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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Leadership and Representation

by Rabbi Michael Gordan (Posted on June 26, 2024)
Topics: Sefer Bamidbar, Shelach, Torah

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Parashat Shelach-Lecha contains few mitzvot. Of its two mitzvot asei, positive commandments, the first is challah, the commandment to take a portion of a dough made from the five grains and give it as a gift to the priests. The Torah introduces this concept with the phrase “בבאכם אל-הארץ” in English—“when you come to the land.” The Sifrei, an early rabbinic commentary on the books of Bamidbar and Devarim, notes that while certain mitzvot are connected to entering the land of Israel, the phrasing here is different from the typical phrasing elsewhere in the Bible, where the words “כי תבאו אל הארץ” might be used—the same thought expressed in slightly different words. Based upon this difference, the Sifrei reports, Rabbi Yishmael insisted that the obligation of taking challah began as soon as the Jews entered the land of Israel, and did not wait until the land was conquered and divided among the tribes. For Rabbi Yishmael, the coming of the Jewish people into the land might be satisfied by entry of a few spies into the land, who stood in for the entirety of the Jewish people.

This is not a universal view, and the debate itself reflects a problem that we see increasingly in the parashiot of Bamidbar—who represents the Jewish people? In next week’s parasha Korach will put the question bluntly, but in Shelach we see it as well, particularly with the story of the spies. We see top-down governance in the way the spies are selected and their mission assigned. Moses chooses and dispatches the spies to Israel, since it is impractical for the entire Jewish people to enter the land as spies. The group is not chosen on pure merit—the twelve sneakiest Israelites, say—but the members are consciously chosen to represent each of the tribes that constitute the nation. Though God has promised the land to the Jews, it seems that the people as a whole must confirm the choice.

When the spies return, we witness the ambivalence about the leadership of the Jews reflected in how they make their report. Given that it was Moses who assigned the spies their mission, we could understand if they made their report to a select committee of sorts—perhaps the princes of the tribes, or the seventy elders who were to help lead the people. That group could then discuss what was said, devise a strategy, and report back to the people as a whole. Instead, both Moses and the spies seem to take their representative roles seriously, and the spies make their report directly to the people, without mediation by Moses. The results are disastrous, as the majority of the spies not only slander the land of Israel but also manipulate the people in an effort to dissuade them from entering Israel.

We may see the story of the spies as a rebuke to notions of democracy and to the thought that the wisdom of the people will always lead to the best outcome. It is equally, however, a rebuke to the leadership of the elites. The twelve men chosen to spy the land, we are told, were ראשי בני ישראל—already leaders of the Israelites. Yet 83% of them tried to prevent their nation from entering Israel. If there is a lesson here, it is that leaders cannot always be trusted to reach the correct conclusions, and that a healthy skepticism about their conclusions is always useful. By choosing prominent men, Moses actually made it easier for the people as a whole to be misled. Their standing gave their public objections to the conquest of the land of Israel greater weight.

The parasha closes with the mitzvah of tzitzit, the fringes that we attach to the corners of our clothing (interestingly, the Sifrei also records a tradition that suggests that all adult Jews, not just men, should be obligated in tzitzit). Rashi makes an explicit connection between the language of the verses of tzitzit, which forbids us from straying after our eyes, and the language of the spies’ assignment, which used the same verb. I think both tzitzit and challah get at something a little different. After all, the vast majority of the Jewish people did not see the land of Israel themselves and then go astray—they relied upon their leaders’ report. Tzitzit and challah remind us daily, in ways that impact our two most basic needs, food and clothing, of the need to remember that holiness and a dedication to mitzvot are universal and dependent on our behavior. With this motivation we can more accurately assess our leaders and determine when they are truly representing us and when we need to challenge their judgment. This ability is crucial to any functioning community, from Biblical times to the present day.

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