Numbers 13:1 to 15:41
The text focuses on two problems – Scouts are sent to the Promised Land and return with a report showing a lack of faith in God… Later, a man forgets the laws of Shabbat by collecting wood … working…. A solution is presented by God in the form of fringes on garments to remind us of God’s laws.
The parsha begins as the Eternal speaks to Moses saying: “Send notables to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people, send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each a chieftain among them.” (Num. 13:1-2) The Israelites were so close to their destination that scouts could be sent to access the land. They were ready to enter the land that was promised to their ancestors.
But something went wrong. The scouts entered the land. And they reported that “it does indeed flow with milk and honey.” Then to show how fruitful the land was, they presented a grape cluster so large that it required two men to carry it. However, they continued by telling the Israelites, “the people, who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there … We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we … The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are of great size; we saw Nephilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Num. 13:21-33)
And the people wept. All were against Moses and Aaron. “If only we might die in this wilderness! Why is the Eternal taking us to that land to fall by the sword? … It would be better for us to go back to Egypt! And they said to one another, ‘Let us head back for Egypt.” (Num. 14:2-4)
Only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh objected to this report. The told the people “The land that we traversed and scout is an exceedingly good land. If pleased with us, the Eternal will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against the Eternal. Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey; their protection has departed from them, but the Eternal is with us. Have no fear of them!” (Num. 14:7-10)
“As the whole community threatened to pelt them with stones, the Presence of the Eternal appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites. And the Eternal One said to Moses, ‘How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst?” God then threatened to kill all the people. Moses spoke on their behalf and spared them. But, God was still angered and said, “I pardon, as you have asked… Nevertheless…none of the adults who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed me, shall see the land that I promised on oath to their ancestors; none of those who spurn Me shall see it. But My servant Caleb, because he was imbued with a different spirit and remained loyal to Me – him will I bring into the land that he entered, and his offspring shall hold it as a possession. Now the Amalekites and the Canaanites occupy the valleys. Start out, then tomorrow and march into the wilderness by way of the Sea of Reeds.” (Num. 14:10-25) And because of their lack of faith, the people didn’t enter the Promised Land; but, began a forty year journey through the wilderness.
Then, later in the parsha God gives the Moses instructions on the offerings that are to be made as they enter the new land. It’s almost as if the above never happened…. However the text says: “When you enter the land that I am giving you to settle in ….. (Num. 15:1) and “When you enter the land to which I am taking you ….” (Num. 15:18) These passages may have been inserted to reinforce the idea that God – with all his powers – was entering with the people. And that the people, by showing their lack of faith, were not ready to enter.
Near the end of the parsha there is a completely different story. A man was found gathering wood in the forest on Shabbat. He was brought before Moses, Aaron, and the whole community. They did not know what punishment should be given for working on the day of rest. Then the Eternal told Moses: “The man shall be put to death; the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” (Num. 15 32-36) An extreme punishment …. But, it is an extreme crime to break any one of the Ten Commandments. …… So, why is this story in this parsha? ….. Like the story of the scouts who forgot that God would be with them as they entered the Promised Land, this man forgot – or didn’t know – that it was a sin to work on Shabbat.
So to make sure that the people remember … we look to the last verses of this parsha. God tells Moses: “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments thought the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.” (Num. 15:38-40)
And thus, the fringes – and the tallit – becomes the symbol that brings a solution to the forgetfulness of the scouts and the Shabbat wood collector. Just as we saw back in Exodus, the people needed a constant reminder of God’s presence; so God commanded a Tabernacle be built in the community…. Now the Eternal sees that the people are forgetful and need a reminder of the commandments and laws. The fringes on their garments serve as this reminder. Today as we wrap ourselves in a tallit, we experience the presence of the Eternal and, as through the ages, remember his laws, rules and commandments.