Coercion and Justice: Shelach Lecha Numbers 13-15

Coercion and Justice: Shelach Lechah Numbers 13:1 – 15:71


Howard Adelman

I left Canada just after Shavuot when we stayed up all night to study Torah and I personally gave a talk on the treatment of strangers and the treatment of refugees. As I write this morning’s blog in an apartment in Tel Aviv and before my last day in Israel on this trip, the city is winding up its all-night celebrations of White Night (Laila Lavan), the celebration of the city’s secular culture that began when UNESCO designated Tel Aviv in 2003 as a World Heritage Site. The celebration now consists of a myriad of cultural activities from poetry readings to concerts, outdoor dance parties to indoor lectures that only ends with the dawning of a new day. There is no symbol that is as significant of the gap between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, between the vitality of secular culture and the seriousness of Israel’s religious culture, between West and East that so divides modern Israel.

There are different ways to worship and different objects of worship, experimental poetry versus retelling and reinterpreting ancient narratives, playing and dancing to music or studying and dissecting ancient texts, and, as I would suggest from reading this week’s Torah portion, between the advantages and disadvantages of dealing with matters “straight up” as it were and tackling them through indirection. Next week we read and study Korach, Numbers chapter 16:1 to 18:32 and the account of the famous rebellion against the rule of Moses. The groundwork for that rebellion is set in this week’s portion, Numbers 13:1 to 15:41. Shelach Lechah, שְׁלַח-לְךָ, the sixth and seventh words in the portion.

The words mean to send, shelach, and to or for yourself, lechah. The latter is best known in synagogue services from the song, Lechah Dodi, the liturgical song recited Friday at sundown to welcome Shabbat prior to the evening or Maariv service. In secular celebrations, we celebrate the coming out and up of the sun, as in White Night in Tel Aviv. In religious celebrations at the beginning of shabat, we sing to the moon and invite the divine to come forth: “Come out my beloved, my bride to meet the inner light.” So the princes of the Israelite tribes are being sent out to reveal themselves as much as to scout out the land. Shelach Lechah begins with openness, with directness. The scouts are sent out, however, in order for the inner to come forth.

The portion is about the inadequacy of directness. We deal with the outer to bring forth the inner. Purportedly a story about Moses sending spies to the land that the Israelites are about to conquer, it is really about scouting out rather than spying on the land. There is no apparent secrecy involved, yet much is revealed about the Israelites that was hidden, so much so that what comes forth dooms the Israelites to wander in the wilderness for forty more years until “their carcasses” drop. (14:29) What emerges is not so much about the land that lay before them as about themselves. At the same time, Joshua is allowed to emerge as a national military leader in the same way Moses was taught to recognize himself as a political leader, removing the sandals from his feet so he too will realize that the land on which he stands is holy. To recognize this, each must take off his “dancing shoes,” must leave the secular (and the profane) behind at the entrance to the holy land.

Why must one come forth into the holy land with bare feet? When a finance minister in Canada introduces his budget, he dons a pair of new shoes. That is how we govern the realm of everyday life. But the land the Israelites are about to conquer is not an ordinary land. It is supposedly a holy land and only holy ones in bare feet are destined to exercise power in that land. “Put your feet [not your boots] upon the necks of these kings.” (Joshua 10:24) It is insufficient to have boots on the ground to win a true victory. One must enter the holy of holies unshod with your soul revealed as much as your soles are. For in the world of holiness, one may need military power to acquire civilian power, but one does not rule with coercive power but through the power and authority of the law and the rule of justice and, even more importantly, by baring your soul as much as ruling over the body politic.

I used to be very puzzled by this section. Here were the Israelites entering a land with an army of over 600,000. The Gauls could sack Rome with only 40,000 and destroy the Roman Empire. The army of the Mongol hordes under Genghis Khan numbered no more than 150,000. The Israelites had an army four times that size to conquer a miniscule portion of the surface of the earth. They sent out scouts (laturim) to literally “scout” out the land. They were not spies and were not called neraglim. The twelve princes were clearly not spies in any normal sense of the word. They were scouts. To conquer Jericho, Joshua would later send two true spies, not a dozen royal scouts and emissaries. True, the scouts needed to survey a much larger territory rather than just one walled city, but they were just scouts, not spies as we understand the term.

Joshua’s spies were very different than the scouts sent by Moses. The latter were public and royal figures, not nameless intelligence officers. They were sent to bring back reports for a popular referendum on future action not to prepare the army of the Israelites for invasion and conquest. Should we go was the question, not how we should go about it. So Moses’ scouts reported back to the whole community at Kadesh, not just the military commander. These scouts met the Canaanite leaders and traded with them to return with the icon of Israeli tourism, a bunch of grapes hanging from a pole and borne by two carriers to bring back the message that this was a land of “milk and honey.” In Joshua’s mission, the two agents of Joshua’s equivalent of the CIA, were truly secret spies, interested only in intelligence, not the prospect of spoils. Further, there is no evidence of the twelve scouts traveling surreptitiously.

The twelve scouts were sent out to ascertain the strength of the enemy and the bounty to be acquired by immigrating into the land. Were the inhabitants few or many, welcoming or hostile, strong or weak? Were the towns and cities fortified? This was macro information available through public means and useless in devising a military plan of conquest. In fact, sending forth the scouts undermined any resort to military means for it removed the first rule of warfare, surprise as a result of secrecy. There is a huge difference between sending notables on a public mission of inquiry and sending spies to help design the strategy and tactics for conquest. The latter do not need to bring back the abundance of the fruit in the land. The scouts are on a mission of migration and settlement, not a military assignment. When the Israelites do opt for the latter, they approach from the east crossing the Jordan not along the Mediterranean coast to enter via the lands controlled by the Philistines or via the Judean Hills to encounter the Canaanites. They go the round way in and enter through Jordan to attack Jericho.

Clearly, when the scouts return they reveal that, although the Israelites had a huge army, they were not ready for battle. The leadership, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, may have exaggerated the strength and hostility of the local population, but they were undoubtedly accurate in reporting back that the Israelites would not be able to migrate and insert themselves among the local population peacefully. They would have to spend forty years in the wilderness preparing themselves for battle and leaving behind the peaceniks who initially believed that entry could be obtained by immigration alone. They would have to enter through the back door as it were, through the exercise of coercion and based on intelligence and not just as a result of a public scouting mission, through Samaria rather than Judea.

So the modern Jewish state is called Israel and not Judea. The right wing revisionists recognized all along the hostility of the inhabitants and their resistance to large scale migration. The hawks, including Ben Gurion, recognized the necessity of using force to conquer the land, unlike peaceniks and the promoters of immigration primarily as the means of settling in Palestine. In contemporary Jewish ideological divisions, the positions have shifted. It is the hawks who are obvious in their goals. For the right, the political “conquest” of all of Jerusalem and Hebron remains an unfinished task. These hawks are not very secretive with respect to their aim of conquering all of what was for years referred to as Palestine.
That which comes indirectly results more from the failures of others than from one’s own arrogant and obvious actions. If we read today’s portion to grasp this as the lesson, we miss another main point. For the portion does not end with chapter 14 but with chapter 15. Chapter 15 is very different than chapter 13 and 14. Chapter 13 begins with the instruction to Moses to send forth the scouts and emissaries to survey the land of Canaan, but to do so to reveal themselves for themselves and to themselves. They could be revealed to others and even named because they were not literally spies. In the survey mission they would ascertain what the resources were and the strength of the local inhabitants.

What was their report after spending 40 days on their mission? It included no information on troop strength, locations and armaments, about the thickness of the walls around cities and other fortifications, only the fact already known that there were no parts of the territory free of people already living there. Those people, the local inhabitants, were fierce and determined to hold onto what they possessed. There were many tribes and enemies in the different parts of the territory, Ammonites and Hittites, Jebusites and Canaanites. Ten of the twelve princes reported back to Moses that the locals combined were stronger than the Israelites.

Those ten also possibly lied. The land was so tough that it devoured the people who lived on it. In any case, they said that it was inhabited by giants, and perhaps they were for undernourished populations are generally shorter in stature. In contrast and in comparison, the ten emissaries saw themselves as grasshoppers, inyenzi in Kinyarwanda, locusts to be those they threatened to swarm and who would strive to exterminate them in turn. What did the popular will express? Dismay and disillusion. The equivalent of a united Europe was not the promise they were led to believe it was. A populist revolt took place. Both Moses and Aaron bowed down before the will of the people. But Caleb and Joshua indicated that the hopes of and promises to the Israelites were now dead. Further, the people had lost their faith.
God remonstrated them and promised to decimate them for the absence of leadership and for the leaders and the population in general surrendering to their fears. “I will smite them with the pestilence, and destroy them, and will make of thee a nation greater and mightier than they.” Ten of the tribes would undergo the fate of Egypt, God threatened. Only the tribes of Caleb and Joshua would thrive to become a nation greater than that of Israel.

Moses shifted position and once again stood up for loyalty to God rather than prostrating himself before the populist will. The bulk of the population, however, was led by fears even greater than the fear of their God that they had humiliated and brought shame upon. Moses once again prostrated himself before God and asked Him to forgive His people. So God did not smite them. He allowed the Amalekites and Canaanites to do the job.

At the same time, chapter 15 offered instructions on how the Israelites were to prepare for victory and how they were to perform once they had succeeded in conquest. The usual instructions on rituals of thanksgiving were presented in some detail. The key political instruction begins in verse 14. You shall not do to the inhabitants what they were prepared to do to you.
“And if a stranger sojourn with you, or whosoever may be among you, throughout your generations, and will offer an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD; as ye do, so he shall do.” They shall do as you do and conform to the same law.

Strangers who abide by the customs of the land shall be welcomed and treated as equals for “there shall be one statute both for you, and for the stranger that sojourneth with you.” Verse 16 repeats: “One law and one ordinance shall be both for you, and for the stranger that sojourneth with you.” If either party disobeys the law in error, they shall be forgiven. But if that disobedience arises out of arrogance, by either the Israelite or the stranger who lives among you, those who committed the offence must be ostracized.

However, in verse 32, an allegory is told of a man who picks up sticks on shabat while the Israelites are still in the wilderness. Is that man an Israelite or a sojourner among them? Not likely the latter, for they are still in the wilderness and have not yet conquered the land. Further, as an Israelite, he is to be subjected to the most extreme punishment, stoning to death, and for what appears as a relatively trivial offence. In the light of the generosity to be offered to the stranger who respects your law, why is picking up sticks on shabat deserving of stoning?

It is not as if this stand commandment does not stand out. It is repeated again and again. Don’t light fires on shabat. (Exodus 35:3) Don’t cook on shabat. It is a day of solemn rest, that is rest from the labour of membership in the mundane world. (Exodus 16:22-26) You were not even to travel on shabat. (Exodus 16:29-30) Shabat was definitely not to be used as a White Night. The violation of shabat was a capital offence, for it was a violation of the covenant between the Israelites and their God.

What is common to the populism that backs off out of fear from moving en masse into a hostile land and the actions of the man who picks up sticks on shabat? They are situations in which people are both deliberate and defiant in their non-observance. The peaceniks fail to examine themselves as they move towards migration into the promised land. Those preparing to move in through the use of force must prepare for nation-building in advance and treat every local as a stranger in their midst with respect to protection by the law and punishment for its breaches. Strength must be married to the rule of law. But some breaches of the law by a member of the tribe which offends the centrality of the covenant between God and His people are subject to a death sentence by stoning.

Strength must be balanced with justice and realism has to offset our idealism. In any case, populism, surrendering to the whims of the people, the fears of the future and of strangers, may be the greatest danger. The dichotomy of being direct and open must be balanced with secrecy and the use of real spies. Direct talk and indirection are both requirements in politics. Importantly, the missions of plenipotentiaries must go forth, whether it be UNSCOP or inquiries into abuses of rights and of the laws of war, more to reveal our own inadequacies and short-sightedness than just record what is publicly observed. For over against Socrates, knowing thyself requires knowing the other and is accomplished by becoming acquainted with the other. Finally, living in the daylight of the everyday world and welcoming in the bride to meet the inner light of shabat are required to make a 24-hour day.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

“Observe” and “Remember” in a single word,
He caused us to hear, the One and Only Lord.
G d is One and His Name is One,
For renown, for glory and in song.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

To welcome the Shabbat, let us progress,
For that is the source, from which to bless.
From the beginning, chosen before time,
Last in deed, but in thought – prime.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

Sanctuary of the King, city royal,
Arise, go out from amidst the turmoil.
In the vale of tears too long you have dwelt,
He will show you the compassion He has felt.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

Arise, now, shake off the dust,
Don your robes of glory – my people – you must.
Through the son of Jesse, the Bethelemite,
Draw near to my soul, set her free from her plight.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

Wake up, wake up,
Your light has come, rise and shine.
Awaken, awaken; sing a melody,
The glory of G d to be revealed upon thee.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

Be not ashamed, nor confounded,
Why are you downcast, why astounded?
In you, refuge for My poor people will be found,
The city will be rebuilt on its former mound.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

May your plunderers be treated the same way,
And all who would devour you be kept at bay.
Over you Your G d will rejoice,
As a groom exults in his bride of choice.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

To right and left you’ll spread abroad,
And the Eternal One you shall laud.
Through the man from Peretz’s family,
We shall rejoice and sing happily.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

Come in peace, her Husband’s crown of pride,
With song (on Festivals: rejoicing) and good cheer.
Among the faithful of the people so dear
Enter O Bride, enter O Bride;

O Bride, Shabbat Queen, now come here!

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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