Weekly Torah Commentary — Shelach June 15, 2012

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the account of the 12 Spies that were sent by Moses to spy out the Land of Israel. One man from each of the tribes is chosen to participate in this mission, each one of them described as “a leader” and collectively, they are “distinguised men, heads of the Children of Israel.” Bamidbar/Numbers 13:2-3 Among them are Caleb from the tribe of Judah and Joshua from the tribe of Ephraim.

Immediately after the list of those who were chosen, we are told that Moses changed Joshua’s name from ‘Hoshea’ to Yehoshua. He did this by adding a ‘Yud’ to the beginning of his name. The ‘Yud’ is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet and looks something like an enlarged apostrophe.

We know that everytime there is a change of name for a personality in the Torah it has spiritual signficance. It is always a mark of honor and relates to the person’s mission in life. In this case, by adding the ‘Yud’ which is the first letter of Hashem’s Ineffable Name, Moses intended that it should give strength to his servant for his original name meant “has saved” but with the addition of the ‘Yud’, his name, Yehoshua, came to mean, “Hashem will save”.

‘Yud’is the first letter in the word Israel and by its smallness, it conveys the idea of humility. Given that the Holiest Name of Hashem and the word Israel both begin with a ‘Yud’, the Sages have derived the understanding that the intimate connection between Hashem and Israel is founded on the virtue of humility, considered the greatest of all the virtues. It also suggests intimacy between Hashem and Israel. In addition, the Jewish people are known by four names: the children of Jacob (Ya’acov), the children of Israel, Jews (Yehudi) and Yeshurun. All of these words begin with a ‘Yud’. When you perceive the spirituality of the Hebrew alphabet, you understand that the repeated use of the ‘Yud’ in words pertaining to Israel sends the message that though the nation is small among the nations of the earth, nevertheless by its humility it is to carry out the great mission of sanctifying Hashem’s Name in all the earth.

Moses instructed the spies in these words: Ascend here in the south and climb the mountain. See the land – how is it? And the people that dwell in it – are they strong or weak? are they few or numerous? And how is the Land in which they dwell – is it good or bad? and how are the cities in which they dwell – are they open or are they fortified? And how is the land – is it fertile or is it lean? are there trees in it or not? You shall strengthen yourselves and take from the fruit of the Land. The days were the season of the first ripe grapes. vs. 17-20

‘Ascend here in the south…’ Begin your mission, Moses is saying, by elevating yourselves right here before you leave. In other words, pray, seek Hashem, commit yourself to this mission with a right heart as befits leaders of the people of Israel. Give no place to fear or doubt so that when you arrive to “see the Land”, you look at it with eyes of faith.

One of the questions Moses asked — are there trees in it or not? — is particularly interesting. When read in the Hebrew, it does not say ‘trees’ but it is in the singular – is there a tree in it?
Rashi and many of the Sages throughout our generations have taught that even one righteous person can save a city. Recall Abraham’s prayer for Sodom, “Hashem if there are 10 righteous will you save…” What Moses was truly asking was, “Is there a tzaddik living there? Is there one truly righteous person who will serve as a protection over the people living in the Land?

What makes this so interesting is that ancient historical sources put the death of Noah at precisely the time that the Spies were entering the Land to peruse it. We know that Noah is described as “righteous in his generation”. Moses understood well the principle that the prayers of ONE righteous person can change history, can affect the outcome of wars. He therefore instructed the spies to see if there was ‘a tree’ among them. Throughout Torah and all of Tanach, the symbol of a tree is used to represent a righteous person. (See Isaiah 61:3)

After the spies return and ten of them give a discouraging report, Joshua addresses the nation and says this: “You should not fear the people of the Land, for they are our bread. Their protection has departed from them. Hashem is with us; do not fear.” Rashi and other commentators link this verse (their protection has departed from them) directly to the idea that with Noah’s death, the people who were then dwelling in the Land lost their spiritual protection and therefore, Israel should have no fear in going in to take the Land, as Hashem commanded them to do.

In the events surrounding the return of the 12 Spies, who arrived back — significantly — on the 9th of Av, we learn the difference between PESSIMISM and OPTIMISM. Ten of them can be described as pessimists — men who looked at the objective, observable ‘facts’ and said, “It’s impossible – we can’t do it.” Two of them may be described as OPTIMISTS — Joshua and Caleb did not form their opinion based on the objective ‘facts’ but on their inner conviction that Hashem is true and faithful and since He had already told Israel to ‘go up and take the Land and I will be with you’, the objective reality was subject to Hashem’s Word. An optimist’s attitude does not ignore objective reality, but superimposes FAITH upon it. His or her decisions come from an attitude of TRUST in Hashem. When Caleb silenced the people (13:30) he did not argue the facts, he simply said:
‘We shall surely ascend and conquer it. We can do it.

In Tune with Torah this week = meditating on the narrative of the Spies and examining our own hearts. Are we pessimistic about our lives, our situations, our challenges? Or are we using whatever challenges we face as opportunities to grow in true faith and trust in the Holy One of Israel?

Shabbat Shalom

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