The Book of Numbers, Sefer Bemidbar, is just one story after another of cranky Israelites challenging their leadership. Last week, we had the complaints about the menu options in the wilderness. This week, the scouts bring back a report that editorializes enough to send the people into a panic attack. Next week, Korah will attempt mutiny, and eventually complaints for water will send Moshe off the deep end.
Actually, it’s mostly one story after another, because this week, in Shelah-Lekha, the episode of the scouts is followed by a series of laws, miscellaneous in nature. We learn that when sacrifices will be brought upon Israel’s entering the Land, there’s an additional tax–they must bring side dishes too, in the form of a meal offering and wine libations. There’s a law about a bread dough offering. We learn again that one can bring a sacrifice to atone for various misdeeds. Then we find the story of the man who was caught gathering wood on Shabbat, and how he was punished. Finally, there’s the famous passage commanding us to attach tzitzit, fringes, to our clothing, a helpful reminder of the mitzvot.
Why does the Torah interrupt such a great narrative with more laws, especially here? What’s more, the way this section is introduced certainly appears to be a case of poor timing and judgment. God tells Moshe to speak to the Israelites as follows: “When you enter the land that I am giving you to settle in…” Remember that just a few verses earlier, the People were told that they wouldn’t be entering the land at all! They had just learned that only Yehoshu’a and Calev, the scouts who believed that God would help them conquer their enormous enemies, would get to the Promised Land; the rest of the generation was condemned to death in the wilderness. It seems rather insensitive of God to introduce these laws right here, right now.
Can you think of any good reason why the Torah does this? Can we pardon the interruption? We’ll explore some answers together on Shabbat morning.
Rabbi David Wise