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Parashat Shelach

Parashat Shelach is the thirty-seventh weekly portion in the Torah and the fourth in the Book of Numbers (13:1-15:41). It opens in a way which strikingly recalls the opening of the book: a list of princes who will represent the tribes. However, this time they are not conducting a census or organizing the encampment; instead, they are to survey the Land of Israel, so that the Israelites can begin conquering the Promised Land (13:1-20).

Notably, in this list, we start from the Tribe of Reuben, rather than the Tribe of Judah, which leads the way as the Israelites travel through the desert. This indicates the fact that once the Jews come into possession of the Holy Land, there will no longer be a formal leader, but all the tribes will be equal.

This comes into play when, after forty days, these scouts return, bearing the remarkable fruits of the land. The representative of Judah, Caleb (related to Aaron’s wife), and the representative of the Tribe of Ephraim, Joshua (aide to Moses), retain their trust in the leadership of Moses and Aaron; but the other ten scouts declare that there is no way that the Israelites can defeat the powerful inhabitants of the land. Since Judah and Ephraim head divisions, we might expect the other tribes which camp on their sides to follow the lead of Joshua and Caleb, thus making the split six-six, with the Tribe of Levi casting the deciding vote. However, the fear of military defeat becomes rampant, infecting the entire nation, which dissolves into sobbing. The conspiracy theory that God has brought them out of Egypt only to be slaughtered consumes the public discourse. Tradition says this happened on the night of the Ninth of Av, a day which would later see the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem — twice!   

This leads God to impose a horrific decree: corresponding to the forty days of the disastrous scouting mission, the Israelites will wander for forty years in the wilderness. During this time, the entire generation of adult males will die out — except for Caleb and Joshua, who will live to inherit the land. Some of the people now realize their error and launch an assault on Canaan; however, without God’s help, they are wiped out just as they feared (13:21-14:45).

Still, Chapter 15 contains laws which symbolize the enduring hope for Israel, from mitzvot which apply only upon entering the land to tzitzit, the fringes affixed to four-cornered garments. The covenant will ultimately be fulfilled.



The portion from the Prophets is the second chapter of Joshua, in which we find Moses’s successor sending out his own scouts. This rights the historical wrong of the Torah portion, as these spies (an ancient Jewish tradition says one of them was Caleb) encounter a local woman in Jericho named Rahab who assures them that the nations of Canaan are in awe of God’s power. Out of gratitude for saving their lives, Joshua’s scouts promise to save her and her family.

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