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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Shelach

Sivan 28, 5780 – June 20, 2020

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Shelach, which is Hebrew for “send.” This is a reference to the twelve spies (Heb: mergalim) that were sent to go ahead and investigate the nature of the land of Caanan. The Israelite camp was sitting on the edge of Eretz Yisrael, and twelve leaders of the nation – one from each tribe – was chosen to assess the military viability of their path into the Promised Land. The opening line reads – “אֲנָשִׁ֗ים שְׁלַח לְךָ֣ וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר” – which is commonly translated as: Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: ‘Send forth men, if you please’. But this phrase שְׁלַח לְךָ֣ can (quite literally) mean “send to you” or “send for yourself.” The implication, here, is that it was not actually G-d’s idea to send forth spies. As explained by Rashi and various Sages, the people came forth to Moshe demanding an exploratory mission of Etetz Yisrael before they were due to enter it.[1] In response to this appeal, G-d allows it, but it has a cost. On one level, it expressed a fundamental mistrust, on the part of the Israelites, in G-d. Rather than having faith and assurance in the path that was being given to them, the Israelites grew uncertain that their forthcoming movement into the Promised Land would be successful. After witnessing so many miracles in the desert, this represents a loss of loyalty. On another level, the report that the spies came back with demoralized the camp and created a national hysteria. A faction of the spies concluded: “We cannot ascend to that people for it is too strong for us…The Land through which we have passed, to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants! All the people that we saw in it were men of stature [they were huge].” (13:31-32) In response to this report, we read (14:4) of a unified concern: “Let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt!” Yet again, we are encountering an instance where the collective morale is overcome by fear and despair to the point where the people want to turn back and abandon every great moment that has moved them further towards their collective goal. And this represents a loss of hope. This loss of loyalty, and loss of hope, has much to teach us about our own perseverance – and courage – as we work to overcome “men of stature” (13:32)[2] and those who appear stronger than us.

“A life of Jewish observance incorporates two elements: 1) Following direct commands, specified in the Code of Jewish Law. 2) In those areas which are not dictated by Jewish Law, we must use our own discretion to determine what is the most appropriate action.”[3] The decision to send forth spies is an example of the second case, whereby we have the freedom to choose the best way forward. As we read in this parashah, the incident with the spies delays the entry into Eretz Yisrael by forty years. In this period of time, most of the Israelites that left Egypt with the exodus will die in the desert. But the sin was not that the spies were sent forth. The sin was that the Israelites did not want to enter the Land; they wanted to remain in the desert where they could serve G-d without distraction and have their lives be guided by miracles. The understanding was that as soon as the Israelites crossed the threshold into Eretz Yisrael, G-d’s intervention would change its form – Miriam’s well would stop producing water, the manna would no longer fall, and open miracles would cease to occur.[4] The Israelites would be forced to have a relationship with G-d through their relationship to the Land; they would be obliged to live – and find G-d – within natural order. As we discussed throughout the Books of Exodus and Leviticus, one of the primary aims of Judaism is to unite the spiritual with the physical – and to harmonize these two realms. “To be involved with the physical world and remain spiritually attuned demands the highest degree of attachment to G-d.”[5] The Israelites weren’t ready for the commitment, and they were sentenced to 40 more years in desert – not because they were too spiritual, but because they weren’t spiritual enough.[6] Spirituality is not about removing yourself from the material world, but about finding the supernatural essence of G-d through nature. Having a relationship with G-d is easy when there are no other distractions. Withdrawing from society to lead a life focused on prayer and worship is all well and good if you’re just trying to change yourself. This was one of the critiques of Noah, and why he needed to reincarnate into Moshe – Moshe’s tikkun was associated with the power and spirit he could generate within communal change. And communal change can only occur when we hold the collective and the individual together, when the illusion of duality fades and G-d’s hand appears through the natural order of the world. In this respect, the Israelites were guilty of binary logic believing that “life is either guided by the laws of nature, or…by Divine Intervention.”[7] This is why we read about the wine offerings, which follow the second rebellion – wine libations are poured downwards, towards the earth: “representing the need to be inspired back down to action.”[8] The Israelites were given forty more years to learn how to integrate their spirituality with the material – they needed to learn how to live more fully with the earth.

A very literal reading of this parashah tells us that the biggest impediment for the Israelites, moving into the Land, were “men of stature.” In the report that was brought back by the spies, they said: “All the people that we saw in it [the Land] were huge. There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of the giant from among the Nephilim; we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes!” (13:32-33) I’m not going to get into the mythology which sits behind the Nephilim that are mentioned here in Chapter 13 (see Genesis 6:4), but I am going to mention an interesting grammatical component of this noun. First of all, Nephilim is a generic term used to reference a people descended from giants. These are the people who the spies report are too strong for Israelites to conquer. And it’s this news which causes an uproar. But I’d like to point out that this noun is derived from the Hiphil, or causative form of naphal – meaning “to fall.”[9] Most Hebrew words are built around three root letters, also known as “three radicals,” which provide a range of meaning (i.e. semantic field) for the words that are then built from that root. The shoresh (or root) of Nephilim is nun, fey, and lamed – meaning “to fall” – and the binyan (which invokes and drives an aspect of the meaning of the root) is causative. What we can infer from this point is that the Nephilim were a grouping of people “that made use of their power to cast down others.”[10] In essence, they caused others to fall; they weren’t just big people, but they used their power in the wrong way to dominate others. The main emphasis, here, is that the Nephilim were the biggest impediment in the journey of the Israelites to integrate their spirituality with the material. The biggest impediment for the Israelites, in finding G-d through nature, were tyrants. And the same is true for us today; this is a universal condition. So much of the material world is being cast down by tyrants – take the arctic, for instance, which is one of the most vulnerable places on earth. Climate change, and the melting of ice, has recently been revealing ocean passages that were previously impassable. And there’s a whole (somewhat) hidden, war going on over control of commercial shipping lanes, which is threatening indigenous ways of life that have existed for thousands of years. The arctic, in a sense, is the last frontier – don’t let all of the space exploration distract you. The arctic is a vast expanse of land, rich in biodiversity, that is currently being exploited for the benefit of capitalism. And we have to wake up to this reality. We will never be able to see G-d through nature if we cannot work together to fight against the tyrants that are causing others to fall. We will never be able to live harmoniously with the land if we cannot actualize our spiritual principles in the material. This is the ecological lesson in the sin of the spies.

There’s a reason that the letter nun is omitted from the numerical system in the Ashrei prayer – it reminds us that falling, even during prayer, is a detrimental action. It reminds us that our happiness is dependent upon our spiritual integration with the material, which must occur after we descend from the bliss that is found in the spiritual world of prayer. In (13:20), Moshe asks the spies to report whether there are trees in the Land. And Rashi comments that Moshe’s reference to a tree was an allusion to a tzaddik. These are tzaddikim that stand amongst the Nephilim, the righteous souls that persist in and amongst tyrannical giants. Parashat Shelach is insisting that we send – for ourselves – those who can plant themselves in the earth to stand strong amidst the forces that cause us to fall. Parashat Shelach is insisting that we work towards growing our roots into the earth, where we can make real the inspiration from heaven.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: Finding the essence of G-d through nature, fighting against those who cause us to fall, and the analogy between a tzaddik and a tree


Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, eds. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.

Girdlestone, Robert Baker. Synonyms of the Old Testament: Their Bearing on Christian Faith and Practice. Longmans, Green, 1871. Accessed at:

Miller, Chaim. "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition." (2011).

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.799 [2] [3] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.941 [4] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.949 [5] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.955 [6] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.955 [7] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.949 [8] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.959 [9] Girdlestone, Synonyms of the Old Testament, p.90 [10] Girdlestone, Synonyms of the Old Testament, p.90

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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