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The Challenge of Independence

Parshat Shelach: 25 Sivan 5778

I’ve always found it intriguing that the 12 men sent by Moshe to investigate Canaan in Parshat Shelach are never called “meraglim”—spies—in the Torah text, but rather “tarim.” The word “tarim,” or in its infinitive verbal form “latur,” does not mean to “spy” but rather to search out or explore. Searching out or exploring is an activity associated with initiative and independent spirit. The goal of the “tarim” was not a James Bond-like reconnaissance mission. Rather, it was an exercise in independent market research. God publicly commands Moshe to appoint statesmen to independently explore the Land of Israel and report back to the people. They are charged to investigate the terrain, the fertility of the land, the cities and towns, and the economic potential.

The assertion that the “tarim” are independent explorers is further proven by the fact that the root “latur” is used previously in the Torah only to describe the conduct of the omnipotent God. We read this past week in Parshat Beha’alotcha that “When the nation traveled from the mountain of God, the Ark of the covenant of God traveled before them a three-day distance to search out for them a resting place—“latur lahem menucha” (Bamidbar 10:33, and similarly Devarim 1:33). At this stage of history, am Yisrael is completely dependent upon God to act as its guide through the wilderness. The Children of Israel have been liberated from Egypt and have entered into a covenant with God at Mount Sinai. But it is God’s role, reflected in the Ark, the cloud and the fire, to search out for the Israelites’ their resting places—latur lahem menuchah—like a parent who provides every need of a young child.

Several months later, however, as the nation approaches the land of Canaan, God suggests that they exercise a measure of independence. As Parshat Shelach opens, God instructs Moshe to “Send men and let them investigate (ve-yaturu) the Land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel.” (Bamidbar 13:1-2). In effect, God is saying: I am giving the land to the people of Israel, but let them show some initiative. Send qualified individuals to explore and evaluate the land, its fertility, its inhabitants, its fortifications. Let them take an active part in shaping their destiny. And so the “tarim” are sent to explore the land on their own, rather than depending solely on Divine guidance.

But with independence comes new and unexpected trials. The challenge of the Israelites is to reconcile their new independence with faith. It is one thing to follow God through the wilderness with docile submission. But it is quite another to confront danger and apparent uncertainty—to witness the powerful Canaanites and the large, fortified cities—and to continue to believe that Israel could successfully inherit the land. This was the challenge of “laturr et ha-aretz asher ani noten livnei Yisrael”—to believe that God would give them the Promised Land against all natural odds. At this trial, the “tarim,” with the exception of Calev and Yehoshua, did not succeed.

With this in mind, we can also understand why the commandment to place tzitzit, fringes, on a four-cornered garment follows shortly after the “tarim” episode and why the key word “latur” makes another appearance in the tzitzit passage. “And it shall be for you as fringes, that you may look upon them, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them, and that you do not explore—ve-lo taturu—after your own heart and your own eyes…(Bamidbar 16:39). Where independent exploration seems to challenge religious ideals, do not stray after your heart and your eyes. Rather, let the tzitzit on your clothing serve as a constant reminder of your commitment to the commandments of God.

The challenge of “latur” is the metaphorical challenge of every Jew as a religious being. We are a religion of na’aseh ve-nishma—doing but also understanding. Or in the words of the non-Israelite prophet Bilaam, we are “nofel ve-galui einayim,” humble in our faith but with open eyes. Judaism is a tradition of faith and reason, dialectic and dedication, covenant and conversation. Our mandate as halachic Jews living in a world of enlightenment, science and technology is “latur” but not “latur acharei”—to explore but never to go astray.

May each of us embrace the excitement of independent exploration while respecting the boundaries of our precious Torah way of life.

Shabbat shalom.

 Lamdeinu is a center for Jewish learning in Teaneck. Join us for a lecture by Dean Friedman on June 20 on “How the Bible Judges Leaders: Did Moshe Sin at Mei Merivah?” Visit www.lamdeinu.org for our full summer schedule.

By Dean Rachel Friedman, Lamdeinu

 

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