Numbers 13:11 to 15:41
More kvetching … The Israelites want a new leader to take them back to Egypt – out of the desert. God is angered and responds with a commandment for all future generations.
This is the second week we read from the parshot I have titled The Book of Kvetch… successive parshot in which we see the Israelites continue complaining.
The Eternal One tells Moses to “send notables to scout the land of Canaan, which I [God] am giving to the Israelite people…” (Num. 13:1)
The scouts reported back to Moses and the people: “We came to the land you sent us to, it does indeed flow with milk and honey …. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Amekites 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 looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”
Only two of the twelve scouts presented a positive report: “Caleb hushed the people, before Moses and said, ‘Let us, by all means, go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.”
The whole community listened and heard only the negative reports. They responded in one voice: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, the whole community shouted at [Moses and Aaron], or if only we might die in the wilderness! Why is the Eternal taking us to the land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off!”
“It would be better for us to go back to Egypt! Let us make a captain, and let us head back for Egypt.” (Most translations include the words “Let us make a captain.” The exact Hebrew says “make a head.” However, for some reason, Plaut’s translation has omitted these words.”) (Num. 13:27-14:4)
God was furious. The Eternal spoke 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. I will strike them with pestilence and disown them and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they.” (Num.14:11-12)
Why was the Eternal so angered? The scouts reported what they saw…. The people listened and made a judgment…. Yes, they showed that they had no faith in the Eternal…. But, to threaten destruction of all the people seems extreme.
Rashi explains that the people not only had little faith, but they called for a new leader: “Let us make a captain, and let us head back for Egypt.” By saying this, they demanded disobedience of Moses to proceed in the direction signaled by God. This also meant they were asking to find a leader to replace the Eternal … “a new captain” who would lead us back to Egypt. This is idolatry – replacing God with another. And, according to the text, idolatry is the greatest sin
Then, at the end of the parsha, God tells Moses to instruct the people to make “fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages”…. The people are to “look at [the fringes] and recall all commandments of the Eternal and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urges.” (Num. 15:39)
This instruction from God brings the story of the scouts right into today’s world. We all find ourselves situations where we see what is happening. Our mind and heart tell us how to act. This usually involves following the actions of those around us…. But, how often does one question if this is right by the commandments of Torah? Are we practicing what is taught or following a new leadership in a new direction. This, according to Torah, is idolatry… following a new actions that are against the Eternal’s teaching … This is a great sin.
So we are commanded to wear the fringes to remind us of God’s commandments. We are to experience the events around us, let our mind and heart react, and then see the fringes and ask: is this permitted by God’s commandments. This is a lesson that is to be carried out “throughout the ages,” as commanded in Torah.
Today, we as Reform Jews, do not wear the fringes on all our garments. But, we do wrap ourselves in the Tallit and its fringes when we pray. It is hoped that this weekly, or occasional exposure to the fringes will remind us of the ways of Torah…. And with the help of the story of the Scouts sent by Moses … Maybe, we will remember why we wear the Tallit and why we are to follow the laws and the commandments of the Torah…. And, move in the direction commanded by Torah.
As an aside, the text commanding us to wear the fringes may seem a bit familiar. It should because it is the wording of the third paragraph of the V’ahavta prayer. If it is not totally familiar, this may be because this third paragraph is omitted in many Reform services.