Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah -Sh’lach L’cha
Many weeks, as I read through the Torah portion, something reaches out and grabs my attention. I then sit down to write. This Sabbatical week, I spent time sifting through the whole portion, and many things/ideas jumped out! We read about the spies that Moses sends in to check out the “Promised Land.” We also read about the daughters of Zeloph’chad. He died without sons. His daughters petitioned Moses and God for the right to both inherit from their father and to proliferate his name.
At first blush, the only thing that these two episodes have in common is that they appear in the same week’s Torah portion. Upon closer inspection (argument), I don’t know that I will ever be able to separate them.
Just a short time past the episode and epiphany at Sinai, the people of Israel appear at the river Jordan. Prepared to cross over, they hesitate. Even while God promised that the land was bountiful for the people, Moses wanted to check it out and sent spies. The leader of each of the tribes went over. They saw gargantuan fruit and vegetables and presumed that giants lived there (who else would be big enough to warrant that fruit?). Ten came back with lots of warnings. Two, Joshua and Caleb, came back admonishing us to go forward. As the story goes, the people voted to go with the ten, and that upset God, who punished Israel to wander for forty years before they could try again. The reason the sages give us is simple: a people born and indoctrinated into slavery could never understand freedom. Settling the land would not be easy, but it would take people who understood the value and challenges of freedom to weather the task. They condemn the spies for their lack of faith. We celebrate Joshua and Caleb for being faithful enough to want to enter the land and settle it.
Sometime later, Zeloph’chad dies and, since he had no sons, his tribe wants to take over the estate. The daughters cry foul and petition to Moses that they might be able to inherit from their father. The request was unprecedented. Moses asked God and God agreed with the sisters. God went one step further; their father’s name had to survive, as well. It seems that whoever marries one of the sisters must take her father’s name (perhaps even if hyphenated). Zeloph’chad dies in the wilderness; the wilderness “God” condemned us to travel and travail. His legacy continued after him in the most non-conforming ways. The world changed.
Rav Kook teaches us that the wilderness is a place of transience. We move through the wilderness on journeys from place to place. People don’t settle in the barren desert, and despite the trials along the journey, people grow, having made it step by step.
God “punished” Israel on account of the spies who “lacked faith.” Perhaps the sages understood far more than we give them credit for knowing. Had Israel not traveled the 40 years; perhaps they would have perished crossing into the land. Maybe Joshua and Caleb’s zealous enthusiasm might have proved deadly for the people.
We must not take the idea that 10 tribal leaders thought that the journey needed more thought and consideration lightly. Over the 40 years, Israel faced the trials of building a community that grew strong enough to establish a nation with leadership, ritual cohesion, and spiritual engagement. Freed from Egypt, they were undisciplined and lacked the ability to think prophetically. As time passed, more people found a relationship with Divinity. God spoke to Aaron and Miriam. Eldad and Medad prophesied even as Moses was out of camp. Perhaps it was because of the 40 years of growth that Israel returned to the land prepared to settle it. In the wilderness, the world changed.
From Abraham, Moses, and the many prophets, we learn that sometimes holding God accountable for more just answers is the path to faith – as though God needs us to engage and not just listen. If we read this week‘s portion carefully, Zeloph’chad’s stalwart daughters prove that progressive change is real. It takes time and faith. We see that truth play out with the spies. Aesop taught us the story of the turtle and the hair: “Slow and steady wins.” Not every hero always acts heroically. Not every obstacle to movement thwarts justice. Ultimately, we have to pay attention to know when moving too fast is too fast and having faith that justice is God’s way.