The Torah portions in the middle of the Book of Numbers are, for me, possibly the greatest gift the Torah has given us. Those are the portions of the biggest mess-ups of our People. And yet, without them, what would we be left with?
Imagine, if the Children of Israel always listen to God; imagine if they always obeyed and did just the right thing, if they never complained, if they followed all instructions. What would they leave us? We would be left with a clear guidance to be perfect; no option to make mistakes, and no idea how to correct and save ourselves from our faults and blunders.
it could have been easy for G-d to lead the People straight to the Holy Land. After all, He is G-d, and the People are considered one of our greatest generations, if not the greatest. This is the beginning of nationhood: they just opted to leave slavery and go for freedom; they were redeemed with the greatest miracles and got the Torah with sounds and wonders. It should have been no big deal for G-d and Moses to pull a little further.
Further: so they slip a bit here and there, they complain; they rebel; so what, really? Think of how many slips and mess-ups we accumulate on any given day, let alone over 18 months, in the desert, away from home, camping in tents, with the same old food day in and day out… Last week we read that they complained, and we all shook our heads in “disbelief”: ‘oh no, they complain’ ‘oh no, they miss Egypt’… Imagine if anyone documented every time we complain…
Today, I’d like to suggest that, most of all, the Children of Israel did us a great service. They could have gone straight into the Land; Moses could have given better directions; G-d could have provided some variety in the diet… but our Torah would have become irrelevant; it would have been dealing with people and situations we can’t relate to, and are meaningless to us. More than they “messing up”, we need them to do so, for us.
It is us who need to know that when we “miss the mark”, which is the literal translation of the Hebrew, chet, sin, there is a possibility for us to correct. There might be a detour, and it might take us longer, maybe even 40 years longer, but it won’t deter us from continuing our journey to the Holy Land.
What do we see when we look? What do we see when we step out? When we come to Israel? Is it the not-helpful bank teller or the phone saleswoman who offers us cookies? The stressful news of this and that, or the amazing revival and spirit of learning throughout the Land?
What makes us notice certain things and completely miss others?
In this week, the spies are sent to “tour” the Land, coming back with a positive report which quickly turns negative. What made them give such a report?
An explanation is offered at the end of the Torah portion when we are given the mitzvah of tzitzit, placing a string on our clothing, so that we won’t forget the commandments and wonder after our “heart and eyes” (Numbers 15:37-39). Wait, heart and eyes, in that order?? Shouldn’t it be backwards, first we see with our eyes and then our heart follows?? But the Torah uses the same verb for the spies journeying as the heart wondering – latur, suggesting that we actually see with our hearts. What we see, is not necessarily an objective “truth”, but rather, a picture of what’s inside us.
There is another string this Shabbat, and that one shows up in the haftorah reading. Joshua and Caleb, a very different team of spies, come to Jericho and meet Rachav the zona. In grade school, we learned that she was not a prostitute (zona in modern Hebrew), but instead, a woman “selling food” (mazon); well, who knows. One way or another, she opts to change her ways and help the travelers. Joshua hands a red string to hang from her window, so they know which one is hers. That string he calls – תִּקְוַת חוּט הַשָּׁנִי – the hopeful scarlet thread.
The turning point for the original spies is the moment they say, “efes” (13:28), here for “but”, but literally meaning zero. How could they have gotten so low, to feel like nothing?
Well, we can and even the great princes of the Tribes of Israel can feel this way. It happens. The question is not if we sometimes feel down but if we have a way out. The greatness of the Torah is that it offers us a way out, a string to remember what’s important, a rope to climb, a way to know that even if the path takes longer than expected, we will get there.