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Parshat Shelach

Identity and Intention

Our parsha differentiates between someone who purposely transgresses and commits a sin and someone who does so accidentally or unknowingly. At the same time the Torah deviates from its customary language, relating to someone who sins intentionally in an unusually harsh manner:

 “The soul that does so with a raised hand, [whether he is] native-born or a stranger,

He has blasphemed God and his soul shall be cut off from among his people,

For he has scorned the word of God and transgressed His commandment,

The soul shall be utterly cut off (hikaret tikaret), his iniquity shall be upon him.” (Bamidbar 15, 30-31)

The punishment of karet is a rare punishment, even for intentional sins, just as most accidental sins do not incur an obligation to bring a sin-offering. Similarly the Torah does not generally label someone a blasphemer even if they sin with intention. The combination of the abnormally harsh language and severe punishment are quite difficult to understand and have led generations of commentators to offer their own insights.

The Ramban explains that “the meaning of this section is cryptic, and those who interpret according to the simple (pshat) meaning [of the text] are mistaken.” The pshat interpretation of these verses leads to a number of questions and contradictions, and so with this statement Ramban takes us beyond the simple meaning of the text to the realm of drash. (Ramban 15, 22 “v’ki tishgu)

Ramban explains that these verses discuss someone who is a mumar l’kol haTorah kula, someone who purposely transgresses the entire Torah, an apostate. In this light all the statements in the verse make sense, “with a raised hand,” “he has blasphemed God,” “for he has despised the word of God and transgressed His commandment.” The severity is not a product of the sins the person commits but rather the kind of person the sinner is- a person who betrays utter scorn for the Torah and denies its authority.

The parallel to this type of person in the world of shgagot, unintentional sins, is a person who forgot the entire Torah or grew up among non-Jews, colloquially known in halachic literature as a tinok shenishba (a Jewish baby who was taken captive and raised among non-Jews)- the most severe type of shogeg known. The connection to our parsha is also clear; following the report of the spies the People of Israel rebelled against God and displayed a tremendous lack of faith. They asked to die in the desert and proposed “Let us turn our heads and return to Egypt.” To try and pinpoint the exact sin they transgressed and calculate its objective severity is to completely miss the point. Their actions undermined the relationship between the People of Israel and God, the bedrock of all the mitzvot.

Three types

In the midrashei halacha these verses are broken up and interpreted as descriptions of different types of people, instead of multiple descriptions of one person. The Sifrei Zuta explains that “The soul that does so with a raised hand” is a person who claims that there is no authority in heaven, or that there are two authorities. “For he has despised the word of God” is one who questions why a portion of the Torah was written. “And transgressed His commandment,” is one who says that the entire Torah is from heaven, except for one verse. (Sifrei Zuta 15, 30-31)

The common denominator between the three types enumerated is that their sin is theological. They deny the existence of God or the veracity of parts of the Torah or their need for the Torah. A beraita brings an example of such arrogance when it describes that Menashe the son of Chizkiyahu “would sit and expound false, mocking teachings.” The gemara explains that Menashe thought that the stories the Torah relates about Timna the concubine of Elifaz and Reuven and the mandrakes were unnecessary, frivolous. (T.B. Sanhedrin 99b)

So while Ramban speaks of someone who “has sinned every sin” as part of a purposeful rebellion against God and the Torah, the midrash speaks of a person who lacks faith in God and the divinity of the Torah. The midrash points out that such serious, purposeful sins are often the result of the warped perception of people who value human intellect and logic above all else.

Other sources similarly expound on these verses, contributing their own explanations as to which serious sins the people described in this section have committed. Upon examination it seems that each list of archetypes always shares a common denominator.

The Sifrei contains a number of these explanations. One opinion explains that one who “has despised the word of God” teaches halacha (the word of God) even though they do not have the authority to do so, and when the verse states he “transgressed His commandment” this refers to the commandment of circumcision. Another opinion maintains that the three types described in this section are one who desecrates kodshim (sanctified items), one who despises the festivals, and one who breaks the covenant of Avraham (circumcision). The underlying theme of both these opinions is that this section specifically deals with those who disrespect sanctified symbols. (Sifri Bamidbar, Shlach, 112)

Other Tannaim in the Sifrei explain that this section revolves around sins related to Torah study. According to Rabbi Meir it describes someone who studied but does not teach to others. According to Rabbi Natan this is a person who is able to teach Torah but refrains because they are lazy. These opinions maintain that this section relates to those who inhibit the dissemination and assimilation of Torah. The Torah lays neglected in the corner, scorned.

Through the myriad of explanations proposed, some of which are related above, it’s clear that these atypical verses inspired many to try and understand what is the strongest way possible to show contempt for and undermine the relationship between God and the People of Israel. And so instead of interpreting the simple meaning of the verses, each commentator delved into what he understood to be the foundation of Jewish identity.

So while Ramban believed that heresy is the main cause of sin and that our national identity is inexorably tied to the Torah, others maintained that it is the prizing of human intellect above all else that breeds the worst kind of sin, and that simple and wholehearted devotion to God must be maintained as the highest value. Still others focused on Jewish culture- the festivals and kodshim, or the symbols and signs unique to Judaism, such as the Torah and circumcision. Another opinion found tradition to be the central aspect of Jewish identity, we are the People of the Book and so commitment to the Torah and Torah study are the ultimate indicator of belonging.

Even with all these opinions this section remains open to interpretation. Each and every generation can imbue it with renewed meaning. A text like this is unique because every generation can read into it the challenges they face, challenges they must combat with all their strength, challenges to the sanctity of the People of Israel.


Mon, August 3 2020 13 Av 5780