Parshas Shlach: Wandering in the desert, returning to G-d and leading a Torah observant life

In Parshas Shlach, the Israelites are condemned to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, for doubting G-d’s ability to bring them to the promised land. Wandering in the desert, they are like those today who have forsaken G-d and His Torah; just as the Israelites were without a home, and unable to reap the rewards of the land, those who forsake G-d’s laws find themselves spiritually homeless, and devoid of the beauty of Torah. Some of the Israelites, however, attempted to enter the promised land against the wishes of G-d, and ignoring the warnings of Moshe Rabbenu; they were defeated by the evil Amalekites. Those who claim to observe the Torah’s laws, and yet do not practice kindness (instead reflecting upon precise interpretations until they completely miss the point of the Torah’s teachings) are like these Israelites; they are trying to achieve Torah observance without taking notice of G-d’s greatest lesson, and they, too, will fall prey to evil…

Parshas Shlach deals with the episode of the spies who Moses sends to discover the nature of the land of Canaan. Out of the 12 spies, 10 are wicked and doubtful, and report that the Israelites should not attempt to enter the land despite the fact G-d promised it to them. They say that the inhabitants are giants, and much stronger, despite admitting that the land is flowing with milk and honey. Only two of the spies insist that the Israelites enter, knowing that with G-d’s help, they can conquer the land. When the people hear the verdict of the spies, they despair and begin to doubt G-d- which results in forty years of wandering in the desert.

Although the Israelites were wrong to doubt G-d, and should certainly have trusted Him more than they trusted the spies, this episode proves just how damaging slander is. The spies began by saying something good (telling the truth), by commenting on the land’s positive attributes, but their report quickly went downhill, and their tales of giants led to the Israelites despairing. Because of this, they did not get to enter the promised land.

The topic of the wandering Jew is a well known one. By nature, Jews are a wandering, nomadic people. But in this case, the Israelites’ wanderings were a punishment sent by G-d. Unable to enter the promised land, they were left to wander the desert, knowing of the lush fruits and the milk and honey which could’ve been theirs if only they had had faith in their Creator. They felt disjointed, and had no home, nor any place to seek refuge in. Their troubles could have ceased immediately, if they were able to enter the promised land, only this was made impossible by their rejection of G-d.

Today, many Jews have attempted to turn their backs on G-d. This can be attributed to a number of things; assimilation, intermarriage, even the influence of popular culture. Just as the Israelites doubted G-d’s ability to bring them to the promised land, these Jews doubt G-d’s ability to give them a fulfilling and harmonic life through the observance of His Torah. They have no faith in G-d, even though their very souls are Jewish, and instead choose to embrace the immoral lifestyles of many of their non-righteous and non-Jewish counterparts.

When the promised land is used as a metaphor for a Torah lifestyle, we can see what rewards are being rejected by those who forsake G-d’s precepts. The Israelites did not benefit from the milk and honey, or the pomegranates and grapes of the promised land. Likewise, the Torah’s teachings- which are finer than honey or honeycomb, and more beautiful than any variety of fruits, do not benefit those who doubt Him and turn away from Him. Despite this, both the rebellious Israelites and those who mock G-d in today’s society, had recieved the Torah already. The Israelites received it at Mount Sinai, and every Jewish child learns the Torah in his mother’s womb (only to forget it upon birth). In both cases however, this was not enough to retain faith in G-d.

Some of the Isralites, ignoring the warnings of Moshe Rabbenu, who rightly told them that they could not conquer the land without G-d’s help, tried to enter the promised land. In the process, they were defeated spectacularly, and routed by the evil Amalekites and Canaanites. Continuing to use the promised land as a metaphor for Torah observance, these Israelites serve as a metaphor for those who claim to live by the Torah, but ignore G-d’s greatest lesson, which can be expressed brilliantly in the words of Rabbi Hillel; “Do not do unto your neighbour that which you would not want done to you. The rest is commentary…”

When Hillel uses the word “commentary”, he’s not being dismissive. Rather, he still holds the rest of the Torah in high esteem. For example, Rashi’s commentary is indispensable, and yet it is just that- a commentary. Rabbi Hillel was attempting to teach a mocking gentile the entirety of the Torah, and he successfully did so. This lesson has been repeated many times, perhaps most famously in a story involving the Alter Rebbe and his grandson (then a baby), the Tzemach Tzedek. After the Tzemach Tzedek’s father did not hear his cries, the Alter Rebbe said to him, “If someone is studying Torah, and fails to hear a human cry, then his learning is deficient”.

Such is the plight of those who forget about the importance of a human life, or human kindness, in the name of following the Torah’s laws. They become like the Israelites who attempted to take the promised land against G-d’s wishes, and just like those Israelites, they will be overcome by evil. A literal example of this attitude can actually be found in the episode of the spies. The reason why the 10 spies attempted to invoke doubt in G-d, and avoid entering the promised land, was because they knew that there, they would have to observe the physical mitzvot. Spiritually lofty, they felt that it would lower them to do so, forgetting that it is through the performance of various commandments and good deeds that we honour G-d the most. They were later put to death for the strife that they caused.

However, there is one crucial difference between modern Jews who attempt to shun a Torah observant lifestyle, and the doubtful Israelites punished with wandering in the desert. While the wandering Israelites were physically unable to enter, Jews can always turn back to the Torah. No matter how many sins one has committed, teshuvah, or repentance, is never impossible- no matter the place or time, a Jew can always return to G-d.

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