Parashat Shelach

This week’s parasha recounts the story of the spies. The main points are well known: At God’s request, Moses sends twelve spies, one representative from every tribe, to tour the land of Canaan and report back their findings. The spies then report back that although the land is fruitful, it is inhabited by giants and other intimidating warriors who will make conquering the land impossible. The Israelites hear this and become very distressed, crying and complaining that they would have rather stayed in Egypt. The Israelites prepare to stone Moses and Aaron, when God suddenly appears. He is very angry, and he tells Moses that he is going to kill all the Israelites and create a new nation out of Moses’ descendants. Moses, who was about to be murdered by the Israelite mob, nevertheless tries to appeal to God’s pride and insists that God complete his original plan, which is to bring the Israelites safely to the land of Israel. God relents, but announces that he will lead the Israelites through the desert for forty years – one day for each day the spies toured the land – so that the current generation that rose up could perish. Some Israelites try conquering the land right away, but they are killed in the battle.

The parasha continues with the story of the “mekoshesh etzim” – the “wood gatherer”. The community finds one of their members gathering wood on the sabbath – an act which is forbidden. Not knowing what to do, they ask Moses, who asks God, who answers that the man must be stoned, outside the camp, by the entire community. Overall, it is an incredibly violent parasha, with a lot of the violence coming directly from God.

Instead of understanding and trying to calm the Israelites’ fears, God is ready to kill the entire community and start again; how can He then expect blind devotion and faith from the people if, in His eyes, they are so replaceable? And why order a public stoning for a man who was merely gathering some wood?

I usually find a lesson or a deeper meaning if I only read the text enough times, but this week I’m coming up short. I’m really struggling to understand what positive message I am supposed to take away from this – about my relationship with my community, with my leaders, and with God. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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