Weekly Reading Insights

Shlach 5763

Overview of the Weekly Reading: Shlach (outside Israel: BeHa'alotcha)
To be read on 21 Sivan 5763 (June 21)


Torah: Num.13:1-15:41; Haftorah: Joshua 2:1-24

Pirkei Avot - Chapter Three

Stats: Shlach Lecha , 4th Reading out of 10 in Numbers and 37th overall, contains 2 positive mitzvot and 1 prohibitive mitzvot. It is written on 198 lines in a parchment Torah scroll, 25th out of 54 in overall length.

Shlach begins by relating how Moshe sent the 12 spies to explore the Promised Land. Ten of the spies returned with an evil report which influenced a majority of the people. Because of the Jews' apparent disbelief in G-d's ability to conquer the Land, the adult men of that generation were decreed to perish in the desert during the next 38 years. Despite the decree, a group of Jews defiantly attempted to enter the Holy Land but were defeated by Amalekites and Canaanites. Next described are the details of meal and dough offerings, and communal and individual sin offerings for committing idolatry inadvertently. Next is the story of a man caught gathering sticks in violation of Shabbos and his death as consequence. Last is the mitzvah to separate challah from dough, to wear fringes (tsitsis) with a special strand of blue on four cornered garments and not to be drawn after your heart and eyes.


"Every one a ruler ("nasi") among them." (13:2)

The Hebrew word "nasi" is composed of the words "ein" ("nothing") and "yeish" ("something"). A Jewish leader who is humble and considers himself "nothing" is the only kind of leader who is truly "something." Likewise, a leader who thinks he is "something" is not a true leader at all.

(Degel Machane Efraim)


"We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight." (13:33)

Relating how they were perceived by others was actually one of the sins of the spies. Reporting that they felt "as grasshoppers" is one thing, but saying that the feeling was mutual was another. For one should not care about this at all...

(Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk)



Selected with permission and adapted from the three-volume English edition of Shney Luchot HaBrit -- the Sh'lah, as translated, condensed, and annotated by Eliyahu Munk.
Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1565-1630), known as the 'Sh'lah' - an acronym of the title, was born in Prague. A scholar of outstanding reputation, he served as chief Rabbi of Cracow, and more famously, of Frankfort (1610-1620). After his first wife passed away, he remarried and moved to Israel in 1621, where he became the first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Jerusalem. He later moved to Tiberias, where he is buried, near the tomb of the Rambam.

The Torah commanded us to set aside the challa, the portion to be given to the Kohen; in order that by fulfilling this commandment the spiritual element in the bread should be "awakened" and contribute its share to maintaining our souls. Since the Kohen represents holiness, he is given this "holy" part of the bread. Since, ideally, this challa is set aside when the bread has not yet been baked but is merely dough, it is a method of refining our bread by adding sanctity to it before it is even baked. The bread ,thereby, acts as a refining agent for both body and soul. The first man, Adam, was considered as the challa of the universe (Jerusalem Talmud Shabbat 2). He was perfect in mind and body until he sinned and caused the curse, and the Torah said concerning the earth "It will sprout thorns and thistles for you,…by the sweat of your brow will you eat bread." The net effect on the bread after challa has been set aside and has been given to the Kohen, is for a person to qualify for the blessing inherent in the verse, "bread will sustain man's life" (Psalms 104:15).
The commandment of tzitzit fulfills a similar function. It is directed to all four directions of the globe, and the total numerical value of the word, adding the eight threads of the actual fringes plus the five knots we tie when attaching them to the garment, give us a total of 613, i.e. reminds us of all the commandments of the Torah. They also act as reminder of the Celestial Regions, a reminder of the soul which originates immediately beneath the "throne of G-d." Our sages, in Chullin 89, have phrased it thus: "The blue wool resembles the ocean, the ocean resembles the color of the sky, the sky resembles the purity of the sapphire, and the sapphire resembles the throne of G-d." We find therefore that this commandment is an instrument designed to refine the non-material, spiritual part of man, his nefesh (soul). The two prohibitions then are designed to prevent mental and physical excesses, to ensure that the Jew has a pure mind and body

(adapted from Torat Moshe - the 16th commentary of Rabbi Moshe Alshech of Zefat on the Torah, as translated and condensed in the English version of Eliyahu Munk)

An essay from Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter, director of Ascent

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(W:37-63 Shlach)

One of the Torah's most dramatic episodes is found in this week's Torah portion. The 12 spies and their evil report of the Land of Israel: "They are a mighty nation that dwells in the Land, and the cities are heavily fortified," they said (13/28).

There were two spies who opposed the other ten and spoke in defense of Israel and G-d. One of them, Kalev, responded that the Jews would indeed be able to conquer the Land. Rashi states that Kalev began to list many of G-d's miraculous deeds for the sake of the Jews-all to demonstrate that nothing can hinder G-d's will.

The spies continued their attack, "We will not be able to conquer the people because they are stronger mimenu-than us" (13/31). The Levush explains that the word mimenu can also be pronounced mimeno-'than Him', referring to G-d. The spies inferred that G-d would be unable to conquer Israel. This claim seems surprising considering that all the Jews had witnessed G-d's miraculous victories over the Egyptians, and yet they were persuaded by the spies! What did the spies say to cause such doubt in G-d's abilities? They spoke of having seen the 'Nefilim' in Israel (13/33).

Who were the Nefilim that they instilled such panic? Nefilim comes from the word 'to fall'. These Nefilim were originally angels who 'fell' from Heaven to dwell among humans at the time of Enosh, 235 years after creation of the world. They were extremely powerful angels who came to the physical world in that corrupt era before the flood to prove that temptation and evil could be resisted. Unfortunately, they fell further into spiritual corruption than their mortal neighbors and eventually led rebellions against G-d. The Jews understood that physical barriers were no obstacles for
G-d. However, these spiritually charged Nefilim seemed to pose a real threat.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains the inner reason for the spies opposing the entry into Israel. The desert represented a spiritually oriented lifestyle; Israel denoted physical reality. The spies were the leaders of the Jews and were concerned for the people's spiritual welfare. They saw how very lofty angels, the Nefilim, had tried and failed to overcome the potent lure of materialism. These pure beings 'fell' from spiritual heights to the most base depths.

A fortiori, the assumption was that if angels couldn't make it, how much more so we humans. We have no hope standing up against the odds of a physical existence in Israel. In Israel the Jews would be compelled to work the land, engage in business, cook, sew, do laundry, etc.-time consuming mundane tasks they did not perform in the desert. The spies saw the desert as ideal for spiritual pursuit. Entering Israel and tending to physical matters could be of spiritual harm and a temptation to the Jews, so, if possible, better to avoid it completely. (Ultimately, the Jews were punished for believing the spies. They were decreed to wander, and the men to perish, in the desert for the next 40 years)

Yehoshua and Kalev recognized the mistake of the other spies and answered, "...do not fear the nation of the Land" (14/9). We are more capable than the angels. G-d has placed a G-dly soul within each Jew thereby giving us the ability not only to withstand the temptation of physicality but also to instill the world with spirituality. This is what Yehoshua and Kalev knew: that every Jew is not only strong enough to overcome the lowest physical elements but can even transform them to vessels for serving G-d. May each and every one of us succeed in making the factors of our life-including the smallest details-vehicles for holiness, and may this lead to the immediate redemption.

Shabbat Shalom, Shaul Leiter

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