Jewish Life Torah Portion

Torah Portion – Shelach

By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb


n this week’s Torah portion, Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41), we read of two very different types of people: optimists and pessimists. 

We read of the 12 men who were sent out from the wilderness on an espionage mission to spy out the land of Canaan. Upon their return, we discover that ten of them are, to say the least, pessimists. They report that the land is “a land that devours its inhabitants” and that it is occupied by giants who cannot possibly be conquered.

But two of these “spies,” Joshua and Caleb, have a different message. They optimistically report that “the land is very, very good” and that “if we but desist from rebelling against the Lord,” we need not fear, and can easily even defeat, the giants.

The 19th-century commentator Rabbi Jacob Mecklenburg, whose work HaK’tav VeHaKabbalah typically unveils hidden nuances in the Hebrew language of the biblical text, points out that our sacred language provides two different verbs to describe these two different types of people, optimists and pessimists.

Two different verbs are used in the Chumash (Five Book of Moses) for the term “spy.” One is latur and the other is leragel. Rabbi Mecklenburg demonstrates that latur is best translated not as “to spy” but as “to explore,” or perhaps as “to wande,r” or even as “to tour.” On the other hand, leragel is best translated as “to seek fault,” or “to find weaknesses”.

One who engages in leragel is the classic pessimist. He seeks the negative in every situation and invariably finds it. But one whose mission is latur seeks the positive in his explorations and discovers, to use our metaphor, that the cup is not only half-full but entirely full.

Toward the end of this week’s Torah portion, I discovered another use of the “two types of people” categorization that is extremely insightful and very instructive.

Here I draw upon another of the great 19th-century commentators, namely Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv.

Towards the end of this week’s parsha, we read about the mitzvah of tzitzit, of wearing strings upon the fringes of our four cornered garments. We are instructed that, in addition to the uncolored or white strings, there must be one or two strings dyed blue, called tekhelet.

The Netziv suggests, in a homiletic tour de force, that the white/uncolored strings and the blue dyed strings represent two types of people—more specifically, two types of devout religious people. 

The white stings, he argues, represent those Jews whose piety is exemplary but who also engage in mundane matters. They attend synagogue regularly, keep the various festivals and ritual activities, study Torah, and contribute to charity. But they have other concerns, whether in the world of commerce, with the arts and sciences, or with political affairs.

The blue strings represent the Jew who is exclusively preoccupied with heavenly matters and has room in his life for only purely spiritual concerns. He has a mystical bent and prefers to avoid the material world.

The Netziv points out that the passage contains two imperatives, two commands, to gaze at the tzitzis and thereby come to “remember the mitzvot and perform them.” In verse 15:39, we read, “… and remember all of the Lord’s mitzvot and perform them and do not be led astray by your heart and by your eyes”. And in verse 40, we read again, “… so that you will remember and perform all of my mitzvot and thereby become holy to the Almighty.”

“Are not these two verses repetitive?” asks the Netziv. He answers that the first verse is directed to the “whites,” to those who observe the religious basics but who can be led astray by their other interests and activities. They are told to be sure to observe the tradition and not to be seduced by the ideologies that their “hearts” encounter and by the attractions that their “eyes” observe.

The second verse, he continues, is addressed in the religious purists, the “blues,” who wish to “cleave to the Lord.” They must be reminded that they too must observe all the mitzvot, even those that require intense involvement in everyday affairs, in the needs of the community, and in the establishment of a just society. Only thereby will they become “holy to the Almighty.”

How relevant are the Netziv’s words to all of us today. The “whites” among us have chosen a path that has its moral and ethical temptations. They must creatively and energetically resist those temptations. They must know their boundaries. The “blues” among us must realize that they cannot remain “in the heavens,” in the proverbial “ivory tower.” They must bring their spiritual gifts to bear upon the imperfect world in which we all live.

We need both types of people, the “blues” and the “whites.”

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the Executive Vice President, Emeritus of the Orthodox Union. 

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