Parashat Sh’lah

Friday, June 28, 2019 /25 Sivan, 5779
Parashat Sh’lah Numbers 13:1-15:41

Dear Friends,

Speak up! It may save your life! Such is the message hidden in our Torah portion this week.

Here’s the situation. The Israelites were in the desert early in their 40 year trek, and nearing the border of the Land of Canaan. God instructed Moses to send scouts to investigate the land. After 40 days of reconnoitering, the scouts returned, and while two – Caleb and Joshua – reported positively, the remaining ten of them reported the land as inhospitable, leading the rest of the Israelites to fearfully rail against Moses and Aaron, rejecting the Land, and God, by extension. Angrily, God decided that only the two scouts, and those Israelites under age 20, would survive the years in the desert, while all others would perish along the way.

God instructed Moses to declare, “Of all you men who were recorded in our various lists from age twenty years up, you who have muttered against Me, not one shall enter the land in which I swore to settle you.” (Num. 14:29-30)

So, what was the real reason for God’s anger?

Was it because the Israelites rejected His generosity of the Land? Perhaps. But likely, God is not that petty.
Was it because the Israelites failed to listen to reason, and succumbed to fear-mongering? Perhaps, but is that a good reason to punish all of them?
Was it because of a failure of leadership of Aaron and the scouts, who betrayed God’s trust? Perhaps, but the text does not hint at such a conclusion.

Rather, the hidden message is not so hidden – it is found in the word “muttered.” God was angered that some Israelites spoke against Him, and others kept silent, and others merely mumbled. A midrash explains:

All Israelites over twenty years of age were condemned to die in the wilderness, even those who silently disagreed with the majority and favored Joshua and Caleb. Why? Because they did not speak up.

The teaching is clear: the duty of a Jew – and all persons – is to speak up when justice demands it. Sitting silently by an episode of injustice is tantamount to committing the evil deed, oneself.

God, and life, demand that we speak up! It may save our lives!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Doug Kohn