Saturday, June 24, 2006

DVAR TORAH: Shlach Lecha

No scribal oddities this week, only the arguably most damning story in the Torah and one of the most famous paragraphs. The Torah portion begins "Shlach Lecha", send for yourself men to spy out the land. This is not for God's sake, but for Moses and the people's. God knows the land and obviously the Lord of Hosts (see the previous Dvar Torah) can easily conquer is. Why does God then send out scouts? Because although God is Omnicient, He has granted free will within His world and therefore it is incumbent upon the people to make their own decision. And so twelve men, one from each tribe, toured the land (which comes from the hebrew word לתור, la-tour, to tour or to spy)
The emblem of Israel's Ministry of Tourism of two men bearing a huge cluster of gigantic grapes on a pole comes from this weeks Torah portion where the spies bring back this enlarged sample of the bountiful produce of the land from Eshkol

It ends up being a disaster. Twelve spies are sent out, including a guy named Hoshea Bin Nun from the tribe of Ephrayim and Caleb Ben Yephuneh of the tribe of Judah. Joshua (Hoshea Bin Nun) is remarkable because moses blesses him and renames him, adding a yud to his name and calling him Yehoshua. Caleb is interesting because of a legend ascribed to him. I noticed this strange grammatical procession last year and I investigated (some of my campers can back me up on my discovery as I blurted it out in the Library after cholent lunch). Bamidbar 13:22: יעלו בנגב ויבא עד־חברון, literally "they went up to the Negev and he came to Hebron". The midrash, as I researched, is that only one, Caleb, went up to Hebron. He prayed at the Cave of Machpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and asked them to invoke God's help because of the negative report the other spies wanted to bring. Indeed they returned and said the land was great and the produce better than anywhere in the world (I agree with that, by the way). There were no conflicts here. However ten of the spies said that the people were too powerful. They called them Nephilim, and said that "we were as grasshoppers in our own eyes, so we were in their eyes". They just called them antedilluvian progeny of angels and humans, giants. Caleb and Joshua, both inspired by God (Caleb by his visit to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Joshua to the addition of a letter from God's Name to his own) said that with God's help we can conquer it. Well, the people listened to the 10 negative spies. This was the straw that broke the camel's back. This was much worse than the Sin of the Golden Calf because this directly countered the purpose for the exodus and not only denounced the providence of God but also His primacy and his unimpeachable strength. God decreed that all males above the age of 20 were to die. According to Midrash this evening where everyone cried was Tisha B'Av. God decided that because they are weeping for no reason this night, God would give them a reason to wail this night every year and therefore this is the day where the greatest tragedies have befallen our people. I don't have to mention the Destruction of both Temples, the Razing, the fall of Beitar, the Massacre at Worms, the Inquisition, or World War I which led to the Holocaust, but I should mention the least known but initial tragedy that occurred on this day. God in His mercy decreed that every year in the desert all the men would dig graves on the evening of the 9th of Av and they would sleep in them. When they awoke, 15,000 men did not. Every year for 39 years this many men died in their graves that night. The fortieth year they did it again but nobody died. They thought that maybe they did the wrong night. They slept in their graves again and still nobody died. They repeated this every night until the 15th of the month, the night that they saw the full moon. They then realized that the punishment was over, and this is one of of the reasons that according to Rabbi Akiba that this day of Tu B'Av is one of the two happiest days of the year.

I don't want to end this one on a bad note (well happiest day of the year isn't "bad" but still...), so I want to talk about the Maftir. We have here a very famous paragraph which we also recite twice daily as the third paragraph of the Shema. In it we are told to take fringes and place them on all four-cornered garments. Why we don't put them on towels, blankets, or ponchos, I don't know, but in an age where square clothing (not speaking metaphorically) is not common, we wear a tallit (and a tallit kattan). This may be the source of people tying a string around their finger to remind them to do something, because these tzitzit strings are to remind us to perform the mitzvot. Pirkei Avot 4:2 says that a mitzvah leads to another mitzvah and I think that this is the quintessential mitzvah that leads to others. However a mitzvah within this mitzvah is to have a thread of techelet within these fringes. During talmudic times the Chilazon, the animal from which the blue dye was derived either went extinct or was forgotten and what they could have had was too expensive. A while back, however, the animal turned out not to be extinct but well hidden. There is controversy over what type of animal it is. Ironically all the suspected animals are non-kosher; am I really allowed to kiss my tzitzit? Whatever mine is made out of, it is the cheapest kind. Yes, the day before I left Israel, I went to buy techelet. It is coming back in vogue. I think the techelet really did something for me, because the radiant blue on the pristine white really calls attention to itself (especially because there are now blue stains all over the place now) and makes me think, possibly about performing mitzvot.

Note to self: do mitzvot. I took pictures this morning of my tallit gadol with techelet I wanted to take it last night, but I can't do such things if it is too dark to see the difference between blue and white strings of the tallit, the first mitzvah of the Talmud

A wikipedia article on Tzitzit can be found here and this same article contains information about the resurgence of techelet.

Speaking of Blue and white, I'm going to the Dodger game tomorrow night. Hooray!

Shabbat Shalom,

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