The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Parashat Shelach – 'When You Enter the Land…'
By Rav Michael Hattin
Last week, we examined the events of parashat
Beha'alotekha as the people of Israel finally left Mount Sinai and began their
journey towards their land. We traced the progression of narratives from the
auspicious and optimistic opening of Sefer Bemidbar to the dismal
and disappointing incident of the Spies. This week's parasha of
Shelach is devoted in the main to the latter. It describes in halting
steps the sending of the Spies, their initial positive impressions, their
notorious return and negative report, and the people's dejection and despondency
with their lot, as well as their loss of faith in God's potency to bring them
into the land.
The reader, like a detached observer watching tragic events
inevitably unfold, feels powerless to alter the trajectory of this week's
desperate narrative, and hopes in vain to be relieved from its oppressive tone.
In the end, the Spies bring ruin upon themselves and the people, and the
generation of the Exodus is condemned to perish in the wilderness. Although a
group of intrepid but reckless adventurers attempts to circumvent the Divine
decree by ascending to the land by force, their march is easily checked and
repulsed by the Amalekite and Canaanite hill dwellers in their path. So
concludes the dismal chapter of the Spies and with it are snuffed out the hopes
and dreams of a generation.
The parasha, however, continues. With a resolve since
adopted by Jewish tradition and its tenacious practitioners, the text confronts
tragedy and misfortune with a renewed call to life, to a brighter future, and to
eventual triumph. There are at least five additional commandments and events
that are introduced in the aftermath of the Spies, and as we shall see, the
primary thrust of their message is decidedly positive. At the same time however,
these very five things, to which we shall now turn our attention, cautiously
indicate to the people that there is a price to be paid for self-doubt and
disbelief, and it can be precipitous.
Meal Offerings and Libations
"God spoke to Moshe saying: 'Speak to the people of Israel and
say to them: When you enter the land of your dwellings that I am giving to you,
and you offer a sacrifice to God whether wholly burnt or otherwise, either to
fulfill a general or specific pledge or for the festivals, taken from cattle or
sheep, it shall be pleasing unto God. The one presenting the sacrifice to God
shall offer with it an 'isaron' measure of fine flour mixed with one
quarter 'hin' of olive oil. The wine for its libation shall also consist
of one quarter 'hin,' for a sheep offered as a burnt offering or as a
peace offering…'" (Bemidbar 15:1-5).
This passage, presented immediately in the aftermath of the
people's aborted attempt to commence their march to Canaan in spite of God's
decree, begins with a not uncommon formula, but here the words hold unusual
pertinence. "When you enter the land…" holds out the consoling pledge that in
fact the people WILL one day merit to emerge from the wilderness and to secure
their rightful place in the land of their ancestors. As Rashi poignantly puts
it: "Here, God brought them good tidings that they would one day enter the
land." Similarly, Ibn Ezra explains: "This section is appended to that of the
Spies because the people were downcast and in mourning over their fate, so that
God wanted to offer succor to the children by informing them that they would
certainly enter the land" (commentary to 15:2). In a rare show of consensus, the
"After extending to the children of the condemned generation a
promise that they would one day enter the land, God completed the discussion of
the sacrificial service by introducing the meal offerings and libations,
responsibilities that would be applicable only after they entered the land.
Perhaps these laws were indicated to them now in order to comfort them and to
allay their fears, for the people were despondent and thought: 'Who knows what
will transpire at the end of that interminable forty years? What if the children
also transgress?' Therefore, God saw fit to comfort them, for by introducing to
them commandments dependent upon the land, He makes it clear to them that they
will surely enter it eventually…for in the wilderness, there was no obligation
to offer flour or wine with their sacrifices…" (commentary to
Thus, although that generation of the wilderness knows that
that they themselves will never see the good land on the other side of the
Jordan, they are sustained by the thought that their children will enjoy that
brighter future. Who can imagine the sobs of sadness that punctuated that
terrible night when the people first heard the Spies' evil report? Who can
conceive of their feelings of utter dejection when God heard their cries and
granted their fiendish prayer, by denying them entry to the land that had been
held out to them as the aim of their aspirations, since the dawn of the
deliverance from Egypt? Their futile future is here made infinitely more
bearable, with the soothing realization that all is not lost.
'Challah' and Hope
This theme of hope is continued and made even more emphatic by
the series of verses that follows:
"God spoke to Moshe saying: 'Speak to the people of Israel and
say to them: 'At once upon entering the land to which I am bringing you, when
you eat from its produce, then you shall offer up a portion to God. The first
part of your dough, the 'Challah' you shall raise up, just as you raise
up a portion from the grain of the threshing floor. The first portion of your
kneading you shall raise up to God, for all generations.'" (Bemidbar
This section introduces the so-called mitzva of
'Challah' or taking of the dough. The root of the word, Ch-L-H,
has been variously explained, but most plausibly is derived from a stem meaning
'first,' for the 'challah' is the first portion of the dough, separated
before it is baked and presented to the Cohen as a gift. Today, of course, in
the absence of a Temple and Biblical laws of 'Tahara' or ritual fitness,
the 'challah' portion is only symbolically separated and then burned, in
order to preserve the memory of the original rite. In any case, just as we saw
before, the Torah here introduces a commandment whose fulfillment is contingent
upon entry to the land, thus indicating once again that the judgment meted out
against the generation of the wilderness would one day be rescinded.
Significantly, in a departure from the meal offerings and
libations above, the mitzva of 'challah' speaks of an unusual immediacy:
'AT ONCE upon entering the land to which I am bringing you, when you eat from
its produce, then you shall offer up a portion to God' is more direct than 'WHEN
you enter the land of your dwellings that I am giving to you.' As the Halakhic
Midrash of the Sifre explains: "Rabbi Yishmael expounded: 'The text indicates a
different form of 'entry' concerning the mitzva of 'challah' than
pertains to any other 'entry'-related mitzva in the Torah. Concerning all of the
other commandments that are contingent upon entering the land, the text says
'When you enter the land…' or 'It shall come to pass when God brings you into
the land…' Here, however, the text says: 'At once upon entering the land.' This
indicates that as soon as the people of Israel entered the land, they were
immediately obligated in the mitzva of 'challah.'" (Midrash Sifre
Bemidbar Chapter 110).
In other words, the people of Israel were not obligated to
fulfill all of the other land-based agricultural commandments, such as the
separation of tithes from their produce or the designation of the first fruits,
immediately upon crossing the Jordan and entering the territory of Canaan. First
they would have to conquer the land and settle it, a process that took a number
of years. Concerning 'Challah,' however, they were called upon to fulfill
it as soon as they partook of the land's produce, though their goal of securing
tranquility on its sanguine soil may have been many years off.
The Two Features of Challah
Thus, 'challah' presents us with two unusual features.
Firstly, it is applicable immediately after the people enter the land. Secondly,
although a function of geography to the degree that it is contingent upon the
people of Israel gaining entry to Canaan, the mitzva of 'challah' is not
in reality land-dependent in the narrow individual sense. That is to say that
the other agricultural mitzvot generally devolve upon a land owner exclusively,
for one who does not own land cannot separate tithes from his produce nor can he
abstain from the hybrid planting of diverse seeds, etc. However, as long as a
person is kneading dough, he can fulfill the mitzva of 'challah,' even
though he does not own the land from which the 'challah' grain was
harvested, or any other land for that matter.
These striking characteristics of 'challah' provide
additional indications of the profound solace afforded to the people by God's
word. The land may have seemed far off, but 'challah' suggested that it
could have relevance even prior to its formal settlement. Canaan may have
beckoned from an agonizing distance with the promise of securing land, but
'challah' taught the people that one could still be connected to its holy
soil even in the absence of possessing formal deed.
The Subtle Warnings
What follows in the parasha are a number of texts that
readily lend themselves to suggesting a contrasting theme.
"If you inadvertently transgress and fail to fulfill all of
these mitzvot that God spoke to Moshe…if it is the community that transgresses
because of their leadership, then the entire community shall offer a bullock as
a burnt offering…and a goat as a sin offering…they shall be forgiven."
"If an individual transgresses inadvertently, he shall offer a
goat as a sin offering…and be forgiven…But the soul that transgresses
brazenly…blasphemes God, and shall be cut off from among his people…"
"While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found
a man gathering sticks on the day of the Sabbath…God said to Moshe: 'That man
shall surely die…' and so the entire congregation removed him from the camp and
stoned him so that he died…" (Bemidbar 15:22-36).
The first two texts speak of the unusual situation of the
people inadvertently transgressing the entire Torah, and in particular address a
situation in which the people's leadership erred and led them astray. The
traditional sources explain the passage to refer to the community's unmindful
lapse into idolatrous worship. The Ramban succeeds in justifying the remarkable
tradition by recalling some of the darker periods of Biblical history, such as
during the reign of Yeravam over the Northern tribes (after the rupture of
Solomon's Kingdom into the North and South), when the majority of his subjects
were ignorant of the Torah and its commands and eagerly but obliviously embraced
strange gods. For such carelessness there can be absolution, but the man who
flagrantly adopts false gods will surely die. The consequences of blatant
disregard for God's word are forcefully spelled out by the third text that
graphically describes the sorry fate of the Sabbath desecrator.
The Spies Revisited
Significantly, both the Ibn Ezra as well as the Ramban detect
in all of this an understated allusion to the earlier events of our
"This commandment was introduced here because the people had
rebelled against God when they exclaimed (in response to the Spies' report):
'Let us appoint a leader to return us to Egypt!' for they desired to go back to
their initial state there, when they had no Torah and no mitzvot. This section
indicates to them that even those guilty of inadvertently worshipping idolatry
can be forgiven, but not those who boldly and mindfully act…" (Ramban's
commentary to Bemidbar 15:22).
The people of Israel had indeed been led astray by their
'leaders,' the Spies who had so fatalistically concluded that entry into the
land was impossible and anywise beyond God's powers. But those same Spies as
well as the people who eagerly hung onto their words were not blameless victims
of ignorance, but rather sentient and alert recipients of God's unfailing
sustentation. Their rejection of God's pledge was thus tantamount to a conscious
and deliberate repudiation of His involvement in their destiny.
The parasha concludes with a famous passage, one that
has been incorporated into the daily recitation of the Shema.
"…Let the people of Israel make fringes on the corners of their
garments for all generations…thus they will remember all of God's commands…and
will not stray after their hearts and eyes…I am God your Lord Who took you out
of the land of Egypt to be your Lord…" (Bemidbar 15:37-41).
In this section, the people are called upon to be always
mindful of God's commands and not to be deceived or misled by erroneous thoughts
or inaccurate impressions.
Although the charge here spelled out is widely applicable, one
cannot help but again detect an echo of the people's earlier downfall. In a not
entirely inconspicuous reference, God gently reminds His people not to be
beguiled by the desire to renounce Canaan, to return to the numbing experience
of Egyptian servitude. By taking them out of that deadening experience, God had
asked them to choose a more exalted if less torpid fate. To march towards
Canaan, proud and resolute, was the measure of the people's readiness to embrace
that destiny, and they showed themselves incapable and unworthy of it. Their
children, however, raised under the trying but nurturing conditions of the
wilderness, sustained and fortified by God's constant support but also chastened
and guided by His correction, would one day merit to cross the threshold into
the new land, to proudly proclaim:
"I am God your Lord Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be
your Lord. I am God your Lord."