Shlach-Lecha 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach-Lecha

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Shlach-Lecha (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

OVERVIEW

As the Israelites approach the Land of Israel, spies are sent ahead to scout out the Land. They return with a discouraging report, and the people believe that it will be too difficult to possess the Promised Land. They long to return to Egypt. God wants to destroy the faithless people, but Moshe persuades God to relent. Instead, God lengthens their wanderings to 40 years, so that none of the generation of the Exodus will enter the Land. The parsha ends with various laws of sacrifice which will take effect when they are settled in the Land; the final paragraph contains the commandment to attach fringes [tzitzit] to the corners of their clothing.

IN FOCUS

“All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”

Then Moses and Aaron fell face down in front of the whole Israelite assembly gathered there. Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes and said to the entire Israelite assembly, “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. . . ” (Numbers 14:2-7, NIV)

PSHAT

As we’ve seen before, complaining is a major theme of the book of Numbers. Sometimes the complaining is just grumbling and dissatisfaction with conditions in the desert, and sometimes it takes the form of outright rebellion, as we will see next week, in Parshat Korach. In this case, the people complain out of fear, because of the report that the spies present regarding the Land of Promise- the spies say that the Land is filled with giants and there is no way to go up and inhabit it. The people get discouraged, and the grumblers among them propose picking a new leader and going back to Egypt.

DRASH

Last week, we discussed the spiritual and psychological conditions of those who talked of going back to Egypt. This week, I want to look at the other side of the coin, at how Moshe and Aharon reacted to the challenge to their leadership. In this week’s parsha, we read that Moshe and Aharon “fell on their faces” in front of the murmuring crowd. What’s also interesting is that neither Moshe or Aharon speak at this point, but Yehoshua [Joshua] speaks up instead, telling the people to have faith that God will bring them to the Land. This goes on for several more verses, until the Presence of God interrupts, just as the crowd wants to start throwing rocks at Moshe and Aharon (vs. 11- talk about a leadership review process!)

On the face of it (so to speak), prostrating themselves before the crowd seems like a strange reaction- shouldn’t the leaders picked by God speak passionately to the assembly, and point out their own legitimacy as prophet and priest? At the very least, shouldn’t they have shown some “backbone” in the face of this challenge? It hardly seems like the same Moshe of Exodus 32, who was so angry when he found the people worshipping the Golden Calf that he broke the tablets and almost started a civil war.

Various interpretations have thus been offered to explain Moshe’s apparent passivity and silence in the presence of the angry mob. One Hasidic commentator seems to say that Moshe and Aharon were so stunned by the people’s disobedience that they simply could not stand up:

    Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces. . . the leaders draw their strength and inspiration from the people, and when the people erred so greatly, they simply didn’t have the strength to stand. (Tiferet Yehonatan, from Itturei Torah)

One can understand this comment literally- that Moshe and Aharon were shocked and dismayed and just “bowled over” at the people’s reaction- or metaphorically, that the leaders could not “stand” in their capacity as leaders if the assembly was turned against them.

Another possibility is that the brothers fell on their faces as a kind of prayer to God- this might make sense in light of verse 11, when God comes to their defense. Understanding Moshe’s and Aharon’s prostration as a supplication to God would certainly be a very “religious” interpretation, and it’s plausible, but other commentators argue against it.

The JPS Torah commentary compares this incident with the Korach rebellion (cf. 16:4), and concludes that they fell on their faces in order to appear humble before the angry crowd. It goes on to say that Moshe and Aharon’s humiliation was precisely the reason that Yehoshua spoke up in their defense. The medieval commentator Ramban also thinks that they wanted to appease the crowd; he compares our passage to Genesis 50:18, when Yosef’s brothers fell on their faces before him as a gesture of submission.

To me, these various interpretations don’t cancel each other out, but rather help us understand the nuances of a complex situation. Clearly, a leader “stands” or “falls” on her support from her following. Perhaps we can also learn that there is a time for argument and a time for humility- sometimes Moshe is capable of quite angry words, but in this instance, he responded with silence. Rather than engaging in verbal conflict, he offered his very being as an example of his moral authority. Sometimes it’s best not to fight, but simply to be, and to show your strength in your resilient acceptance of events beyond your immediate control.

Finally, one must admire Yehoshua’s role here- rather that sit idly by when Moshe and Aharon were under attack, he came to their defense, even at great personal risk. A person of integrity can hardly be silent when another person of integrity is being slandered- and that’s an example the Jewish community urgently needs, especially in times of communal tension and conflict. What we learn from our passage are examples of true courage- when necessary- the courage to speak, and when words would only inflame, the courage to be silent.

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