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'When You Enter the Land...'

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Parashat Shelach – 'When You Enter the Land…'

By Rav Michael Hattin


Last week, we examined the events of parashat Beha'alotekha as the people of Israel finally left Mount Sinai and began their journey towards their land. We traced the progression of narratives from the auspicious and optimistic opening of Sefer Bemidbar to the dismal and disappointing incident of the Spies. This week's parasha of Shelach is devoted in the main to the latter. It describes in halting steps the sending of the Spies, their initial positive impressions, their notorious return and negative report, and the people's dejection and despondency with their lot, as well as their loss of faith in God's potency to bring them into the land.

The reader, like a detached observer watching tragic events inevitably unfold, feels powerless to alter the trajectory of this week's desperate narrative, and hopes in vain to be relieved from its oppressive tone. In the end, the Spies bring ruin upon themselves and the people, and the generation of the Exodus is condemned to perish in the wilderness. Although a group of intrepid but reckless adventurers attempts to circumvent the Divine decree by ascending to the land by force, their march is easily checked and repulsed by the Amalekite and Canaanite hill dwellers in their path. So concludes the dismal chapter of the Spies and with it are snuffed out the hopes and dreams of a generation.

The parasha, however, continues. With a resolve since adopted by Jewish tradition and its tenacious practitioners, the text confronts tragedy and misfortune with a renewed call to life, to a brighter future, and to eventual triumph. There are at least five additional commandments and events that are introduced in the aftermath of the Spies, and as we shall see, the primary thrust of their message is decidedly positive. At the same time however, these very five things, to which we shall now turn our attention, cautiously indicate to the people that there is a price to be paid for self-doubt and disbelief, and it can be precipitous.

Meal Offerings and Libations

"God spoke to Moshe saying: 'Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land of your dwellings that I am giving to you, and you offer a sacrifice to God whether wholly burnt or otherwise, either to fulfill a general or specific pledge or for the festivals, taken from cattle or sheep, it shall be pleasing unto God. The one presenting the sacrifice to God shall offer with it an 'isaron' measure of fine flour mixed with one quarter 'hin' of olive oil. The wine for its libation shall also consist of one quarter 'hin,' for a sheep offered as a burnt offering or as a peace offering…'" (Bemidbar 15:1-5).

This passage, presented immediately in the aftermath of the people's aborted attempt to commence their march to Canaan in spite of God's decree, begins with a not uncommon formula, but here the words hold unusual pertinence. "When you enter the land…" holds out the consoling pledge that in fact the people WILL one day merit to emerge from the wilderness and to secure their rightful place in the land of their ancestors. As Rashi poignantly puts it: "Here, God brought them good tidings that they would one day enter the land." Similarly, Ibn Ezra explains: "This section is appended to that of the Spies because the people were downcast and in mourning over their fate, so that God wanted to offer succor to the children by informing them that they would certainly enter the land" (commentary to 15:2). In a rare show of consensus, the Ramban elaborates:

"After extending to the children of the condemned generation a promise that they would one day enter the land, God completed the discussion of the sacrificial service by introducing the meal offerings and libations, responsibilities that would be applicable only after they entered the land. Perhaps these laws were indicated to them now in order to comfort them and to allay their fears, for the people were despondent and thought: 'Who knows what will transpire at the end of that interminable forty years? What if the children also transgress?' Therefore, God saw fit to comfort them, for by introducing to them commandments dependent upon the land, He makes it clear to them that they will surely enter it eventually…for in the wilderness, there was no obligation to offer flour or wine with their sacrifices…" (commentary to 15:2).

Thus, although that generation of the wilderness knows that that they themselves will never see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, they are sustained by the thought that their children will enjoy that brighter future. Who can imagine the sobs of sadness that punctuated that terrible night when the people first heard the Spies' evil report? Who can conceive of their feelings of utter dejection when God heard their cries and granted their fiendish prayer, by denying them entry to the land that had been held out to them as the aim of their aspirations, since the dawn of the deliverance from Egypt? Their futile future is here made infinitely more bearable, with the soothing realization that all is not lost.

'Challah' and Hope

This theme of hope is continued and made even more emphatic by the series of verses that follows:

"God spoke to Moshe saying: 'Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: 'At once upon entering the land to which I am bringing you, when you eat from its produce, then you shall offer up a portion to God. The first part of your dough, the 'Challah' you shall raise up, just as you raise up a portion from the grain of the threshing floor. The first portion of your kneading you shall raise up to God, for all generations.'" (Bemidbar 15:17-21).

This section introduces the so-called mitzva of 'Challah' or taking of the dough. The root of the word, Ch-L-H, has been variously explained, but most plausibly is derived from a stem meaning 'first,' for the 'challah' is the first portion of the dough, separated before it is baked and presented to the Cohen as a gift. Today, of course, in the absence of a Temple and Biblical laws of 'Tahara' or ritual fitness, the 'challah' portion is only symbolically separated and then burned, in order to preserve the memory of the original rite. In any case, just as we saw before, the Torah here introduces a commandment whose fulfillment is contingent upon entry to the land, thus indicating once again that the judgment meted out against the generation of the wilderness would one day be rescinded.

Significantly, in a departure from the meal offerings and libations above, the mitzva of 'challah' speaks of an unusual immediacy: 'AT ONCE upon entering the land to which I am bringing you, when you eat from its produce, then you shall offer up a portion to God' is more direct than 'WHEN you enter the land of your dwellings that I am giving to you.' As the Halakhic Midrash of the Sifre explains: "Rabbi Yishmael expounded: 'The text indicates a different form of 'entry' concerning the mitzva of 'challah' than pertains to any other 'entry'-related mitzva in the Torah. Concerning all of the other commandments that are contingent upon entering the land, the text says 'When you enter the land…' or 'It shall come to pass when God brings you into the land…' Here, however, the text says: 'At once upon entering the land.' This indicates that as soon as the people of Israel entered the land, they were immediately obligated in the mitzva of 'challah.'" (Midrash Sifre Bemidbar Chapter 110).

In other words, the people of Israel were not obligated to fulfill all of the other land-based agricultural commandments, such as the separation of tithes from their produce or the designation of the first fruits, immediately upon crossing the Jordan and entering the territory of Canaan. First they would have to conquer the land and settle it, a process that took a number of years. Concerning 'Challah,' however, they were called upon to fulfill it as soon as they partook of the land's produce, though their goal of securing tranquility on its sanguine soil may have been many years off.

The Two Features of Challah

Thus, 'challah' presents us with two unusual features. Firstly, it is applicable immediately after the people enter the land. Secondly, although a function of geography to the degree that it is contingent upon the people of Israel gaining entry to Canaan, the mitzva of 'challah' is not in reality land-dependent in the narrow individual sense. That is to say that the other agricultural mitzvot generally devolve upon a land owner exclusively, for one who does not own land cannot separate tithes from his produce nor can he abstain from the hybrid planting of diverse seeds, etc. However, as long as a person is kneading dough, he can fulfill the mitzva of 'challah,' even though he does not own the land from which the 'challah' grain was harvested, or any other land for that matter.

These striking characteristics of 'challah' provide additional indications of the profound solace afforded to the people by God's word. The land may have seemed far off, but 'challah' suggested that it could have relevance even prior to its formal settlement. Canaan may have beckoned from an agonizing distance with the promise of securing land, but 'challah' taught the people that one could still be connected to its holy soil even in the absence of possessing formal deed.

The Subtle Warnings

What follows in the parasha are a number of texts that readily lend themselves to suggesting a contrasting theme.

"If you inadvertently transgress and fail to fulfill all of these mitzvot that God spoke to Moshe…if it is the community that transgresses because of their leadership, then the entire community shall offer a bullock as a burnt offering…and a goat as a sin offering…they shall be forgiven."

"If an individual transgresses inadvertently, he shall offer a goat as a sin offering…and be forgiven…But the soul that transgresses brazenly…blasphemes God, and shall be cut off from among his people…"

"While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the day of the Sabbath…God said to Moshe: 'That man shall surely die…' and so the entire congregation removed him from the camp and stoned him so that he died…" (Bemidbar 15:22-36).

The first two texts speak of the unusual situation of the people inadvertently transgressing the entire Torah, and in particular address a situation in which the people's leadership erred and led them astray. The traditional sources explain the passage to refer to the community's unmindful lapse into idolatrous worship. The Ramban succeeds in justifying the remarkable tradition by recalling some of the darker periods of Biblical history, such as during the reign of Yeravam over the Northern tribes (after the rupture of Solomon's Kingdom into the North and South), when the majority of his subjects were ignorant of the Torah and its commands and eagerly but obliviously embraced strange gods. For such carelessness there can be absolution, but the man who flagrantly adopts false gods will surely die. The consequences of blatant disregard for God's word are forcefully spelled out by the third text that graphically describes the sorry fate of the Sabbath desecrator.

The Spies Revisited

Significantly, both the Ibn Ezra as well as the Ramban detect in all of this an understated allusion to the earlier events of our parasha:

"This commandment was introduced here because the people had rebelled against God when they exclaimed (in response to the Spies' report): 'Let us appoint a leader to return us to Egypt!' for they desired to go back to their initial state there, when they had no Torah and no mitzvot. This section indicates to them that even those guilty of inadvertently worshipping idolatry can be forgiven, but not those who boldly and mindfully act…" (Ramban's commentary to Bemidbar 15:22).

The people of Israel had indeed been led astray by their 'leaders,' the Spies who had so fatalistically concluded that entry into the land was impossible and anywise beyond God's powers. But those same Spies as well as the people who eagerly hung onto their words were not blameless victims of ignorance, but rather sentient and alert recipients of God's unfailing sustentation. Their rejection of God's pledge was thus tantamount to a conscious and deliberate repudiation of His involvement in their destiny.


The parasha concludes with a famous passage, one that has been incorporated into the daily recitation of the Shema.

"…Let the people of Israel make fringes on the corners of their garments for all generations…thus they will remember all of God's commands…and will not stray after their hearts and eyes…I am God your Lord Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your Lord…" (Bemidbar 15:37-41).

In this section, the people are called upon to be always mindful of God's commands and not to be deceived or misled by erroneous thoughts or inaccurate impressions.

Although the charge here spelled out is widely applicable, one cannot help but again detect an echo of the people's earlier downfall. In a not entirely inconspicuous reference, God gently reminds His people not to be beguiled by the desire to renounce Canaan, to return to the numbing experience of Egyptian servitude. By taking them out of that deadening experience, God had asked them to choose a more exalted if less torpid fate. To march towards Canaan, proud and resolute, was the measure of the people's readiness to embrace that destiny, and they showed themselves incapable and unworthy of it. Their children, however, raised under the trying but nurturing conditions of the wilderness, sustained and fortified by God's constant support but also chastened and guided by His correction, would one day merit to cross the threshold into the new land, to proudly proclaim:

"I am God your Lord Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your Lord. I am God your Lord."

Shabbat Shalom