What Parshat Shlach Asks us of Ourselves

shlach chabadThere is a TV commercial that distinguishes between simply monitoring and actively preventing fraud and identity theft. A bank robbery is in progress with guns blazing. The monitor surveys the situation as the customers fall to the floor imploring this uniformed man to take action. He responds that he is merely a monitor; taking action is not his job. And yes indeed, there is a bank robbery underway.

The story of the spies in Parshat Shlach (Send) seems similar. Twelve men were selected and sent out to survey the land of Canaan and report back. They did what was asked and reported what they believed they saw. An insightful rabbi taught me that the answer to a question depends on the question you ask. It also depends on the nature of the respondent.

Parasha Shlach 12 Princes (spies)

Twelve Princes.

These were twelve men, “one man each from his father’s tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst” (Num. 13:2). They were leaders within their respective clans, but were they capable as conquerors? The Hebrew word is Nasi, or Prince. They were princes of the individual tribes but not necessarily the top dog, or the General of the Army to use a military term. So were these spies conquerors or bureaucrats, men of action or fearful men of complacency and conservatism?

Had the idea of freedom and freedom’s responsibilities permeated this new Israelite society? It seems not. Only two spies, Caleb and Joshua, believed they could actually overcome their foes and possess the land. It is possible that a deliberate selection of strategists and warriors to be the twelve spies would have yielded a unanimous joining of Caleb’s assessment that they could vanquish the Canaanites. However, the fearful spies’ ability to sway the people indicated that the Israelites were not yet ready to enter the Land and receive the promise and responsibilities that went with it.

We also, both individually and collectively, need to ask ourselves: Which are we? Are we agents of change like Caleb and Joshua, or agents of the status quo? Are we willing to find ways to achieve lofty goals or fearful of the risks and unwilling to reach for more, hoping to preserve what we have?

Often, trying to maintain the status quo is riskier than taking the chance to make something better. Although we should always be grateful for what we have, when it comes to values such as human rights, peace, justice, equality, and security, we can always aspire to something greater.

The question remains: Are we willing to take the risk?

Reward and Punishment: Making Sense of Parashah Bechukotai

Blessings and Curses- Israel at Mts. Gerizim and Ebal

Blessings and Curses- Israel at Mts. Gerizim and Ebal

Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, ends with Parashah Bechukotai (follow my Laws), a long and detailed listing of divine rewards and punishments. The people of Israel are warned in advance that while prosperity and blessing will result if they are loyal to the covenant with God, misfortune and disaster will follow if they are not.

At first glimpse, this seems easy to swallow. If “measure for measure” is an accepted and regulating principle in life, why not believe in divine retribution?

The biblical doctrine of reward and punishment, however, goes beyond a mathematical formula of cause and effect. It forms part of a complex network of ideas linking human understanding of God with concepts such as good and evil.

The Levitical understanding of justice, reward, and punishment, however, does not hold in face of experience. Prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, for instance, early argued against the doctrine of collective responsibility set forth by the priests of Leviticus, a doctrine that included punishment of children for the sins of the fathers.

Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of this generation, has convincingly argued that with God’s justice premised on human freedom, a world in which every good act would be rewarded and every evil act punished, freedom would quickly give way to conditioning.

“That would produce the behavior God seeks,” Rabbi Borowitz said, “but only at the price of dissolving the free exercise of the will into behavioristic automatism. If God wishes people to be meaningfully free and achieve righteousness by the proper use of their unique freedom, God’s reward and punishment cannot be mechanical.”

Frederick S. Plotkin, the late director of the Humanities Division at Yeshiva University, states this same idea from a different perspective. Human beings cannot control God by being good. He says, “God is not required to come at the snap of the good man’s moral fingers.”

If 21st-century humanity cannot take literally some of the biblical doctrines of reward and punishment, such as the one exposed in Chapter 26 of the Book of Leviticus, it doesn’t mean that this is a false and useless principle.

All in all the TaNaKh aims at conveying the message that human actions have their repercussions for the agent built into them. In the words of Bible scholar Klaus Koch, emeritus professor at the University of Hamburg, Germany:

There is no gap between act and consequence into which a wedge of divine retribution can be inserted. God’s role is simply to oil the works and check the switches; he never needs to interfere to keep the machine going, and he would never dream of throwing a spanner in the works.

The concept of reward and punishment means that in the long run, good deeds produce good results, and evil deeds lead to a world of evil.