- The Selection of the Meraglim (12 Spies)
- The Report of the Meraglim
- Bnei Yisrael Despair
- The Sin of the Meraglim and its Great Consequence
- A Review of the laws of Korbanot (Sacrifices)
- The Mekoshesh – One who Gathered Wood on Shabbat
- Haftarah Summary: וישלח יהושע בן נון
Parashat Shelach is a major turning point in the story of Bnei Yisrael, the hinge of Sefer Bamidbar and of the greater narrative of the Yetziyat Mitzrayim (the exodus from Egypt) that began back in Sefer Shemot. It is in this parsha that the meraglim, generally translated as “spies,” are sent out to scout and report on Eretz Yisrael. Representatives of each of the tribes is sent, and only two of them bring back positive reports. This causes Bnei Yisrael to despair, with disastrous consequences: they are consigned to die out in the wilderness, while it is the next generation, their children, that will enter, conquer, and inherit the Land. After these events, the parsha continues with a review of the laws of korbanot, particularly communal ones, as well as the episode of the mekoshesh who gathered wood on Shabbat, and ending with the laws of tzitzit (fringes).
The Selection of the Meraglim (12 Spies)
- Reuven: Shamua ben Zakkur – שַׁמּוּעַ בֶּן זַכּוּר
- Shimon: Shafat ben Chori – שָׁפָט בֶּן חוֹרִי
- Yehudah: Kalev ben Yefunneh – כָּלֵב בֶּן יְפֻנֶּה
- Issachar: Yigal ben Yosef – יִגְאָל בֶּן יוֹסֵף
- Yosef – Efraim: Hoshea bin Nun – הוֹשֵׁעַ בִּן נוּן
- Binyamin: Palti ben Rafu – פַּלְטִי בֶּן רָפוּא
- Zevulun: Gaddiel ben Sodi – גַּדִּיאֵל בֶּן סוֹדִי
- Yosef – Menashe: Gadi ben Susi – גַּדִּי בֶּן סוּסִי
- Dan: Ammiel ben Gemalli – עַמִּיאֵל בֶּן גְּמַלִּי
- Asher: Setur ben Michael – סְתוּר בֶּן מִיכָאֵל
- Naftali: Nachbi ben Vofsi – נַחְבִּי בֶּן וָפְסִי
- Gad: Geuel ben Machi – גְּאוּאֵל בֶּן מָכִי
Although he has actually been referred to in the text as such already, it is here that Moshe changes the name of his attendant, Hoshea bin Nun (הוֹשֵׁעַ בִּן נוּן), to Yehoshua (יְהוֹשֻׁעַ).
The meraglim leave from the wilderness of Paran (מִּדְבַּר פָּארָן), the last place to which Bnei Yisrael had traveled (at the end of the previous parsha, Behaalotcha). Moshe tells them to scout the land (latur et Eretz Canaan – לָתוּר אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן) going up through the Negev and into the hills, and report on the people living in the land, whether the towns are fortified, what the terrain is like and whether the land is good for agriculture. Moshe also asks them to bring back fruit from the land, this being grape season.
The men go up from the wilderness (or desert) of Tzin (מִּדְבַּר צִן) up to Rechov (רְחֹב) at Levo Chamat (לְבֹא חֲמָת), then up through the Negev (נֶּגֶב) and to Chevron ( Hebron – חֶבְרוֹן), where the descendants of Anakim (יְלִידֵי הָעֲנָק – “giants”) live. They then reach Nachal Eshkol (נַחַל אֶשְׁכֹּל – a small river), where they cut down a branch bearing grapes so large, they must be carried by two men, as well as some pomegranates and figs.
The Report of the Meraglim
After 40 days, the meraglim return to the camp of Bnei Yisrael, in Kadesh (קָדֵשׁ) in the wilderness of Paran. They present the fruit they have brought back and tell the entire assembled community that it is a land flowing with milk and honey (zavat chalav u-devash – זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ). However, they continue, the cities are large and fortified, and there are Anakim there, as well as the fact that the evil nation of Amalek (עֲמָלֵק) occupies the Negev, the Chitti (Hittites – הַחִתִּי), Yevusi (Jebusites – הַיְבוּסִי), and Emori (Amorites – הָאֱמֹרִי) occupy the hills, and the Canaanites (הַכְּנַעֲנִי) occupy the area from the sea to the Yarden (Jordan) River. Kalev, the nasi from Yehuda, attempts to encourage the people, saying that Bnei Yisrael should go up into the Land and possess it. However, the rest of the meraglim (except for Yehoshua) maintain that the Land cannot be conquered, speaking ill of the Land (וַיּוֹצִיאוּ דִּבַּת הָאָרֶץ) and saying it devours its inhabitant (אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא). Famously, they liken themselves to grasshoppers (chagavim – חֲגָבִים) next to the Nefilim, a clan of the Anakim.
Bnei Yisrael Despair
Bnei Yisrael despair greatly at the reports of the scouts, saying that it would have been better had they died in Egypt, or perhaps in this desert. They decide to turn back to Egypt. At this point, Moshe and Aharon fall on their faces and Kalev and Yehoshua tear their clothes in mourning. The latter two again attempt to encourage the people to align their will with that of Gd. But the crowd responds by trying to stone them. Gd threatens to punish the people and make Moshe a great nation of himself. Moshe once again intercedes on Yisrael’s behalf, and the words he says here become the paradigm for future entreaties:
ה’ אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפָשַׁע וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים. סְלַח נָא לַעֲוֹן הָעָם הַזֶּה כְּגֹדֶל חַסְדֶּךָ וְכַאֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה מִמִּצְרַיִם וְעַד הֵנָּה
Hashem! slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children, upon the third and fourth generations. Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.Bamidbar 14:18-19
Hashem’s response is, “I have forgiven, as you have asked” (סָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ).
The Sin of the Meraglim and its Great Consequence
However, there is to be a significant consequence for Bnei Yisrael’s doubt and despair: they will not be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael, consigned to die out in the wilderness, except for Kalev and Yehoshua. It is the next generation, their children, who will merit to enter the Land, and none can do so until the entire generation1 has died. This will be 40 years, corresponding to the 40 days the scouts were in the Land. The current generation of Bnei Yisrael is to turn around the next day and march back into the wilderness, by the way of Yam Suf (the Sea of Reeds). The 10 doubting scouts die of plague.
Bnei Yisrael despair at hearing this, and attempt to rectify it by pledging to conquer the land. However, it is too late: Moshe warns them that it is no longer G-d’s command. The people nevertheless begin to march to the Land, without Moshe nor with the Ark in front of them. At Chormah (חָרְמָה), they are dealt a heavy blow by Amalek and the Canaanites.
A Review of the laws of Korbanot (Sacrifices)
The laws of korbanot ar ereviewed for the people in preparation for (eventually) entering the Land. Some have to do with separating challah for the kohanim from bread, which Bnei Yisrael will have once they settle in the Land.
Anyone who desires to bring a korban, whether for Olah (burnt offering), Zevach (peace offering), for fulfillment of a vow (neder), and whether volunartary (nedavah) or for a mo’ed (regular occasion like a holiday), must bring with it a Minchah (meal offering) of a tenth of a measure of fine flour (solet) with a quarter of a hin of oil mixed into it. With the Olah or Zevach, a libation of a quarter of a hin of wine must be brought along with a sheep, or, if a ram is brought, two-tenths of a measure of solet mixed with a third of a hin of oil, plus a third of a hin of wine. Animals of the herd (ox, ram, sheep, or goat) must be offered along with three-tenths of a measure of solet mixed with a half of a hin of oil and half a hin of wine. Resident aliens may offer in the same way, as there is one law for all. These instructions are for when the people enter Eret Yisrael.
Also when entering the Land, the first yield of bread must occasion an offering of a loaf of bread that is consecrated to G-d.
If it should happen that people inadvertently disobey the mitzvot (commandments), a bull is presented as an Olah along with its meal offering and libation. The collective will be forgiven after the offering is brought. If it is an individual who has transgressed inadvertently, they bring a female goat in its first year. Those who do so intentionally are subject to karet (excision).
The Mekoshesh – One who Gathered Wood on Shabbat
During the time in the wilderness, the people come upon a man gathering (mekoshesh – מְקֹשֵׁשׁ) wood on Shabbat. They bring him in front of Moshe, Aharon, and the whole community. Moshe is told that the man is to be stoned to death, and this is done outside the camp.
Fringes (tzitzit – צִיצִת) must be made on the corners of garments, including cord of blue (petil tekhelet – פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת).2 Looking at tzitzit, one must remember the commandments in order to observe them.
Haftarah Summary: וישלח יהושע בן נון
This passage fast-forwards us to when Bnei Yisrael are entering Eretz Yisrael, under Yehoshua’s command. Yehoshua sends meraglim to scout Yericho (Jericho). The haftarah tells the beginning of the story of Rachav, a resident of Yericho who hides the Jewish men in her house in the city walls and protects them from the king of Yericho. Rachav tells the meraglim that she knows that Hashem has given the Land to them, as everyone has heard of the miraculous splitting of the sea at the time of the exodus as well as the recent (at that time) defeats of Sichon and Og. She asks them, in exchange for her brave assistance, to remember and spare her and her family when they return to conquer the area. The men pledge to do so, and give her a crimson rope (chut ha-shani – חוט השני) to tie to her window to indicate and protect her house. Rachav then helps them to escape down a rope lowered down the walls of the city (which also form the wall of her house). As Rachav has advised them, the meraglim stay for three days in the hills. They then return and report to Yehoshua, who recognizes that the inhabitants of the region are fearful of Bnei Yisrael.
Image: Israeli stamp, “Festivals” series, 5715 (1954).