The end of this week's parashah includes some short, but memorable pieces of legislation: the explanation for why we tithe a little dough when making challah (Numbers 15:20-21); the killing of the man who gathered wood on Shabbat (Numbers 15:32-36); and the instructions to wear tzitzit with a cord of blue at the corners (Numbers 15:37-41). These snippets of law come at the end of a long narrative wherein Moses is told to send (sh'lach l'cha) spies to assess the Land the Eternal promised to the Israelites.
Before entering the Promised Land, the Eternal instructed Moses to send a chieftain from each tribe into the Land to determine three things: the kind of people that lived there, what kind of fortifications were present, and what kind of agriculture they could expect. The spies brought back a mixed report. The Land was a true paradise, but the people who lived there were Anakites, descendants of the race of giants (Numbers 13:27-33). Ten of the spies declared the Land unconquerable. Two of the spies dissented, saying that with God all things are possible (Numbers 14:6-9). The Israelites cast their vote with the report of the ten spies. Fed up with the incessant muttering of the Israelites and their lack of faith, the Eternal cursed the current generation. No one over the age of twenty would enter the Promised Land. Instead, Israel would wander in the wilderness for forty years, until the generation of dissenters would die out and a new generation, faithful to the Eternal, would arise. Faced with such a rebuke, the Israelites instantly trusted in the Eternal and decided to march into the Land-early the very next day (Numbers 14:40)! Moses warned the people that their fate had already been sealed. He predicted that the Amalekites and the Canaanites would overcome the Israelites, for the Eternal would not be with them. Throwing caution to the wind, the Israelites defiantly marched into the Land, and accordingly, they were dealt a shattering blow at Hormah (Numbers 14:45).
We may well wonder why the Israelites were defeated when they had decided to renew their faith in the Eternal. One possibility is that Israel did not offer a proper guilt offering to cleanse them of their sin, meaning t'shuvah, "repentance," did not occur. Another possibility is that their act of t'shuvah was simply too late; the Eternal does not go back on His word. A third possibility is that the Israelites' words, "we were wrong/ we have sinned," were simply that-words-t'shuvah with no kavanah, "no intention," behind it. While we could speculate on the intention of the Israelites for quite some time, a more concrete answer lies hidden in Moses's-not the Israelites'-words. Upon hearing the Israelites' brash decision to march into the Promised Land, Moses warns the people: "the Eternal will not be with you." What does it mean that the Eternal was not with Israel? The answer to this question is found in Numbers 14:44: "neither the Eternal's Ark of the Covenant nor Moses stirred from the camp." Directly following this verse we find the statement that the Amalekites and Canaanites severely defeated the Israelites. Numbers 14:44 implies that both Moses and the Ark played a crucial role in Israelite warfare, for without them the Israelites faltered in battle.
Moses's role as a wartime instrument of God can be seen as early as the Exodus narrative where he becomes the official leader of the Israelite people. More explicitly, we see God acting through Moses in the war with the Amalekites at Rephidim (Numbers 17:8-13). In that narrative, Moses holds the staff of God and raises his hands high. When Moses's hands are lifted, the Israelites prevail in the battle, but as soon as he starts to get tired and drop his hands, the Amalekites prevail. Ultimately, Aaron and Hur hold up Moses's hands for him and the Israelites win. Therefore we can understand Moses's role on the battlefield as a conduit for God's power.
Most people associate the Ark of the Covenant with a box that holds [the tablets of] the Pact-the Ten Commandments (Exodus 25:10-16). Some may even know traditions about the Ark containing a jar of manna and Aaron's staff (Exodus 16:33-34, Numbers 17:25-26). Many, however, do not immediately associate the Ark with the "house" of God. Yet, in some strata of the biblical text, that is exactly what the Ark is. (Other biblical texts develop the Ark differently, as a throne for God [Exodus 25:10-22, I Samuel 4:4, II Samuel 6:2] or a symbol of God's divine election of Israel [Deuteronomy and the writings of the Deuteronomist]).1 In last week'sparashah we find the words of Moses, which, in the traditional liturgy, we repeat every time the Torah is read: Kuma Adonai v'yafutzu oivecha v'yanusu m'san'echa mipanecha, " 'Advance O Eternal One! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!' " (Numbers 10:35). The verse does not end with Ki MiTziyon teitzei Torah, but rather, "And when it [the Ark] halted, he [Moses] would say: 'Return, O Eternal One,' " suggesting that the Eternal indeed comes and goes from the Ark. Thus, presence of the Ark on the battlefield quite literally meant that the Eternal was waging war right alongside the Israelites. As later texts attest (Joshua 6, I Samuel 4-7, II Samuel 6:3-8), the Ark of the Covenant was not something to be "messed around with" either on or off the battlefield, for it was the dwelling place of the Eternal God of Israel.
The most likely reason, then, that the Israelites were routed in battle as they defiantly marched towards the Promised Land is because they marched not only without their divinely inspired leader, Moses, but also without the Divine, who was present in the Ark.
While we do not have the physical Ark today, the parashah encourages us to walk with God by following the Ten Commandments that were carried within it.
- For more on the Ark as a throne for God, see William Propp, Exodus 19-40 Anchor Bible Commentary Series vol. 2a. (New York: Doubleday, 2006), pictures on pp. 378, 379, and 388
Kristine Garroway received her Ph.D. from HUC-Cincinnati in 2009 and recently joined the faculty of HUC-JIR Los Angeles as visiting assistant professor of Hebrew Bible. Her research concentrates on children in the ancient Near East and the Deuteronomistic Histories.
My son has a set of brightly colored keys attached to his school backpack. They are the "Eight Keys of Success."** You win a set of these colorful keys by being a student who best embodies the principle on the key that month. His key was "Failure leads to success." It is bright red. I am so proud of his failure! It is the path to the Promised Land-or at least graduation from elementary school.
The monumental failure of the Israelites to listen to Moses and travel in the good company of God, as Professor Garroway points out, precedes the greatness for which our people is destined.
If we only do what we do well, we will never do anything new, let alone anything that is imaginative, life-changing, or world-healing. We must dare to be wrong, to run onto the battlefields of social change or spiritual lethargy; we must be willing not just to make mistakes, but also to learn and grow from them.
Professor Garroway reminds us that wherever we go, it is best to go with God. For the Israelites, that meant fleeing Egypt to join as one at a mountain in the wilderness. In their midst was a box containing memories of God and of our people; memories of those first Sabbaths shared united with God, of broken promises, and of promises renewed.
Rashi reads the phrase, Sh'lach l'cha, as "Go for yourself." But I think we can also think of this as "Go to yourself." If we look internally, what do we carry within to remind us of our mistakes and the potential they offer us? What little red key shall we hang on our baggage so we will not forget all the failures we passed on the road to success
*Mickey Rooney, www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/mickey_rooney.html
Rabbi Alice R. Goldfinger lives in Falmouth, Maine with her two children, and writes a blog called "rabbibrainstorm" about living with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and the meaning of life.
"Sh'lach L'cha, Numbers 13:1–15:41
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,107–1,122; Revised Edition, pp. 977–997;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 869–892