If Only We Still Had Our Heads in the Clouds!

Parshat Shelach – 5779

This week’s Parsha presents us with one of the saddest, most tragic periods in the history of Am Yisroel. The sin of the ten spies which was the “crowning achievement” among the ten sins of the children of Israel in the desert. The clincher, for which they were told that they would never enter the promised land. One of the first of our many times that we missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. (In general, throughout history, we have NEVER missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity!)


The biggest problem with this is that it really isn’t clear why they were deserving of punishment for such a seemingly small infraction! What, exactly, did they do that was so bad? More importantly, we have to ask why? Why did they do it? What were they thinking at the time?


The Parsha opens and says, “Send for you people, and they will survey the land…”
Rashi on this verse clearly states that this isn’t HaShem giving us a command to do this. If He wanted to command us, it would say, “Send men,” not “Send for yourself men.” The understanding is that this is voluntary. If you want to – do so, send men la’tur (to scout) the land, and if you don’t want to – that’s also fine! HaShem was not saying that to scout the land was a bad thing. What He was saying was that if they don’t go and scout out the land – it changes nothing. The land remained the same, good land. The peoples’ dwelling upon the land remained the same people. Nothing was changed as a result of the scouting to the facts.
However, the act of actually going to scout the land has consequences. Of that, there can be no doubt.


On the one hand, it has the potential to be a tremendous source of chizuk in emunah. To actually see the land that HaShem has promised them for the past nearly two years spent at Sinai, and to take in the reality. To internalize that every word that HaShem has told them over the past 210 years in Egypt about what will be when the Redeemer comes and the land to which they would be taken has been 100% true is precisely what emunah is all about! However, this is only good if you allow that reality to penetrate. Because, on the other hand, they were also going to come face to face with their future enemies. They would see their strength and power. They would take note of their readiness for battle and hear stories of their prowess on the battlefield, and their emunah would be tested sorely. And tested it was!

However, it is so very hard to understand. How is it conceivable that these people, who stood on the foot of Sinai and witnessed the wonders the splitting of the Reed Sea and the plagues of Egypt, people who watched HaShem destroy the world’s greatest super-power of the time, how is it possible that they felt any fear? What did the Canaanite nations have that Egypt didn’t? The answer is – they had nothing. Yes, they were mighty and of powerful stature. Yes, they heavily fortified cities. Yes, there even were giants in the land at the time. So what? They are like a match in front of a tornado! What chance do they have in front of HaShem? So why did the spies come back and frighten the people so much? What did they have to gain?

The answer seems to be that they wanted to continue living as people in the desert among the outright miracles of HaShem. They wanted to get the Mann daily and to drink from the well of Miriam. They wanted to remain in proximity of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and to be surrounded constantly by the ananei hakavod (Clouds of Glory). They wanted things to stay the way that they had grown accustomed to. In short, they wanted to live a comfortable life.
However, that’s not what HaShem wants, and that is not what we are here for either.
The following is a parable to describe the issue. It’s like a young guy, a bachur who is learning in Yeshiva. He is a real masmid, spends all of his time learning and growing. He knows Shas (the Talmud) backward and forwards and can give a shiur (exegesis) on varied topics with ease. But he’s not yet married. Say our sages, ob”m, (Tractate Yebamos 63b) “Any man who has not married is without Torah….” Without the Torah? Didn’t we just finish saying that he’s full of Torah? That he knows all of Shas by heart? How can such a person be “without Torah?” The answer is because it requires very little of him to stay on target and because he needs to make practically no sacrifices or has no cause to rise to the challenge that is to live a Torah life in the fullest sense.

As we have mentioned many times in various blogs (this, for example) the reason that we are in this life is to be challenged and to rise up to the challenge. In this regard, one of the most difficult tests of life is to keep, one’s life in balance. It’s very easy to get invested in earning a livelihood or turning a profit. It much harder to keep a balanced perspective of how to juggle your drive to make what you need while keeping your eye on the real you, the potential you by connecting to Torah and Yirah. It is much more difficult to find the time to grow yourself when you are juggling your responsibilities towards your spouse and your children at the same time. Yet if you succeed at doing that – how much more precious is the smaller amount of time that you spend on your growth and personal connection to HaShem, as opposed to the Torah that you learned as a bachur (Bachelor). It’s not about the quantity. It’s far more about the quality.

The parable was that the children of Israel in the desert were like the unmarried young man. They lived in a “perfect” state of closeness to HaShem, they were provided with miraculous food every day, the Mann, they had no need for labor of any sort as they had shelter (Clouds) and all the sustenance that they needed, they had no need to do any laundry or even any sewing[1]. All they had to do was enjoy the closeness of HaShem. But that is not what this world is for!

Bnei Yisroel, the children of Israel were told from the very beginning that the desert was a temporary state. They always had a destination and a destiny and neither could be fulfilled in the desert. The land of Israel was their destination and the place where they were to achieve their destiny: to be a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy people. It’s just that it wasn’t going to be comfortable. It won’t be pristine. Isn’t that what life is like?

You may have noticed, but not every day is a holiday. Yet the holidays themselves are incredibly important times. They bring us closer – with HaShem’s help – as a family. They unify us as a people, and when used well they also bring us close to our Father who is in Heaven. But after the holiday … we go back to the ordinary day. It is during the regular days that we discover where our priorities lie.

The children of Israel were on the verge of going back to “regular life”. The Midrash says that they were so out-of-sync with the reality that the world lives in that when they saw fields of wheat, they wondered what it was! But now they were going to settle down. They were going to build houses and dwell in them, just like everyone else. They were going to plant vineyards and crops, just like everyone else. They were going to build cities and roads, and do all of the stuff that everyone else does. The only question was, would they forget their purpose along the way?

Like Noah after the flood, who, despite the very tough life that he and his family led while being on the ark, couldn’t bring himself to leave it even after it was clear to everyone that the flood was done and over. HaShem needed to command him to leave it. So to the leaders of Israel at the time didn’t want to leave the cocoon of the desert to go back to the real world where they could be distracted from the truth of life by the day-to-day goings on of the world.

However, whereas Noah was leaving the ark to desolation, the people of Israel were entering a lush and vibrant land. A land flowing in milk and honey, a land rich in natural resources and fertile land. A land whose inhabitants grew to be of large stature and power. It was time for them to leave the cocoon and spread their wings in the promised land!

But they refused. Because they knew better.

The spies come back from the land and they tell the people that everything that HaShem has promised them for centuries is absolutely true. The land is vibrant and powerful. It surely is a good land … BUT…

The spies showing off the goodness of the land, only to they corrupt it…

And here is where they begin to undermine the goodness and goodwill of HaShem and turn in into bad. Bamidbar (Numbers) 13:27-29

כז וַיְסַפְּרוּ לוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ בָּאנוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר שְׁלַחְתָּנוּ וְגַם זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ הִוא וְזֶה פִּרְיָהּ: כח אֶפֶס כִּי עַז הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד וְגַם יְלִדֵי הָעֲנָק רָאִינוּ שָׁם: כט עֲמָלֵק יוֹשֵׁב בְּאֶרֶץ הַנֶּגֶב וְהַחִתִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי וְהָאֱמֹרִי יוֹשֵׁב בָּהָר וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי יוֹשֵׁב עַל הַיָּם וְעַל יַד הַיַּרְדֵּן:

(27) And the related to him (Moses) and said “We came to the land that you sent us to, and it is also flowing in milk and honey and this is its fruit. (28) (However, this is) worthless, for the nation dwelling in the land, is powerful and the cities are large and exceedingly fortified, and also the children of giants we saw there. (29) Amalek dwells in the lands to the South (Negev) and the Hittites and the Jebusites and the Amorites dwell in the mountains (where they have a tactical advantage) and the Canaanites dwell near the sea and next to the Jordan (and we won’t be able to pass by).

This already has planted the seeds of fear into the hearts of the people, however, they are not, as of yet, despondent.

Caleb, realizing this quickly jumps into the picture, utilizing his innate wisdom to silence the other spies (see Rashi on the first part of the verse), and says (ibid 30)

וַיַּהַס כָּלֵב אֶת הָעָם אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר עָלֹה נַעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ כִּי יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָהּ:

“And Caleb silenced the people unto Moshe, and he said, “We will surely go up and we will inherit it (the land) for we surely can do it.”

Seeing the hearts of the people swaying back in the direction of going, the spies immediately add (ibid 31-33)

לא וְהָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר עָלוּ עִמּוֹ אָמְרוּ לֹא נוּכַל לַעֲלוֹת אֶל הָעָם כִּי חָזָק הוּא מִמֶּנּוּ: לב וַיֹּצִיאוּ דִּבַּת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תָּרוּ אֹתָהּ אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ בָהּ לָתוּר אֹתָהּ אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא וְכָל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ בְתוֹכָהּ אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת: לג וְשָׁם רָאִינוּ אֶת הַנְּפִילִים בְּנֵי עֲנָק מִן הַנְּפִלִים וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם:

(31) And the men who went up (into the land) with him (Caleb) said: “We cannot (possibly succeed) to go up to the land, for he (the peoples of the land) are stronger than He is!” (32) And they brought out the dibbah (falsehood, according to Ibn Ezra) of the land that they surveyed to the children of Israel saying “The land that we traveled in to survey it is a land that consumes its inhabitants (Rashi says that they witnessed funeral processions wherever they went) and all of the nations that we saw in it were men of stature. (33) And there we saw the fallen ones, sons of the giant from among the fallen ones, and we were in our eyes as grasshoppers (to them) and so were we in their eyes.”

With this the spies succeeded in their plan, only to fail miserably. The people, indeed, wound up staying in the desert for another 38 years, the ten spies… didn’t. But the people who ignored the powerful message of the desert, the open miracles and the truth that is HaShem for the weak and self-interested claims of the spies, lost the opportunity afforded to them: to finally arrive at their promised destination.

This point, that we have to keep our eyes focused on what is really meaningful in life while living that life, (regardless of what one does to make a living, which is, although significant, but a relatively unimportant part of life) is stressed beautifully by the end of the Parsha as well. The Parsha of the mitzvah of tzitzit.

When HaShem commands us (ibid 16:38)

דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם לְדֹרֹתָם וְנָתְנוּ עַל צִיצִת הַכָּנָף פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת

Speak to the people of Israel and say to them “And they shall make for themselves tzitzit on the corners of their garments for their generations. And that shall place on the tzitzit that is on the corner a string of techelet.”

Amazingly enough, the way that the Torah chooses to present us with a new mitzvah is … to act like we know what it is talking about! “Make for yourselves tzitzit,” it says. Well, what in the world is a tzitzit?

It is my understanding that HaShem is saying to the people as follows. “Make for yourselves a little tzitz (ציץ in Hebrew, which is the root word).” What is a tzitz?” you ask? A tzitz is the gold headband that the Kohein Gadol (High Priest) would wear while he was performing his duties in the Beit HaMikdash. Other than the root word, is there another reason why we should assume that there is a connection between the tzitz and tzitzit? Upon reflection, we find many connections between them.

The tzitz that the Kohein Gadol wore was tied to his head using a ptil techelet, like the one that is tied to the tzitzit. On the tzitz that the Kohein Gadol wore the words Kadosh l’HaShem, “Holy unto G-d” was written, whereas on the tzitzit although there was nothing written, however, the Torah says concerning it (verse 39-40)

(39) “And they shall be for you a tzitzit that you shall see it (the string of techelet) and you shall remember all of the commandments of HaShem and you shall do them. … (40) So that you shall remember and you shall do all of My mitzvos and you shall be holy to your G-d.”

Out of all of the people of Israel, there is only one Kohein Gadol. His job is to dwell among the clouds of glory, in that his entire day and life is centered around the worship of HaShem. Concerning such a person it is possible to proclaim “Holy unto G-d” on his forehead. Most people, however, don’t live like that. Most people wake up in the morning and dredge out to some job somewhere to do something that they don’t want to do but have to out of necessity. After a long day of doing what they have to do, in order to get by, now they have “their own time” ahead of them to do with as they please, but what do they do with it? Do they use it to become better, more spiritual people? If so, they are also kedoshim. If they do not, then they are NOT kedoshim. It is HaShem’s desire that they should be kedoshim, as such He commanded us to wear a garment with tzitzit, so that whatever direction we turn towards – we will be reminded that we have the ability to be holy, to be kedoshim. The average person was never meant to dwell in the clouds of glory. The average person is supposed to live in this world, but to climb above and beyond it. To strive for holiness.

Would it have been easier if the Jewish people remained in the Clouds of Glory in the desert? Of course, it would! However, that isn’t what we are here for. We are in this world to live in it and build it up while keeping our real goals in perspective and striving constantly for holiness.

May it be His will that we, as individuals and as a people succeed in achieving this goal.


[1] This is learned from the verse in Devarim (Deuteronomy) 8:4 שִׂמְלָתְךָ לֹא בָלְתָה מֵעָלֶיךָ וְרַגְלְךָ לֹא בָצֵקָה זֶה אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה. “Your dress did not become worn out from upon you and your feet have not swollen (from lack of shoes) over these (past) forty years.” Rashi on this verse states that the clouds of glory would clean and “iron” their clothes, and that their clothes themselves not only didn’t get worn out, but they grew with them.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: