Commentary for Shlach Lecha

13 Jun

This week’s parshah deals with the theme of sin and punishment. It starts off with the story of the spies, who are sent out to scout the Promised Land. When they return, the spies tell of the beauty of the land and the abundance of food, but all but two of them also report that the inhabitants are so strong that it would be impossible to defeat them. This report spreads through the Israelite camp like wildfire, and soon the people rallied against Moses, Aaron and God, demanding to know why they had been led out of Egypt only to face an impossible task. Angry with this lack of faith, God declares that the Israelites shall wander in the desert until this entire generation that has repeatedly shown a lack of faith in God’s awesome might despite the evidence before them, has died out. Their children will live to see the Promised Land, but they shall not. Only Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who argued that God’s might could easily deliver their enemies into their hands, would be allowed to enter the Promised Land.

The next day, a group of Israelites came to Moses, insisting that they now believed in God’s omnipotence and were ready to enter the Promised Land. Moses ordered them not to do so, warning them that they would not succeed in their attempt to escape God’s decree. The people persisted anyway, and they were soundly defeated, just as they had originally believed would be the case when they doubted God’s power.

In the second half of chapter fifteen, the Torah gives a list of the proscribed sin offerings for various situations. In a case where the entire community has sinned inadvertently, the High Priest offers the sacrifice on behalf of the entire community. If an individual sins inadvertently, he or she brings a sacrifice to the temple, where a priest offers the sacrifice for him or her. If an individual brazenly commits an act of heresy, however, there is no offering to be given. Such a person, who has rejected God’s laws, is to be cut of from God’s people, and forfeits his or her place in the World to Come.

Through these stories, the Torah teaches that we are all responsible for our own actions, and will be held accountable for them. The Israelites who, despite all that they had seen, regularly doubted God’s omnipotence, were punished, while Joshua and Caleb, who never lost their faith and argued for God’s cause, were not punished. If a sin is committed on behalf of the community, the entire community is responsible to help make atonement. An individual that sins, even by accident, is required to make a sin offering, and anyone who knowingly and brazenly commits heresy will be punished severely.

The Torah then follows this up with a brief story about a man who was caught desecrating Shabbat. He was out on trial in front of the whole community, and found guilty. He was then detained while Moses asked God what the proper punishment should be, and God decrees that the whole community should stone the man to death.

The Rabbis determine from the seemingly extraneous word establishing that this event happened “in the wilderness” that this event took place on the second Shabbat after the giving of the Torah. The first Shabbat had gone perfectly, but now, just fourteen days after the Torah had been given, someone was already desecrating Shabbat! The Torah makes certain to mention that this man was tried by “the whole community” and the sentence was carried out by “the whole community.” This story is included here to teach us that being responsible for our own actions does not just mean that we must avoid sinning, but that we are all responsible for helping to create an atmosphere for our society in which sin is heavily discouraged.

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