Shelah Lekha (Ramban)
Why Did Moss Send the Spies?
At the end of the year I spent in Israel between high school and college, nearly half a century ago, I brought home two sets of Hebrew books—a set of Mishnayot and one of Mikra’ot Gedolot—a set of Pentateuch surrounded by half-a-dozen commentaries on the text, among which Rashi, Ramban and Ibn Ezra feature most prominently. The following summer, I worked as a summer camp counselor in the Midwest and, after traveling all night and all day by train, arrived in Minneapolis, where I was taken to the home of Professor Velvel Greene, perhaps the best known ba’al teshavah to come out of the Twin Cities. After supper, I sat down and started to learn the parashah, which happened to be Shelah Lekha. When he asked me what I was learning, I answered, ”Ramban.” This made an impression on him. I only realized years later the extent to which I was biting off far more than I could chew, that I really didn’t understand much of what I was reading, and that the impression I made on this serious, and ultimately rather learned Jew, was quite undeserved. As a kind of atonement and contrition for that youthful folly (which Velvel is no longer alive to enjoy), I wish to present that same Ramban, the first on the parashah, as well as I can, dedicated to his memory.
One of the salient characteristics of Ramban, which emerges very strongly in both this and in the second passage to be presented below, is his thorough-going, razor-sharp analysis of the text, and his debunking of popular but, in his view, incorrect interpretations of the text—most often, those of Rashi. This is always done through careful reasoning and argumentation, backed up by abundant quotations from Biblical verses, Rabbinic midrash, and other sources.
Due to limitations of space, I cannot translate the commentary on this verse in full, but will suffice with a summary of his argument which, in classical Ramban style, begins with quoting Rashi’s commentary, continues with arguments that challenge Rashi’s reading of the verse, and concludes with an alternative explanation of the question at hand. Rashi, based on Midrash Tanhuma, states that when God tells Moses, in Num 13:2, shelah lekha anashim—“You shall send people to spy out the land of Canaan”—he is not commanding him to do so, but is merely permitting him to do so if he so wishes, leaving the choice up to him. Thus, the disastrous consequence of this mission, which we see as the chapter develops, falls upon Moses’ shoulders. Rashi and the midrash base this idea on two facts: first, the use of the word lekha, “for yourself,” in the phrase shelah lekha—implying that it was his option to send or not to send. Second: in the description of the incident of the meraglim, the spies, in Deuteronomy, in which Moses reiterates and recapitulates the various events that befell the people during their years of wandering in the desert, there is no mention of a Divine command, but it simply states, “And all of you drew close to me and said, ‘Let us send people before us and search out the land’” (Deut 1:22; cf. there to v. 30)
Ramban presents a number of objections. First of all, in what did the spies sin, if thy merely answered the questions posed by Moses? If he asked them to report back whether the people who lived in the land were strong or weak, whether their cities were fortified or unprotected, what fault was there in their stating, “However, the people who inhabit it are fierce, and their cities are fortified, and they are the offspring of giants” (13:28)? Were they supposed to lie? Moreover, Moses himself, in one of his exhortations to the people in Deuteronomy, stresses that they were going into a land inhabited by people stronger than themselves and that they should know that the only reason they can succeed in this is that God is accompanying them (Deut 9:1 ff.).
Ramban then continues by developing an alternative theory: what Moses wanted and what the people sought were two different things. Moses did not question whether the land was good, in order to decide whether to go at all—that had already been decided; Eretz Yisrael / the Land of Canaan was the land promised to the patriarchs. Moses had trust in God that the promise, “I shall bring you to a good land,” would be fulfilled, and that they would succeed in conquering it. His motivation in agreeing to send the spies was tactical—to determine the precise route and order of entering the land, its geographic layout, where the defenses of its cities were strong and where weak, etc.—in brief, the normal questions that any military commander would ask, and attempt to answer by preliminary reconnaissance before setting out on a mission. Indeed, on various other occasions both Moses and Joshua sent spies to acquire information needed prior to launching attacks on one or another city (e.g., Ya’azer in Num 21:32; Jericho in Josh 2:1; etc.). Beyond that, he expected the spies to bring back a report that would rejoice and encourage the people.
The sin of the people, and specifically of the spies (that is, of all but Joshua and Kalev) was that they thought differently: they asked to send spies to determine whether the land was good at all, and whether the people were too strong for them to fight: in brief, that they had no trust in God’s assurances whatsoever, and were ready to return to Egypt and give up on the entire project.
What may we learn from all this? That there is a difference between faith and blind faith. Faith means having a certain confidence that God will, in general, help us in our various life endeavors, an attitude which ought to foster a generally optimistic approach, dispelling pessimism and depression. But it does mean that we ought, as religious people, to disregard practical, rational considerations. An intelligent believer, exactly like his agnostic or atheist brother, will investigate as thoroughly as possible the objective background relating to various life decisions pertaining to such things as health care, investments, career choice, buying a home, etc., and acting accordingly. It does not mean believing in ludicrous things or expecting God to suspend the laws of nature for our personal benefit because we pray or perform some “segulah.” I was once present at the wedding of a couple marrying for the second time, both well into middle age. One of the guests, a pious woman who knew that the bride was past her child-bearing years, blessed them, “May your union be blessed with many righteous and God-fearing sons and daughters.” That guest was not pious, but was simply a fool.
Of What Do the Tzitzit Remind Us?
At the end of the parashah there appears the section regarding the commandment of tzitzit, recited twice daily as part of the Recitation of Shema, including the familiar words, “They shall be for you as tzitzit (fringes), and you shall see them and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them” (Num 15:39). How exactly does this “reminding” work? Here too, Ramban ”debunks” a very familiar conception, and presents an alternative, to my mind far deeper, explanation:
Regarding this remembrance of all the mitzvot which shall be in the tzitzit, Rashi writes as follows: “Because the numerical value of the word tzitzit in gematria is six hundred, and there are eight threads and five knots, making a total of 613 [conventionally accepted as the total number of commandments of the Torah, according to Rav Simlai at the end of b. Makkot].
And I do not understand this, for the word tzitzit in the Torah is lacking in the [second] letter yod (i.e. it is written ציצת and not ציצית), so that its numerical value is only 590. Moreover, the number of threads according to Beit Hillel (b. Menahot 41b) is only three [NB: he also could have mentioned that the “eight threads” seen on the tzitzit are really only four, both ends of each one hanging down separately]. And as for the knots—by Torah law only two are required, as they said “We infer from this that the uppermost knot is from the Torah” (b. Menahot 39a), for if it were not from the Torah, how could the Torah permit kilayim in tzitzit? [i.e., that mixed fibers of wool and linen are permitted in tzitzit, based on the principle that a positive commandment overrides a negative proscription]. And we say that if one makes only one stitch, this is not considered a connection [i.e., that the minimal requirement for tzitzit is a double knot and not a single turn of the threads].
“What a clever mamzer,” Rashi must be muttering in his grave. With elegance and erudition, Ramban demonstrates—nay, proves beyond any reasonable refutation—that all three elements of Rashi’s popular gematria for tzitzit, which generations of school children and Jews generally have been taught, is entirely fallacious. And, in the process, he teaches us a thing or two about the halakhic underpinnings of the laws of tzitzit. He then continues, on a totally different level:
But rather, the remembrance is in the azure thread (tekhelet) which alludes to that quality which includes all, which is in all, and is the aim of all (takhlit hakol; a pun on tekhelet, which is spelled with the same Hebrew consonants: תכלת / תכלית). Therefore it says: “and you shall remember all …”, which is tantamount to the commandments of God. And this is what they said: “For the azure is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the Throne of [Divine] Glory” (b. Menahot 43b). And the similarity is in the name, as well as in the appearance of the azure hue, for at a distance all things appear to be that hue. For that reason it is called tekhelet [as if the word itself means “Allness”).
And they said “And you shall not go astray after your hearts”—to warn us that we should not make an error therein. And this is what our Rabbis expounded, “after your hearts”—this is heresy (apikorsut)—“after which you go awhoring”—this is idolatry, that he not think from the tekhelet to heresy or idolatry, but that it all shall be for you as tzitzit—“And you shall see them, and remember.” And they said, “and after your eyes”—this is [sexual] licentiousness, as in the verse “I am the one who knows, and I am the witness, says the Lord (Jer 29:23). And he who is wise shall understand.
There is a danger in focusing on the aspect of tekhelet alone, in the Kabbalistic sense of Malkhut, to the exclusion of the “All.” This is called “uprooting the plantings.”
And it says in the midrash of Rabbi Nehunyah ben ha-Kanah (Sefer ha-Bahir, §96) on the verse “the advantage of the land is in all things” (Eccles 5:8): And what is that? It is the land from which the Heavens are hewn, and that is the Throne of the Holy One blessed be He, and it is a precious stone, and it is the Sea of Wisdom, and against it the tekhelet in the garment of tzitzit, as Rabbi Meir said: In what is tekhelet different [from all other colors? Tekhelet is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the Throne of [Divine] Glory, as is said ‘And they saw the God of Israel, and beneath his feet was a pavement of sapphire stone, and like the very heavens for purity’ [Exod 24:10], and it says ‘And the appearance of the throne was like sapphire stone‘ [Ezek 1:26] [NB: the section in brackets is not quoted in Ramban, but is taken from the continuation of the Bahir passage as it appears in ed. Margaliot, Jerusalem, 1951, pp. 42-43].
Two comments: First, its Kabbalistic interpretation. Kol is used by Ramban as a code word for Malkhut, the basis of all, what in Western philosophy might be called the Ground of Being. (See what we wrote about this earlier this year, at HY XIV: Hayyei Sarah, about God blessing Abraham bakol, and Abraham’s daughter)
Second: today most Jews wear tzitzit without tekhelet. The tradition for making tekhelet was lost centuries ago; it is derived from the blood of a rare mollusk, the hilazon, which according to some only lives on distant shores, at the other end of Mediterranean (it is interesting that a treif sea creature serves such a central, instrumental role in such a mitzvah). Various attempts have been made in modern times to revive the use of tekhelet: the 19th century Rebbe of Radzhin claimed tro have found it; the late Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yitzhak Isaak Herzog, wrote his doctoral dissertation on the topic. In more recent years, certain people claim to have distilled the true tekhelet dye, and it is available in the market, for a rather hefty price. In certain synagogues one sees more and more, mostly young people wearing tekhelet. But the vast majority if Jews still wear tzitzit with white threads. So one must suffice with the idea, and with the memory.
It is also interesting that tekhelet served as the inspiration for the blue-and-white Israeli flag. I don’t know how close the light blue seen on most flags is to tekhelet, which is closer to a deep sea blue. The blue of the flag actually appears in the two blue stripes, resembling stripes of the tallit, about which there are no color requirements.
* * * * *
I had originally intended to write something this week about Women of the Wall and the controversy surrounding their activity—an apt subject this week, given that one of the subjects which has aroused ire was their wearing of tallitot with tzitzit. But due to an urgent work deadline, I must postpone that discussion until early next week.