Weekly Reading Insights: Shelach

Overview of the Torah Reading

To be read on Shabbat Shelach (in Israel, outside of Israel Beha'alotcha) -19 Sivan 5782 /June 18

Torah: Numbers 13:1-15:41; Haftorah: Joshua 2:1-24 (the two spies sent to Jericho)
Pirkei Avot:  Chapter 2

Shelach is the 4th Reading out of 10 in Numbers and it contains 5820 letters, in 1540 words, in 119 verses

Overview: Shelach begins by relating how Moshe sent the 12 spies to explore the Promised Land. Ten of the spies subsequently gave an evil report which influenced a majority of the people. Because of the Jews apparent disbelief in G-ds ability to conquer the Land, the adult men of that generation were decreed to perish in the desert during the next 38 years (see the Book of our Heritage for a detailed account). Despite the decree, a group of Jews defiantly attempted to enter the Holy Land but were defeated by Amalekites and Canaanites. The next section describes the details of meal and dough offerings, and communal and individual sin offerings for committing idolatry inadvertently. Next is the story of a man caught gathering sticks in violation of Shabbos and his death as consequence. The Reading concludes with the mitzva to separate challah from dough, to wear fringes (tzitzis) with a special strand of blue on four cornered garments and not to be drawn after your heart and eyes.

An Essay from
Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter, Director of Ascent

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One of the Torah's most dramatic episodes of all its five books is found in this week's Torah portion, Shlach. The reason the Jewish people spent forty years in the desert and did not go directly into Israel after the Exodus and receiving the Torah was because of the negative report of the twelve spies. "They are a mighty nation that dwells in the Land, and the cities are heavily fortified" (Bamidbar/Numbers 13:28). There were two spies who opposed the other ten and spoke in defense of the Land of Israel and G-d. One of them, Caleb, tried to shout down the others, insisting that the Jewish people would indeed be able to conquer the Land. Rashi states that Caleb even began to list many of G-d's miraculous deeds for the Jews-all to convince his brothers that nothing can hinder G-d's will.

The ten spies continued their attack, "We will not be able to conquer the people, because they are stronger than us [in Hebrew, mimenu]" (Bamidbar/Numbers 13:31). The Levush [1] explains that the word mimenu ("than us") can also be pronounced mimeno, meaning, "than Him" - referring to G-d! These spies implied that even G-d would be unable to conquer the Land of Israel. This claim seems surprising and audacious, considering that all the Jews had witnessed G-d's miraculous victories over the Egyptians-and yet the spies were able to win them over!

What did these spies say to cause such doubt in G-d's abilities? They spoke of having seen the nefilim in Israel (Bamidbar/Numbers 13:33). Who were the nefilim that they instilled such panic?

The word nefilim comes from the Hebrew word nofeel, "to fall." One interpretation (Rashi ibid. Talmud Nidah 61a & Yoma 67b) was that these nefilim were originally angels who "fell" from Heaven to dwell among humans at the time of Enoch, 235 years after the creation of the world. They were extremely powerful angels who came to the physical world in that corrupt era before the Flood as a Heavenly attempt to prove that temptation and evil could be resisted. Unfortunately, and all part of the Divine plan, these Heavenly beings fell further into spiritual corruption than their mortal neighbors, and eventually led rebellions against G-d. Of course the Jewish nation understood that G-d was above and beyond all normal barriers and obstacles. However, these nefilim angels seemed to be a real threat.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggests a more subtle reason that successfully integrates all the other explanations of why the spies opposed entering into Israel. The desert represented the height of a spiritually focused lifestyle. The Land of Israel symbolized materiality. The spies were the leaders of the Jewish people and were concerned for the people's spiritual welfare. They saw how very lofty angels, the nefilim, had tried and failed to overcome the potent lure of materialism. These pure beings fell from spiritual heights to the basest depths. A fortiori, the assumption was that if angels did not succeed, how much more so would we humans be at great risk and even be unable to pass the test of overcoming the difficulties of living a physical existence in the Land.

In the Land of Israel the people would be compelled to farm, engage in business, cook, sew, do laundry, etc. All-consuming mundane tasks they did not perform in the desert, where G-d took care of everything. The spies saw the desert as ideal for spiritual development, ostensibly what the Torah really wants from us. Entering Israel and tending to physical matters could lead to spiritual harm and be a temptation to the Jewish people. So, better to avoid it completely.

Ultimately, the Jews were punished for believing the spies. It was decreed that they all wander in the desert for the next forty years, and the men of that generation between the ages of 20 and 60 perish there.

Yehoshua and Caleb recognized the mistake of the other spies and answered, "...do not fear the nation of the Land" (Bamidbar/Numbers 14:9). No question that we are more capable than even the angels. We have a secret weapon. G-d has placed a G-dly soul within each Jew, thereby giving us the ability not only to withstand the temptation of being overwhelmed by physicality, but through the material to instill the world with spirituality. This is what Yehoshua and Caleb knew and is the message the Torah wants to share with us. Every Jew is not only strong enough to overcome the lowest physical elements, but can even transform them into vessels for serving G-d.

This is the true message of the portion of Shlach. As today, when we are seeing growing anti-Semitism and attacks against the Land of Israel, we must remember that we have the spiritual power to overcome all obstacles to making this world a true home for G-d.
May each and every one of us succeed in fulfilling our mission, to make all aspects of our lives, including the smallest material details, vehicles for holiness, and may this lead to the immediate redemption.
* * *
A chassid of Rabbi Yechezkel of Kozmir [2] came to ask advice. Should he settle in a city, where there would be a Jewish community, a synagogue, a mikva (ritual pool), kosher stores, and Jewish education. Or, in the countryside, amongst non-Jews, where he had a livelihood available to him?

The rabbi responded, "There is a clear verse in the Torah portion of Shlach that answers your question!"

The chassid was shocked. The rebbe of Kozmir explained, "Moshe Rabbeinu (our teacher) instructed the spies to check whether the inhabitants of the Land lived in camps or in fortified cities (Bamidbar/Numbers 13:19). If they lived in fortified cities, that would be a sign that they did not rely on their own power to defend themselves. If they live in open camps or towns, take that as a sign that they are strong and mighty."

The tzaddik (holy sage) added, "If you think that you are strong enough to withstand the seductions of your "animal nature", you can live in the countryside. However, if you are not that spiritually powerful, you should live in a "fortified city" where there is a communal rabbi, a shochet (ritual slaughterer), a study hall, synagogue, and all you would expect from a thriving Jewish community!"
(Adapted from Sichat HaShavua)

Shabbat Shalom, Shaul

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For last year's essay by Rabbi Leiter on this week's Reading, see the archive.


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one sample:

Mystical Classics

By the Sweat of Your Brow

From Shenei Luchot HaBrit by Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz
"Man does not live by bread alone, rather on all that emanates from the mouth of G-d."

The Ari explains that the intake of food enables the soul to remain attached to the body, although the soul, by definition, does not need to eat for food is something both physical as well as spiritual. The soul can benefit from those spiritual ingredients in food, just as the body derives strength from the foods' nutrients.

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