  But in the Torah, he is told that he will consult with the High Priest before he takes action.  The reality is that Joshua and his book are about war; bloody nasty war.  This is his claim to fame.  He is so good at it that modern Israeli military leaders looked to Joshua for advice on tactics and leadership.  He was the original “follow me” commander.  Joshua is a masterful military leader.  But from the modern perspective, is warfare something that we Jews want to be good at doing?  Since waging war means a suspension of our normal moral values, how do we as modern Jews justify it?  Moreover, why did Joshua not protest against it?  Just as Abraham challenged God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, why didn’t Joshua challenge God to give the Israelites the Promised Land without slaughtering the inhabitants?  If you believe some of the Midrash, the ancient Israelites may have felt some of this same ambivalence since he died alone.  At the end of his life, Joshua showed himself to be a gambler and a leader confident in the success of his life’s work.  He seems to be giving the Israelites a chance to back out on the covenant.  “And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served…or the gods of the Amorites; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (25:15).  The people promise to cast out other gods and reaffirm their loyalty to God.  While our forefathers committed us to the Torah at Sinai, the episode here reminds us that each generation must actively re-commit itself to the Torah and all that goes with it.

There is yet one more mystery about the Book of Joshua.  The Book of Joshua describes a violent invasion of Canaan in which the Israelite nation seized the land.  The Book of Judges would seem to contradict this and provides for a more gradual conquest of the land, much of it done on a tribal basis.  This contradiction is not the product of some modern day Bible-bashers.  After all, no less a traditional authority than the editors of the Soncino TaNaCh felt compelled to address this issue.  There is no easy answer to this one.  The archeologist William G. Dever is an enemy of the minimalist view and a believer in the historicity of the Jews’ Biblical claims to an ancient presence in Israel.  He finds a strong convergence between the archeological data and the narrative in Judges and Samuel.  “The parallel account in Joshua, however, is now seen to be based largely on the folktales glorifying Joshua, which although perhaps of early date are mostly fictitious.”  (What Did the Biblical Writers Knows & When Did They Know It?).  At the same time, Abraham Malamat of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem finds ample archeological evidence to support the basic story found in the Book of Joshua.  Despite some divergences, “the continuation of the biblical narrative is generally corroborated by discoveries from the excavations.”  (See A History of the Jewish People by Ben-Sasson).  One traditional attempt to harmonize the two books contends that the Israelites did conquer land under Joshua.  However, after his death, the surviving native inhabitants reasserted themselves and the Israelites were forced to re-claim what they had already won.  (For a modern, although imperfect analogy, consider the initial American military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq and the situation these forces face as the local population regroups for further action.)  Regardless of how one resolves the question about the historicity of the Book of Joshua, many modern readers are bothered by the apparent “genocide” described in the text.  Such a taking of life seems to run contrary to the spirit of the laws found in the Torah.  Telushkin, citing the great biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufman, “argues that only because of the wars Israel fought against Cananite nations did ‘Israel…not assimilate into the indigenous population…It provided Israel’s new religious idea with an environment in which to grow free of the influence of a popular pagan culture.’”  Monotheism began as a small, minority movement living side by side with paganism that was so immoral it practiced child-sacrifice.  Warfare of this nature was the only way that the religion of our ancestors had a chance to survive.  As Judaism developed, it recognized that non-Jews could enjoy a portion in “the World to Come.”  But these inheritors had to be righteous gentiles, not child-sacrificing pagans.

The Message:  Unlike the Haftarot of the last few weeks with angels and magical menorahs, this week’s reading is pretty straightforward.  It is the Story of the Spies.  It reminds me of one of those World War Two movies where the brave Allied spies are parachuted behind German lines just before D-Day.  They are always on the verge of capture and are always saved by some damsel (or a guy with a good-looking sister or daughter).  In the end, they make it back to England with that valuable piece of intelligence that leads to victory.  In the haftarah, the Israelites are ready to invade Canaan under Joshua’s leadership.  He sends two spies to “reconnoiter the region of Jericho.”  While carrying out their mission, the two spies are saved from capture by Rahab, a prostitute in Jericho.  The price of the protection is a promise that when the Israelites take Jericho, they will spare her and her family.  The spies agree and provide her with a sign so that the Israelites will know who she is.  More importantly, from the point of view of a reconnaissance mission, she lets them know that the inhabitants of Jericho have heard about the miracles and might of God and His people.  They have lost heart and will not be able to resist.  The reading ends with the spies telling Joshua, "The Lord has delivered the whole land into our power, in fact all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before us” (2:22).

Theme-Link:  The sedrah and the haftarah both tell the stories of spies sent to bring reports about conditions in the Land of Canaan.  Of course, the outcome of the two stories is entirely different.  The spies of the Torah come back with a negative report, telling the people that there is no way that they can conquer Canaan.  The spies in the Book of Joshua come back with a positive report, predicting victory.  But there are several other differences.  The Torah goes into great detail as to who the Twelve Spies are.  The haftarah never mentions the names of the Two Spies.  The mission of the spies in the Torah sounds like a Cook’s Tour, not an intelligence mission.  In fact, they are supposed to be confirming the richness of the Land of Milk and Honey. The spies in the haftarah are sent to Jericho to make sure that the city is ripe for capture.  The differences highlight the difference between the roles and missions of Moshe and Joshua.  The differences highlight the change in the generations.  One story is about the last generation of slaves. The other is a story about the first generation of men born free.  In his commentary on this haftarah, Rabbi Edward Romm offers an additional insight.  In the 18th century, the civil authorities in Austria asked Yehezkel Landau, the Chief Rabbi of Bohemia, if “a Jew could legitimately swear falsely if the Torah he held when he took his oath was “pasul” or “ritually defective.”  Rabbi Landau responded that a Jew is never allowed to swear falsely and offers the story of Rahab and the Two Spies as one of his proof-texts for this bold statement.

Sermon Suggestion: In 2024, Shabbat falls on June 29.  In 1776, Shabbat also fell on June 29 which was the day that massive British expeditionary force arrived at New York with the mission of ending the American Revolution – a mission it almost accomplished over the next six months.  June 29, 1776 also marked the last time Shabbat would observed in the 13th English colonies because in the coming week, the Declaration of Independence would be adopted and published.  I am sure that for a clever rabbi, there is a sermon in all of this. 





Sunday, June 16, 2024

Readings for Saturday, June 22, 2024

Readings for Saturday, June 22, 2024

Beha’alotcha (“When you light” or “When you kindle”)

8:1-12:16 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Beha’alotcha is the third sedrah in Bamidbar (Numbers).  The reading takes its name from a phrase in the second verse of the sedrah, “Speak to Aaron and say to him:  When you kindle (Beha’alotcha) the lamps….”

The sedrah can be divided in two main parts - Final Instructions and Ceremonies Before Beginning the Journey (8:1-10:10) and The Journey From Sinai to Canaan Begins (10:11-12:16).  The sedrah begins and ends with Aaron.  The fortunes of Aaron mirror the fortunes of the Israelites as presented in Beha’alotcha.  The sedrah starts on a note of spiritual exhilaration involving Aaron and the Jewish people, but it will descend into a description of a series of rebellions against God and Moshe, the last of which involves Miriam and Aaron.

The Menorah

The sedrah opens with Aaron being instructed in the rituals related to the Menorah.  The ceremonials relating to the Menorah may be seen as the capstone to the offerings described at the end of Naso.  The rituals relating to the Menorah are for Aaron and his family the equivalent of the offerings made by the leaders of the Twelve Tribes (See Themes for more on the Menorah).

The Levites

There is a pattern in the Torah of God telling us what He plans to do in one sedrah and then describing the implementation in a later sedrah.  Previously God had told the Israelites that the Levites would be consecrated to Him and would be assigned to serve the Kohanim.  In Beha’alotcha, the Levites actually go through the rituals that ordain them in these dual roles.  When the earlier census was taken, the Levites ranging in age from thirty to fifty were counted.  At the time of their actual consecration, the ceremony involves Levites ranging in age from twenty-five to fifty.  According to some commentators this five year discrepancy allowed for a period of apprenticeship before the male Levites actually assumed their duty.  Regardless, retirement came at fifty.


With the first anniversary of the Exodus, the Israelites are commanded to observe Pesach for the first time as free people.  The Pesach Offering is to be made “in its appointed time.”  This is interpreted to mean that the Pesach Offering is so important that it can even be made on Shabbat.  Now comes one of the most diverting little tales in the Torah.  Apparently there was a group of men who had been with a corpse at Pesach, which meant they could not participate in the Pesach Offering.  They complained to Moshe that this was unfair.  They were being denied participation in this important ritual because they were performing another mitzvah.  In responding to this dilemma, it was almost as if Moshe were saying, “Golly gee, God and I just didn’t think about this possibility.  Wait here a minute and I will get a ruling on this from God.”  Thus was created Pesach Sheni, the Second Pesach.  Pesach Sheni comes a month after Pesach and participation is limited to those who have become contaminated by a human corpse or are too far away to participate in the sacrifice at the appointed time and place.  Everybody else is still supposed to observe the holiday at its appointed time.

Traveling Signs

There are three signs to tell the Israelites when to travel and one sign to tell them when to stop.  Three are visual.  The fourth is auditory.  A cloud will hover over the Tabernacle by day and a pillar of fire by night.  When the cloud arises, the Israelites are to break camp.  When the cloud comes to rest, the Israelites will encamp.  The pillar of fire is the nighttime version of the cloud.  Since it is the motion of the cloud and not the pillar of fire that determines travel, there are those who assume that the Israelites only move during the day.  What is important is that God Himself, and no one else, determines the Israelites’ travel pattern.  In addition to these three visual signs, God commands Moshe to make two silver trumpets which are to be sounded each time the Israelites are to start traveling.  The Trumpets are also supposed to be blown when going into battle and at various times of joy.

The Journey Begins (10:11-12:16)

·        The First Stage - On the 20th day of Iyar in the second year after the Exodus, the Israelites follow the Cloud from Sinai to the Wilderness of Paran.  They follow the previously prescribed line of march.  At this point, Moshe’s father-in-law announces his plans to return to his home.  Despite Moshe’s entreaties, Jethro, or as he is called here, Hobab son of Ruel, is determined to leave and go back to his people.  As we shall see, this is not the last time we shall encounter the Midianites or the Kenites, the kinsmen of Jethro.

·        The First Rebellion - No sooner do the Israelites make camp than the chronic complainers begin making noise.  This so enrages God that he kills a group of them with a “fire” that was probably some form of lightning bolts.

·        The Second Rebellion - Now another group complains about the food.  They want meat.  They yearn for the delicious foods of Egypt.  They are tired of manna even though the text reminds us of what a perfect food it is.  Now Moshe seems to be almost rebelling against God.  He cries out that these people are too much for him.  He reminds God that he did not ask to be the leader.  God forced the job on him.  And if this is the way things are going to be, Moshe tells God to just kill him right now.  God responds in two ways.  First he takes care of the leadership and spiritual void by creating the Sanhedrin, the Council of Seventy Elders.  Then he sends the quail to meet the demands for meat.  But the gift becomes a punishment as the gluttons die with their mouths filled with unchewed meat stuck between their teeth.

·        The Third Rebellion - In what must have been one of the most painful moments in his life, Moshe now must face a rebellion by his sister and brother.  “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe regarding the Cushite woman he had married…They said, ‘Was it only to Moshe that God spoke?  Did He not speak to us as well?’”  In other words, first they gossiped about Moshe’s treatment of his wife and then they challenged his position, claiming to be his equal because they had also spoken with God.  Moshe is too humble (and probably too hurt) to respond to the charges by his siblings.  So God intervenes telling the sister and brother of Moshe’s unique relationship with Him and reminding them of his virtues.  Having chastised them, God drives home the point with physical discomfort.  Miriam is stricken with a skin disease.  Since Aaron is a Kohein, he knows the diagnosis and begs his brother to intervene.  Possibly remembering how she had saved him when he was a baby, Moshe intervenes with God.  God agrees to spare her, but she must be quarantined for seven days.  Was the separation only because of her physical impurity or was it in part also punishment for speaking evil against her brother?  The text is mute and we are left to speculate.  Once her seven days are over, the people renew their journey moving from Hazeroth to the Wilderness of Paran.



380. The obligation of one who was unable to bring a Passover offering at the appropriate time to do so exactly one month later on the 14th day of Iyar (9:10).

381. The obligation of one who is able to bring the Passover offering on the 14th day of Iyar to eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (9:10).

382. The prohibition against leaving over any of the Second Passover sacrifice until the next day (9:12).

383. The prohibition against breaking any of the bones of the Second Passover sacrifice (9:12).

384. The obligations to sound a trumpet when an enemy attack occurs and during joyous celebrations at the sanctuary (10:9-10).

Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin


There are several commentaries about the importance of this ancient artifact.  Some commentaries portray the Menorah as a symbol of God’s light.  The light of the Menorah becomes fused with the concept of studying Torah, which is a manifestation of God’s light in our world of darkness.  Others see the episode described in this sedrah as prophecy and relate it to the Menorah of Chanukah.  In that time of spiritual darkness, the Hasmoneans, descendants of Aaron, will protect the Israelites from the Hellenists.  While the Menorah of the Torah has seven branches, the Menorah of Chanukah will have eight branches, possibly indicating the need for additional “light” in a period of greater spiritual darkness.


Some numbers seem to have mystical quality.  While these numbers may have non-Jewish significance, we shall look at the meaning only within our tradition.  The seven lamps of the menorah correspond to the Seven Days of Creation.  The bride circles the groom seven times.  Mourners sit Shiva for seven days.  Pesach was originally seven days long.  The Omer is counted for seven weeks.  The Days of Awe come in the Seventh Month and Sukkoth was originally a seven-day observance.  The Sabbatical Year is every seven years and Joshua circled Jericho seven times.  And the membership of the Sanhedrin was seven times ten.


This time of the year provides us with two views of non-Jews and their relationships with the Jewish people.  On Shavuot, we read the story of Ruth, the Moabitess who accepts God and His Torah with the famous lines, “thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.”

This week we read of the “mixed-multitude” or “riff-raff” that went out of Egypt with the Israelites.  These were non-Israelites who supposedly attached themselves to our ancestors to escape Egyptian slavery.  According to some, they were the ones who instigated the rebellion of the Golden Calf.  In this sedrah, they are the ones who complain about the food in the Wilderness (11:4-6).  They crave the fish and meats of Egyptian slavery while sneering at the Manna from God.  Unlike Ruth, this mixed-multitude attached themselves to the Jews for their own selfish purposes, not for the sake of God and Torah.  Once we had satisfied their needs (getting them out of Egypt), they made trouble for us.  This is to be a common thread in our history.  Up to our own time, there have been plenty of groups who have attached themselves to the Jewish people and sought to use us for their own agenda.  But when we have rejected their agenda, they have turned on us and become bitter foes.

Pesach Sheni

The story of the Second Pesach serves two purposes.  First it points out the importance of observing Pesach and the seminal nature of the Exodus in Jewish history.  Second, it points out the importance of interpretation.  Based on the events described, the goal should be to help people find ways to observe the mitzvoth even if that takes a little creativity.  On the other hand, that “creativity” needs to be consistent with the Torah, which means those making such decisions must be fully knowledgeable about all aspects of Jewish law.


The Torah appears to give very specific names for the different places through which the Israelites journeyed on their way to Canaan.  However, it is difficult, if not impossible to find places in the Sinai or Negev that correspond to them.  Those who are concerned about this might want to look at Walking The Bible by Bruce Feiler.  Does our inability to locate the places named in Bamidbar mean that the trek across the Wilderness did not take place?  From the point of view of traditional Judaism, the answer is “no,” it does not matter.  For others the historicity of the journey is open to question and may even be rejected as mere myth.

The Sanhedrin

A Council of Seventy Elders is a recurring theme throughout Jewish history.  Although the term Sanhedrin appears frequently, it refers to different institutions.  In an oddity of history, Napoleon Bonaparte convened a Sanhedrin to determine the role of the Jews in post-revolutionary France.  According to some, the creation of the Sanhedrin is proof of God’s (Judaism’s) commitment to diversity.  But this pluralism takes place within the framework of respect for the Torah.  Jewish literature is replete with Rabbinic debate, but these debates are “disputes for the sake of Heaven” i.e., like those between Hillel and Shammai, not like those led by Korach.  Why Seventy Elders, as opposed to any other number?  One commentator cites Maimonides as saying that number included all opinions that are permissible in a given case.

Customs and Ceremonies

As we have seen before, the Torah and the events it describes are a source for different prayers and practices in our various worship services.  This week’s sedrah provides some of the utterances found in the Torah Service.  The words in 10:35-36 are intoned when we take the Torah from the Ark and when we return it to its resting place after reading from it.

Gossip and The Evil Tongue

Miriam and Aaron’s rebellion against Moshe began with gossip.  As we have said before, Judaism takes a dim view of those who “speak evil” about another.  There are many cautionary rules and commentaries warning us about being careful with our words.  This episode is so important that in Devarim, it becomes the source for one of The Six Remembrances, which are recited daily at the end of the Morning Service.  Why is Miriam the one who suffers physical harm?  The text says, “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe…”  By putting her name first, it would indicate that she was the leader and Aaron merely went along.  Unfortunately, this would be consistent with Aaron’s behavior of just “going along” as we saw with the Golden Calf.  Aaron’s punishment is twofold.  First, he must watch helplessly as his beloved sister suffers.  Then he must beg his brother, whom he sought to supplant, to intervene with God to save Miriam.  While we have talked about Moshe’s anger, here he shows compassion and understanding by praying for his sister’s recovery.


In Humility of a Prophet, Yeshayahu Leibowitz examines Miriam and Aaron’s challenge to the leadership of Moses.  He draws our attention to the statement that “the man Moses was very humble, more than any other man” (Num.12:3).  He points out that the Torah provides us with no descriptions of Moses’ personality.  All that we know of him we deduce from his behavior with the exception of this direct mention of his humility.  From this we can deduce that humility must be a human trait of great importance - possibly more important than being wise, witty, compassionate, etc.  Why is humility of such importance?  What is the nature of humility?  Is there more than one form of humility?  We do know that Jewish sages place more emphasis on presenting the message than they do on taking credit for words of wisdom.  The literature is replete with sages who credit their teachers for the words they are speaking.  With several of the prophets, we have their wisdom not their biographies.  The ultimate example of this is the unknown person who wrote the words that we ascribe to the “Second Isaiah.”  Leibowitz finds part of the answer to the questions about humility in Rashi’s commentary about Moses.  Remember, Moses is the one to whom God spoke “face to face.”  Yet Moses knew that truly understanding God was beyond the comprehension of man.  “All the prophets looked through a murky glass - and thought that they saw; our Master Moses through a clear glass - and knew that he had not seen Him to His face.”  If humility was important for Moses, how important a role should it play it in our own lives?

Meat and Milk

There are a myriad of laws prohibiting the mixing of meat and milk.  These all stem from the injunctions that we not cook a calf in its mother’s milk.  So, it is asked, why can we not eat dairy products when we are consuming chicken, turkey or other fowl?  After all they produce no milk so there is no way one could cook a baby chick in its mother’s milk.  In this week’s portion, the people demand “Ba-sar” which is translated as flesh, or in modern parlance, meat.  God tells Moses that He will send “Ba-sar” - meat.  And when God sends Ba-sar, what does he send?  He sends an unlimited supply of quail - fowl.  Now if God considers fowl to be Ba-sar, meat, who are we to risk eating chicken parmesan?

Travel Plans:  Divine and Human

This week’s reading reminds us again that when it comes to matters of this world, God has a role to play but so do human beings.  When it came to travel in the wilderness, God had his way of providing guidance, “And as the cloud arose from over the tent, then after that the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where they could abode, there the children encamped” (32:17).

But Moses must have felt the need for some human guidance since when his father-in-law announced his plans to leave the Israelites, Moses responded, “Do not leave us, I pray thee; since thou knows how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou shall be to us as eyes” (10:31).  Is this an extension of that aphorism, “Pray as if everything depends on God; act as if everything depends on you”?

Travel Plans:  Predestination and Free Will

In this week’s reading we see that the Israelites had a path to follow on the way to Eretz Israel and that God, through the signs like the cloud and the pillar of fire showed them the way.  Many Jews believe that God has a plan for each of us.  This is the pre-destination part.  But we have to figure out what the correct signs are so that we will choose the path that will lead to the successful journey which is the Free Will part of the equation.

Jewish Journeys

Once again, we are reminded that for Jews life is a journey.  Starting with Abraham, generation after generation of Jews have had to take a physical journey which is matched by the spiritual journey.  This week’s journey from Sinai towards the land beyond the Jordan is just one more example of this.  As we know from the Golden Calf tale, many of the Israelites making this trip would not complete it - they would not reach Eretz Israel and they knew it.  Yet they made the trip anyway.  This might serve as a reminder for us that the important thing is to make the journey, learned the lessons along the way and not worry whether we complete it.  As the Cunard Shipping Lines said, “Half the fun is getting there.”

Line of March

Previously we have read about the positioning of the various tribes around the Mishkan and the positioning of the Levites within the precincts of the “Divine Dwelling.”  This week we actually read about the tribes heading down the road, with each of them assuming the positions assigned to them by God.  For anybody who has ever orchestrated a move, you can imagine the amazement our ancestors must have felt when they saw the whole thing working smoothly, just as had been commanded.  Leading the line of march was the Tribe of Judah - a fitting positioning for the tribe that would produce the Davidic Kings and would essentially survive as The Jewish State until the Destruction of the First Temple.  One can imagine the sense of pride that filled them as they stepped off.  But let’s look to the rear of the line at the Tribe of Dan.  For those of you acquainted with 19th century cattle drives, this corresponded to “riding drag.”  These were the people who spent each day “eating the dust” of those marching ahead of them; the last to drink at the waterhole, the last to eat the evening meal.  But drag riders played a crucial role.  They were the ones who picked up the stray cattle and brought them back to the herd, thus helping to insure the economic success of the cattle drive.  Based on the commentary of Rashi, the Danites gathered up the belongings of the other Israelites as they dropped them and returned them to their owners.  They also brought back those of their co-religionists who strayed from the Israelites.  There are plenty of people who want to play the role of Judah - strutting their stuff for all to see.  But we need the Danites, those willing to labor in the background who do the necessary work of bringing back those of our fellow Jews who, for whatever reason, have wondered from the “herd.”  Just as no cattle drive could afford to lose even one cow, so the House of Israel cannot afford to lose even one of its members.


2:14-4:7 Zechariah

The Man:  Zechariah is the eleventh of the so-called Twelve Minor Prophets.  Along with Haggai and Malachi, he is one of the three Post-Exilic Prophets.  In other words, these prophets were active after the Babylonian Exile.  The destruction of the First Temple took place 586 B.C.E. and marks the beginning of the Babylonian Exile.  The descendants of the exiles started returning from Babylonia in 538 B.C.E. during the reign of the Persian King, Cyrus.  We have few facts about the life of Zechariah.  According to tradition, he began preaching about 520 B.C.E. and he was a younger contemporary of Haggai.  The Book of Zechariah consists of fourteen chapters.  As far back as the time of Rashi and Ibn Ezra, there has been some question about whether the “book” really had two authors.  There is a distinct difference in the tone and style between the first eight chapters and the last six chapters.  The first eight chapters contain a lot of visionary material complete with the appearance of angels.  The last six chapters contain no references to angels, focus more on messianic visions and mention Greece.  There are those who contend that the reference to the Greeks means that the last six chapters were written some time after the death of Alexander the Great, which would have been about two hundred years after Zechariah was supposed to have begun preaching.  On the other hand, as at least one commentator points out, the reference to the Greeks could have been as a result of the battles of Marathon (480) and Salamis (490).  If Zechariah had been a young man when he began his mission, these last chapters would have been the work of an older man, prophesying about a future world where the menace of Greece had replaced the comparative comfort of Persia.  Zechariah may have been a member of the priestly class since he was either the son or grandson of Iddo, one of the priests who returned from Exile with Zerubbabel and Joshua.  Zerubbabel was a descendant of the House of David and was the governor appointed by the Persians.  Joshua was the Kohein when the exiles first came back to Jerusalem.

The Message:  Zechariah began preaching during the reign of Darius.  He called upon the returning exiles to finish rebuilding the Temple.  The original returnees had laid the foundation, but work on the Temple had been stopped due to a variety of political and economic problems.  He urged the Jews to complete the work as part of a larger effort, “the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.”  He saw the need for proper ritual to go hand in hand with just and merciful behavior to reach that goal.  The first four verses of the haftarah are an almost messianic vision of the joyful return of the people and God’s presence to Jerusalem.  The tone then shifts to a confrontation with Satan, the accuser, assaulting Joshua, the high priest, as being unworthy of his exalted position.  But God intervenes, describing Joshua as an ember plucked out of the fire.  In other words, whatever his shortcomings, Joshua is a survivor of the Babylonian Exile.  If Joshua and his companions will faithfully obey the laws of God, He will forgive them whatever sins they may have committed.  The haftarah finishes with a visit from an angel and a vision that includes a menorah with seven lamps.  When the prophet asks the angel what the vision means, the response includes the famous quote “Not by might, nor by power but by My spirit said the Lord of Hosts” (4:6).

Theme-Link:  The sedrah begins with commands concerning the seven lamps and the menorah.  The haftarah ends with reference to another menorah with seven lamps.  While it is obvious from the Torah portion that the menorah is important, it takes the words of the haftarah to give explicit meaning to the importance of the seven lamps.  The message of the seven lamps must be extremely important since this haftarah is read twice during the year.  The haftarah is also read on Shabbat Chanukah since Chanukah is the festival on which we light the lamps of the menorah.  Why use the same haftarah twice?  Why not use another prophetic reading that deals with the “seven lamps.”  According to some, it is because of the paucity of mentions of the seven lamps in any other prophetic writings.

Copyright; June 2024; Mitchell A. Levin