In Shelach Lecha, this week’s parshah, Moses sends twelve spies, one from each tribe, on a recon mission to the Promised Land. He wants them to find out about the lay of the land and its inhabitants. When the spies return, the first ten tell everyone that the land is “flowing with milk and honey,” just as G-d promised, but, they tell everyone that the inhabitants are fierce, possibly the descendants of giants, and that the Israelites couldn’t possibly defeat them. The spies say, “…We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Num. 13:33). The spies here give us a resounding truth: if we are not confident in ourselves, if we see ourselves “as grasshoppers,” inevitably, others will see us that way as well. It’s like Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
I think it’s useful to read this parshah with the thought in mind of the Nation of Israel being like one person. In her childhood, Israel was enslaved in Egypt. Then, G-d freed her, and brought her out of Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” In her adolescence, she travels through the desert, and grumbles and rebels against G-d, as we saw in Behaalosecha. This week, we get some of Israel’s sort of teenage angst in that she compares herself to other nations, finds herself lacking and inferior, and feels to weak and unimpressive to challenge them. So, G-d decides that Israel is still too immature to inherit the Promised Land, and gives her 40 years of wandering as an opportunity to develop the maturity and self-confidence that come with time and experience. If we now switch back to the Israel-as-a-nation view, we notice that the generation that does get to enter the Promised Land is the generation that was not born in slavery (plus Caleb and Joshua, the other two spies who gave a truthful report and who tried to bolster the Israelites’ spirits). This suggests that the generation that was enslaved in Egypt had some part of their spirit broken that cannot be repaired; they do not have the strength and confidence to be a free people.
What happens next is that Israel rebels, climbs up a mountain in an attempt to rush into the Holy Land despite the fact that G-d told them they wouldn’t enter it (still sounding very much like rebellious teenagers), and they get trounced by the Amalekites and the Canaanites, “even unto Hormah [a place of utter destruction]” (14:45). And when they are in this state, afraid, angry, sad, frustrated, burying their dead and caring for their wounded, G-d asks Moses to tell them about challah, and about tzitzit—things that their children will be commanded to do once they enter the Promised Land. I think this was G-d’s way of trying to get them to look towards the future, rather than focus on their depressing present, and to think about how their children would someday connect to G-d and live holy lives.
Just before the commandment for tzitzit (fringes), the parshah relates an episode in which a sabbath-breaker is stoned to death by the community, as commanded by G-d through Moses. Right after offering this negative example of behavior, the Torah gives us a tool to help us avoid it—fringes to remind us to fulfill the mitzvot every day. Am I uncomfortable with the idea of stoning sabbath-breakers to death? Of course! ….And I’m in good company. The Rabbis throughout the ages were constantly softening and/or effectively deleting many of the harsh death penalties laid out in Mosaic law, often by making the legal and evidential requirements for such a penalty almost impossible to meet. The thing to take away, I think, is to remember why tallitot exist: as a reminder to keep us from “going astray” (15:39). The Rabbis tell us that the blue thread (tekhelet) of the tzitzit resembles the sea, that the sea resembles the heavens, and that the heavens resemble the Throne of Glory. Every time we look at our tzitzit, or perhaps just every time we look at the sea, or into the sky, we should remember who we are, why we do what we do, and Who it was that made us that way.