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Sending Signs (Shelach)

In this week’s parshah, Moshe sends spies to scout the land of Israel in advance of bnei Yisrael’s impending entry. These spies return reporting that bnei Yisrael will be unable to conquer the land, throwing the nation into panic and spurring calls to return to the land of Egypt. Hashem counters bnei Yisrael’s lack of faith by decreeing that they will have to spend forty years wandering in the wilderness before they enter the land of Israel. Upon receiving this news, bnei Yisrael immediately regret their decision, and attempt in vein to walk it back:

Moshe related [Hashem’s] words to the children of Israel, and the people mourned greatly. They arose early in the morning and ascended to the mountain top, saying, “We are ready to go up to the place of which Hashem spoke, for we have sinned.” Moshe said, “Why do you transgress the word of Hashem? It will not succeed. Do not go up, for Hashem is not in your midst. Do not be beaten by your enemies! For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and you will fall by the sword. For you have turned away from Hashem, and Hashem will not be with you.” Nevertheless, they defiantly ascended to the mountain top, though the Ark of the Covenant of Hashem and Moshe did not move from the camp. The Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived on the mountain came down and smote them and crushed them until Hormah (Num. 14:39-45).

The war recorded in parshat Shelach, fought at Kadesh, is the second one fought by bnei Yisrael during their time in the desert. In many ways, it represents a direct reversal of their first war, which they had fought a year earlier, at Rephidim, back in parshat Beshalach. Consider:

  • Both wars occur in the aftermath of similar protests. Right before the war in Beshalach, the people complained: “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to kill me and my children and my livestock through thirst?” (Exod. 17:3). They then agitated to stone Moshe (ibid. 4). Right before the war in Shelach, the people complain: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this wilderness; why is Hashem bringing us to this land to die by the sword?” (Num. 14:3) They then agitated to stone Yeshoshua and Calev (Num. 14:10).
  • Both wars occur on the day following the nation’s complaints (Exod. 17:9, “tomorrow;” Num. 14:40, “the next morning”).
  • In both wars, bnei Yisrael combat with the same enemy: Amalek (Exod. 17:8; Num. 14:43-45).
  • In Beshalach, Amalek attacks after bnei Yisrael had wondered “Is Hashem in our midst or not? [היש ה’ בקרבנו אם אין]” (Exod. 17:7). In Shelach, Moshe warns bnei Yisrael not to attack Amalek because “Hashem is not in your midst [אין ה’ בקרבכם]” (Num. 14:42).
  • In Beshalach, Moshe and some of the nation’s other leaders “ascended to the top of the hill [עלו ראש הגבעה]” (Exod. 17:10) to orchestrate the battle which the nation fights below. In Shelach, some members of the nation insisted upon “ascending to the top of the mountain [לעלות אל ראש ההר]” (Num. 14:44) to fight the battle while Moshe and the nation’s leadership stays below, refusing to participate: “the Ark of Hashem’s covenant and Moshe did not move from the midst of the camp” (ibid).
  • Both passages highlight the leadership of Yehoshua. In Beshalach, Yehoshua leads the war against Amalek (Exod. 17:9, 13). In Shelach, he is singled out as one of only two members of the current generation who will be allowed to enter the land of Israel forty years hence—so that there is no need for him to join the misguided war waged against Amalek by his rebellious contemporaries (Num. 14:38).
  • In Beshalach, Moshe commands Yehoshua to “choose for us men [בחר לנו אנשים]” who will fight the enemy (Exod. 17:9). In Shelach, as well, a specific group of men is chosen for a particular military function: the parshah begins when Moshe is instructed to “send for yourself men [שלך לך אנשים]” to scout the enemy (Num. 13:2). Yet whereas the men chosen in Beshalach successfully fight the enemy, the men chosen in Shelach insist that the enemy cannot be defeated.
  • In Beshalach, Yehoshua had “weakened Amalek and its people by the sword” (Exod. 17:13). In Shelach, Moshe warned bnei Yisrael “you will fall by the sword” (Num. 14:34). Note also: The actual word used to describe the defeat—“and they struck them [ויכום]” (Num. 14:45)—recalls Moshe’s act of “striking [והכית]” the rock before the war with Amalek (Exod. 17:6).

download (1)In light of the pervasive parallels between these two wars, it is interesting to note the overarching contextual and linguistic connection between the parshahs in which they are recorded: parshat Beshalach and parshat Shelach. Both parshas revolve around the theme of “sending” [שלח]. The former begins when Pharaoh “sends” bnei Yisrael out of Egypt (Exod. 3:17); the latter, when Moshe “sends” members of bnei Yisrael into the land of Israel (Num. 13:1). By rights, then, parshat Shelach ought to have served as the parshah which brought parshat Beshalach full circle.

Yet something got lost in delivery. After bnei Yisrael emerged victorious over Amalek in Beshalach, they should never again have questioned whether “Hashem is in our midst or not” (Exod. 17:7). And, for about a year, they did not. Then came Shelach, though: a parshah in which bnei Yisrael not only doubted Hashem’s ability to help them through life’s difficulties, but downright denied it. So it was only fitting that Amalek would return, and this time, turn the tables on bnei Yisrael; bnei Yisrael insisted that Hashem was not among them, prompting Hashem to bemoan, “How much longer will they not believe in Me after all the signs I have performed in their midst? [בקרבו]” (Num. 14:11), and, ultimately, Moshe to declare: “Do not go up, for Hashem is not in your midst [בקרבכם]” (ibid. 42).

Like bnei Yisrael in parshat Beshalach, and certainly in parshat Shelach, we often find ourselves searching for signs of Hashem’s presence in our lives. All too often, however, Hashem sends us these signs, only for us to miss them when they arrive—or, worse, to “return to sender,” pressing Him to send us yet another. Sometimes, He does indeed send another. But sometimes, He doesn’t. And sometimes—as in this week’s parshah—He does, but in a way that perhaps we wish He hadn’t.

In the end, then, it is not those who send for the most signs, but those who remain receptive to those He does deliver, who are most likely to walk through life feeling Hashem constantly by their side. To this end, nobody said it better than the Kotzker Rebbe: “Where is God, you may ask? God is where you let Him in.”

Shabbat shalom!

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