Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Last year at this time I discussed the term Ma'apilim.  This word was used in pre-State Israel to describe the supposedly (or officially) illegal Jewish immigration during the British Mandate.  The word and its connotation come straight from this week's parsha, when some Jews tried to invade Israel immediately after the sentence to spend forty years in the desert was decreed (Numbers 14:44).  This year I'd like to discuss two other words which are prominent in this week's text.  Biblical exegesis is predicated on careful readings of the words employed to describe the action.

            One of the most interesting features of the readings in the middle of the book of Numbers is the intertwining of narrative and legal material.  I find it fascinating to try to find the connection between the stories and the accompanying laws. So we want to figure out what's the relationship between the central story, the spies' or scouts' negative report, and the most famous mitzvah, of the parsha tzitzit,. In this week's episode, I believe that the association is linguistic.    

            When the tribal leaders are chosen to enter Israel ahead of the invasion, they are never instructed to act as spies or meraglim.  Instead their directive is to scout out the land or lator et ha'aretz.  This is like the modern Hebrew ta'yar or tourist.  After the sin, when Moshe is explaining what they did wrong and what their punishment would be, he says: Your children shall wander in the desert for forty years and bear your defection until the last of your corpses has fallen in the desert (14:33).  The word defection in Hebrew is z'nuteichem or your z'nut.  This word which describes the offense of these men is usually used to describe promiscuous behavior, and is connected to the term for prostitutes.  But here it means to stray from instructions and the correct path.  This usage, I believe is crucial to understanding the entire parsha.  All of life is about following the correct path, and, with great irony, these men charged with scouting the best route for invading Israel are indicted for straying from the proper path.  It's bad when the guides get lost.

            What was the sin of ten of these twelve leaders? There are many opinions, but it seems that the most logical explanation has to do with their disregard for their instructions.  As scouts, they were expected to report on everything that they saw.  This they did.  However, at one point they exceeded their instructions and changed from objective reporters to become subjective commentators (beware of those who claim to report the facts, but are really deciding for you), by concluding:  We are unable to go up against these people, for they are stronger than we (13:31).  This over-stepping their boundaries was the major component of their sin.  They compounded their offence by then advocating for their un-required account:  They spread an evil report about the land which they had scouted, telling the children of Israel, "The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of great size (verse 32)."     

            The final section of the Torah reading tells us about the mitzvah of tzitzit.  The purpose of putting on these four fringes around our garments can be understood in one of two ways.  Either they protect us and mark out our territory like a wall, or they can be seen as a guide directing us in the proper path as we travel thorough life.  One sentence in this material strongly promotes the latter position:  This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord in order to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray (15:39).     Rashi quotes from the Midrash (Tanchuma) to make the linguistic connection between this mitzvah and the behavior of the scouts:  like the language used concerning the scouts "from scouting the Land" (13:25). The heart and eyes are the spies for the body. They are its agents for sinning: the eye sees, the heart covets and the body commits the transgression.  Just like there are clear paths towards positive and constructive behavior, so, too, there are trails which lead directly to sin and destructive actions. 

What is the compass which will aid us in discerning the correct direction?  The short answer is Tzitzit.  Especially, the blue string which describes that many paths emerge in life (as well the Yellow Wood), but one is best.  Also, there are strings facing all the compass directions.  This seems to point out that there are not only many options, but that more than one can be correct.  But probably the most important idea is that since there are more than one answer and the hanging strings aren't decisive, nevertheless we are expected to get it right.  How does that work?  Well, I believe that we knew the right answer in advance.  We just needed the reminder to look in the right direction.  Don't view the fringes as a Ouija board or fortune cookie pointing to the correct direction.  Instead think of them as a reminder (as in tie a string around your finger) to think before acting.  The greatest danger to Torah behavior is impulsive or impetuous action.  Torah philosophy is based upon the principle that our humanity requires clear thought guiding our actions.  To act without forethought is to abandon our status as being superior to the animal kingdom.

Our world is fraught with dangers of the most subtle kind.  Wending our way through this moral maze is very difficult, so that we need all possible help and guidance along the way.  Usually we get into the most trouble when we don't even think about where we're going and what we're doing.  The lesson of the scouts is to carefully follow instructions.  The message of the tzitzit is to provide reminders of the path best traveled.  May we never swerve (zonah) after our eyes and hearts, and keep the true goal in focus.


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