We Are A Family – for Shabbat Shelach Lecha[1], Friday, June 21, 2019

You may remember that a few weeks ago, as we were beginning this year’s reading of the Book of Numbers, I pointed out a distinct change in the approach of the text to the condition of the ancient Israelites. Rather than looking backward at the legacy of slavery, Numbers began with God’s plan for the people’s future by commanding a census of all the young men who would be eligible for military service.

And the book, I noted, is filled from beginning to end with mitzvot that would guide the people when they settled in the land that God had promised to them, and to which Moses was leading them.

This week’s Torah portion provides an important example of how ready the Israelites were – or were not – to fulfill God’s plan for them.

Shelach lecha, God says to Moses: “Send you men to scout out the land of Cana’an, which I am giving to the Israelite people.” And then God instructs Moses to “send one man from each of their ancestral tribes each one a chieftain among them.”

On the surface, this would indicate that God wanted to make sure that each of the 12 tribes had buy-in to the plan. That each would feel included and empowered. But there’s some indication in traditional commentaries that the plan was inevitably flawed.

Don Isaac Abarbanel, a 15th-century Portuguese commentator, sees this clearly. “Why,” he asks, “did God tell them to ‘send one man from each of their ancestral tribes’ for a total of 12? Two men would see just as much as 12 – or 100 – and arouse less suspicion.”

And don’t forget, that’s exactly what Joshua would do when it came time to actually cross over the Jordan into the walled city of Jericho – as though he learned the lesson from the disaster that’s about to befall his predecessor Moses here.

But our tradition teaches that this wasn’t just a tactical blunder. We read:

“Each tribe sent its own representatives. No tribe trusted any other, and each group chose its own person. There was no unity among them, and they were divided into separate tribes and groups. However, when Joshua sent the spies, he sent only two. That showed the unity of the nation and their mutual trust, and that was the reason for the mission’s success.”[2]

So God and Moses are preparing the Israelites to battle their way into the Promised Land. But the Hebrew text itself also gives us clues that, while the people, while they may no longer think like slaves, still don’t look at themselves as one nation with a Divine mission.

In many English translations, Moses charges them with this task: “See what kind of country it is, are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many, is the country in which they dwell good or bad?” The language is in the plural – are they strong or weak? Is the country where they dwell good or bad? But that’s not what the Hebrew says.

The Hebrew refers to “ha-am” – the nation, in the collective singular:

מַה־הִוא וְאֶת־הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב עָלֶיהָ הֶחָזָק הוּא הֲרָפֶה הַמְעַט הוּא אִם־רָב

“And what of this people which dwells on the land: Is IT strong or weak; is IT few or many. . . . Are ITS towns open or fortified?”[3]

Moses acknowledges by his own language that the Israelites – who still identify by their tribes and their ancestral houses – will be up against a true, unified nation in the Canaanite people. And the spies use the same language to report back:

אֶפֶס כִּי־עַז הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד

“Wow, the nation that dwells there IS mighty and the cities are fortified and large. . . We cannot attack that am – that people, that nation — for IT is stronger than we.”[4]

The Hebrew tells us something really important that is missing in the English. The spies first describe the inhabitants of the land – the Amalekites of the Negev to the south, and the Hittites and Jebusites and Amorites of the hill country of the north, and the Canaanites along the sea and the Jordan river – but then they refer to them as am – one people, one nation, united by the fact that they all see themselves as am.

And that is something that, clearly that the scouts themselves lack. They think of themselves as sons of Levi or Judah or Benjamin. They are not yet Am Yisrael, the People Israel, as we know it today.

The people who left Egypt relied completely on God to see them through the forty years of existence in the wilderness: God gave them everything they needed from clothes to food to the protection of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. So they could afford to stick with their families and their tribes. Even God recognized this when they were commanded to muster by tribe when they traveled. It wasn’t until Joshua led them across the Jordan and they were responsible for their own self-care and their own decisions that they realized what it meant to be Am Yisrael.

A community’s self-identity, then, is the key to its success, to its ability to prosper where others fail, to sustain itself – again using the singular – in the face of challenges and even existential threats. Which means that the existential threats to Am Yisrael today aren’t just from Iran or Syria or Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza; some of them must lie within our community.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the head of ARZA – the Association of Reform Zionists of America – brings us a teaching this week from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the retired chief rabbi of Great Britain and a great scholar of both traditional Jewish text and contemporary Jewish life.[5]

Rabbi Sacks, he says, wrote that, in classical Hebrew, there are three different ways to describe community: Edah, tsibbur, and kehillah.

Edah means witness, and it refers to people who stick together because they came from the same place. But identifying a place of origin doesn’t tell us anything about their personalities, their opinions, or their politics.

Tsibbur comes from the word for heap or pile; a group of people who happen to be in the same place at the same time for the same purpose, like the tsibbur that comes together to pray, but otherwise may have little in common.

And then there’s Kehillah. As Rabbi Weinberg writes:

“A kehillah is different from the other two kinds of community. Its members may be diverse (like a tsibbur). But they are orchestrated together for a collective undertaking – one that involves in making a distinctive contribution. In short, a kehila has a mission. When we identify as part of a Kehila, it is not only the place we pray as a Tzibbur but a shared sense of mission to which we adhere.”

I think it’s easier to identify in and with a Kehillah on a small scale, like we do here at Temple Beth Israel. In fact, we don’t see ourselves just a kehillah kedoshah, a holy congregation, but as a mishpacha kedoshah, a sacred family. Yes, we identify a collective undertaking, a collective contribution to make. But our mission is internal as well as external. We take care of our own, as Bruce Springsteen sang. We feel each other’s joys and sorrows. No one is anonymous in a small family like ours. And no one is ever alone.

I often wonder what it would be like if Am Yisrael thought of itself as one big family. Not always happy, not always getting along. But cognizant of the real responsibility we have to the mishpachah as a whole. In the State of Israel today, they’re about to embark on a second round of elections because petty rivalries and power trips meant nobody could get together and form a new government.

In the American Jewish community, many national organizations based in major cities have far less reach and influence than they used to – but also no longer make a point of staying connected with small-town Jews like us.

And even here in our small town, where we maintain strong links through Eidah and Tsibbur, through where we came from and how and where we pray, we often have to remind ourselves to be sensitive and inclusive of our mishpachah on one side of town or the other. I think we’re doing better with that, because we can see what happens elsewhere, when those family ties break down.

From the universal concept of Am Yisrael to the intensely personal need for mishpachah kedoshah, unity is what makes us strong. Not dismissing our backgrounds, our political differences or our choices on observance as insignificant – but acknowledging them and accepting them as we would the differences in any extended family. The Torah’s story of the twelve scouts helps us understand the power of how we see ourselves as one.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.



©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin



[1] Note: As a Reform congregation, we follow the Israeli calendar rather than the traditional Diaspora calendar that is based on additional days for festivals. Therefore (and because the schedule for Passover this year meant we concluded our seven days on a Friday night while traditional congregations observed through Saturday and thus are a week behind on the Torah reading cycle) on the Shabbat of June 21-22, we are reading “Shelach Lecha,” while traditional congregations are a week behind in Beha’alotecha.

[2] Torah Gems, ed. Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Volume III, p. 60, citing “various sources.”

[3] Numbers 13:19

[4] Numbers 13;28, 31.

[5] Rabbi Josh Weinberg, “Let Your [Old] Guard Down.” https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/FMfcgxwChJnSGTjtSJGQVlNZNlppcPTk

One thought on “We Are A Family – for Shabbat Shelach Lecha[1], Friday, June 21, 2019

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s