Shelah Lekha 5775: But Wait! There’s More!
“How much easier it is to be critical than to be correct”
— Benjamin DiSraeli
As a child, one of my favourite television shows was “Mr. Wizard”. Mr Wizard, Don Herbert, was a scientist who conducted fascinating experiments on his programme. One of the regular segments of the programme was about optics and perspectives. He would zoom the camera in on a detail of some object — it could be a strawberry, for example — and all the viewer would see was a close image of one of the seeds on the surface. The viewer was meant to guess what the image was. The camera would then pan out to reveal the entirety. It was always surprising to see how different a detail looked when it was not presented in the context in which we were used to seeing it.
That experience taught me something about isolated information. One could easily misjudge the nature of something without taking its full context into consideration. It is easy for us to make determinations with bits of information, but often such determinations are flawed when they lack a broader framework. Perashat Shelah tells of just such a failed determination made by the Children of Israel upon reports from the twelve spies about the Promised Land. The people had no other source of information about the land, aside from what the spies had reported. They all made judgements without any further information. In fact, they were given a different perspective from Kaleb and Yehoshua, but it was too late; they had already made up their minds and chose to disregard it. The people also disregarded the fact that they had been told by God that it was a good land. As a result, they were unable to enter the land at that time, as they were not in a mental state that was capable of inheriting it.
At times we make judgements about issues using only small bits of information. One area where this tends to happen is with regard to Torah. We hear of a law, observe a particular practice, or learn about a subject but we might not know of its origins, contextual value, and reasoning. Yet, much of the time it is like Mr Wizard’s strawberry seed, where we might think it is one thing initially, but when we pan out to include greater context, we discover that it is something else entirely.
One of the reasons that literacy has always been so important in Judaism is just this. The Jewish way is to empower people with knowledge and to promote genuine understanding, rather than to exploit their ignorance. Rabbis are meant to inform and educate, rather than direct and lead blind followers. The more we know, the more we can properly understand the details that make up the full picture of our law and culture and, more important, our identity.
At the end of the parasha, there is a beautiful mitzvah given to the Children of Israel that highlights this point. It is the mitzvah of tsitsit — the strings that we are to tie to four-cornered garments. They are meant to call our attention to this idea.
G-d said to Moshe:
Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that they are to make tassels on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations…that you may look at it and keep in mind all the commandments of G-d and observe them…Do not stray after your heart… (15:38-39)
When we see the tsitsit we are meant to recall all the mitsvot, and remember that the mistvot find their meaning when intertwined with all the others. They are all tied together. Great people can tell us what they know; greater people admit when they lack scholarship and are at a loss of information with which to make a judgement. When we hear bits of information, we might pause before determining the meaning and question whether there is more there than we might initially see.
Law and Lore
About the Prayers
It is customary among Ashkenazi Jews to stand when kadish is recited. Sepharadi Jews do not stand when kadish is recited. However, it was the custom of Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Ari), based on kabbala, that if he was standing when kadish had begun, he would remain standing until answering amen to the kadish and only then sit down. This custom of the Ari, recorded by his student Rabbi Hayim Vital in Sha’ar haKavanot, was accepted as halakha (Jewish law) and codified by the oriental Sepharadi rabbis. Yet, the Western Spanish and Portuguese communities did not accept the kabbalistic custom of the Ari as law, and sitting is permitted during any part of the kadish.
 See Mishne Torah, Tefila, 9:1,5,8.
 Derush haKadish, pg.16, column 4.
53 Story of the ‘Spies’ (13:1-14:10)
The mission (13:1-24); The bad report (13:25-33)
Panic, crying and rebellion (14:1-10)
54 Moshe successfully pleads for the People (14:11-25)
55 Consequences of the ‘spies’ (14:26-45)
Punishment for the People: forty years in the midbar
Punishment for ten bad spies: died of plague (14:36-38)
Defying Moshe, some of the People try to invade the
Land and fail (14:39-45)
56 Certain offerings must be accompanied by a mincha
and nesech, wine libation (15:1-16)
57a Challah (15:17-21)
57b Offerings for community sins (15:22-26)
57c Laws for individuals who sin unintentionally or
58a Concerning a man who gathered wood on Shabbat
58b He is stoned by word of God (15:35-36)
59 Law and significance of tzitzit (15:37-41)
Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS