By Shlomo Riskin
The most difficult incident in the desert was the refusal of the Israelites to conquer the Land of Israel. Had they left Egypt and made their way directly to the Promised Land, the redemption would have happened immediately. Hence, while the sin of the Golden Calf was forgiven by God as a result of Moses’ entreaties, the reverberations of the sin of the scouts continues throughout the generations. The day they refused to conquer Israel was the ninth day of Av, a true doomsday in Jewish history, on which we commemorate the destruction of both Temples, the expulsion of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition and the Nuremberg decrees that signaled the beginning of the Holocaust.
What is the connection between the sin of the scouts and the commandment of the ritual fringes that concludes the portion of Sh’lach? What comment does it make on the backsliding of the People of Israel vis-a-vis the Land of Israel? The Sfat Emet (Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847–1905) explains the sins of the scouts in profound psychological terms. He asks how renowned men, princes of their tribes who had just experienced the miracles of the exodus from Egypt, could lose their faith in God to such an extent that they refused to attempt the conquest of Israel. His response is that their sin was not a lack of faith in God; their sin was a lack of faith in themselves.
The scouts made a reconnaissance tour of the land and were struck by the strength of the peoples who lived there and the fortifications they had built. “There we saw the giants who were the children of giants; we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so were we in their eyes.” (Numbers 13:33)
The scouts seem to have been dumbstruck by the power of the indigenous peoples and by their own impotence. With that sentence of self-deprecation – and with its inherent message that if we see ourselves as being small and powerless that is exactly how our enemies will see us – the 13th chapter of the Book of Numbers concludes. Chapter 14 begins, “And the entire congregation lifted up their voices, gave forth a cry and the nation wept on that night.” Our rabbis teach that this was the night of the ninth of Av. (Ta’anit 29a). Their sin was that they didn’t believe in themselves.
I can understand their thinking. After all, the Israelites had just concluded a period of 210 years of enslavement in Egypt. James Baldwin, the well-known champion of rights for blacks in South Africa and America, put it very well when he said: “I can forgive the whites for subjugating the blacks. I can never forgive the whites for making the blacks believe that they were worthy of being subjugated.” This is the well-known syndrome of the battered wife who remains with her husband because she has come to believe that she deserves to be beaten. The Israelites had been persecuted for so long and dehumanized to such an extent that they had lost the image of God within themselves, that they no longer felt the empowerment of free human beings.
This is the most profound message of the ritual fringes and specifically of the t’chelet. The ritual fringes, the white threads entwined with the royal blue thread, are reminiscent of the blue-white of the sea, of the blue-white of the heavens and of the presence of God, whose dwelling place is in the heavens above. The first message of the ritual fringes, therefore, is to remind us – whenever we look at our garment (and in Talmudic times they wore four-cornered outer garments which were always punctuated with the ritual fringes) – of God and His commandments, which must follow us wherever we go just as our outer garment follows us wherever we go.
But there is a second idea. The High Priest in the Sanctuary wore a tzitz (turban) made of t’chelet with words upon it reading “Holy unto the Lord.” T’chelet was the highest symbol of the high priest and t’chelet was the color that emanated from the expensive dye taken from the rare hilazon fish; it was worn by royalty and by the aristocracy. Every Israelite male was commanded to wear t’chelet because he was indeed a miniature high priest (the word “tzitzit” is derived from “tzitz”), imbued and emboldened with the command to be a member of a sacred nation and a kingdom of priests/teachers to all of humanity. We dare not forget the high calling with which God charged us to bring blessing and redemption to the entire world. We dare not lose faith in ourselves, because if we do the world will not be redeemed.
This is the final message of the portion of Sh’lach, bidding us to understand that only through our kingship and sovereignty over Israel will we be able to see to it that “Torah will come forth from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem to the entire world.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.