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Friday, June 20, 2008

Parashat Shelach

Parasha: Shelach – Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Haftara: Joshua 2:1-24
Reading Date: 21st June 2008 – 18th Sivan 5768

13:16 This verse has the renaming of Hosea to Joshua. In English this may seem insignificant but as all names in Hebrew have a meaning this is a very significant verse to consider. To save, ‘hosha’ (hey, vav, shin, ayin) is the root of Hosea’s name and a very noble name at that but when the ‘yud’ and the ‘hey’ (the letters denoting the Holy One blessed be He) his name becomes ‘Yehoshua’ meaning it is YHVH that saves. Considering the same root, we have the name ‘Yeshua’, the completeness of salvation.

Many Biblical commentators have made a case for Santa Katarina in Sinai as being ‘the’ Mount Sinai. There is but one problem. As the location of Kadesh Barnea is agreed upon by all archeologists and scholars, they could never have walked that distance in 11 days (Deut.1:2). This leaves a question as to where Mount Sinai is and it is commonly accepted the modern day Mount Karkom is a far more likely locale. The same can be said of the journey of the 12 spies. If we take a 40 day journey where the travelers were frightened and probably moved mostly at night it would seem unlikely that they would have gone further north than Hebron. They would then have headed southwest toward the coast through the modern day area known as Eshkol (There are ancient ruins of vineyards there), picked the legendary bunch of grapes and headed back to Kadesh Barnea. This seems a far more logical route than those who think that the spies went all the way to the far north of modern day Israel.

13:27-33 We know well the result of the bad report. We all need to be as Caleb and Joshua and be bearers of the good report. It is like the old account of the bucket filled or emptied half-way with water.

14:1 YHVH declared, “They indulged in weeping without a cause; I will establish for them weeping through out the generations.” That night, Tishah B’Av (the 9th Av), is the date that both Temples were destroyed and many other tragedies touch place throughout Jewish history[1].

14:18 YHVH, Slow to Anger, Abundant in Kindness, Forgiver of Iniquity and Willful Sin, and who cleanses – but does not cleanse completely, recalling the sins of the parents upon the children to the third and fourth generation. Moses, in his petition is identifying and confessing his knowledge of the Father’s heart.

14:20 After Moses’ successful intercession YHVH forgives he Nation but decree 40 years of wandering in the desert. If we look at this in our today terms we see it as a natural learning process as we progress toward our entry into the Promised Land.
Because of the importance of the last part of the portion I would like to spend some significant time on it.

15:37 Speak to the Children of Israel and instruct them to make tzitzit for themselves on the corners of their garments through all the ages; let them attach a cord of turquoise to the tzitzit of each corner. That shall be your tzitzit; look at it and recall all of YHVH's mitzvot and observe them... Thus shall you be reminded to observe all My mitzvot and to be holy to your God. I YHVH am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God...

The parasha concludes with these famous instructions attach tzitzit (fringes) to the corners of our clothing as a reminder of and a directive to keep YHVH's mitzvot. The instruction of tzitzit is seen as a reminder of the entirety of our practice of Torah observance. The Sages believed that it was so important that they incorporated it verbatim into the Shema, one of our most central prayers.

The Rabbis wondered why YHVH commanded the inclusion of one Turquoise thread among the white threads of the tzitzit. Tractate Menachot of the Babylonian Talmud reports Rabbi Meir asking "Why is blue different from all other colors?" and then answering, "Because blue resembles the sea, and the sea resembles sky, and the sky resembles YHVH's Throne of it is written: 'Above the sky over their heads was the semblance of a throne, like sapphire in appearance...'"[2] In other words, Rabbi Meir hypothesizes that the turquoise thread in tzitzit is meant to guide its wearers through a chain of associations beginning with immediate visualization of tzitzit and ending with the expansiveness of YHVH. But why didn't Rabbi Meir simply say that the turquoise thread reminds us of YHVH's throne? Why do we first need to think of the ocean and the sky?

Rabbi Meir is alluding to the intimate connection between the spiritual and the real world. Our relationship with YHVH must also encompass a relationship with the world that surrounds us: the ocean, the sky, and the rich variety of life that dwells in between. We must learn to truly see, and thereby to know, the full world that YHVH has created, from the depths of the ocean to the heights of the sky and the vastness of earth. Indeed, we are not permitted to merely contemplate the world - we must be part of it. Immediately preceding Rabbi Meir's comment, the Talmud asks why we are told to look at tzitzit and remember YHVH's commandments. The Talmud offers the answer that "seeing leads to remembering and remembering leads to doing."[3] Seeing or reading about tzitzit is meant to remind us to act. This is true as much today as it was when these words were written. Perhaps thinking of the turquoise of the ocean and the sky can serve as a reminder to care for the earth and make choices that lead to sustainable development. Perhaps remembering those who inhabit the expanse of land between ocean and sky, and recalling our communal redemption story, should remind us of our obligation to build a world that honors the dignity and equality of all people and to share the message of salvation with them.

We can see the earth differently by traveling and interacting with a diversity of people, visiting the developing world, or simply walking down the streets of our own cities, eyes wide open, speaking with those who need help. If we look carefully enough, what we see may remind us, like the Shema does, of our ancient and modern family stories. Ours are stories about slavery, poverty, immigration, environmental degradation, suffering, and, in many cases, redemption. Our stories can help us to see the stories of others and to act in ways that will bring about redemptive endings. As the Rabbis imply in their teaching about tzitzit and its place in the Shema, when we look around we are challenged to make connections between ourselves and the world around us. These connections obligate us to act.

The color turquoise that reminds us of ocean, sky and YHVH's throne also reminds of this connection. The particular shade of turquoise to be used in tzitzit is called techelet. Ramban[4] suggests that techelet was chosen because its spelling is very close to the word tachlit, which means purpose or goal. The relationship between the two words summarizes the teaching on tzitzit. The purpose of our rituals is to truly see and engage with the world, and its people. This relationship with those around us leads us into relationship with our Heavenly Father. Only then, as the end of parshat Shelach tells us, we will be holy to our God.

[1] Rashi on Psalms 106:27
[2] Menachot 43b
[3] Menachot 43b
[4] An acronym for Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, the 13th century Spanish commentator

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