a colorful illustration of two men hefting a large branch with a large bunch of grapes on it
The Israelite spies return from Canaan laden with a bounty of grapes by Richard Andre, 1884

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Numbers 13:1–15:41

The family is waiting impatiently outside the study of the Rabbi of Chelm. He can hear them. Inside his study, a group is studying the Zohar with the rabbi.

“Parashah Sh’lach can also be seen mystically,” the rabbi says. “The Zohar says that before you enter into deep knowledge, first take a tour. Moses sends into the land 12 representatives from the tribes of the people to tour the land. Upon their return, only two are prepared to go further. ‘The Ten’ are unprepared and unwilling. It is the same with mystical studies.”

“Excuse me,” says the almost-a-teenager in the doorway, “We are supposed to have a family meeting. Can you wrap up the mystical stuff and see us now?”

After the Zohar group departs and the family fills the seats, the rabbi says, “Hello. You must be next year’s Parashah Sh’lach bat mitzvah family. Let’s begin to look at the Book of Numbers, Chapter 13.”

The pre-teenager speaks up. “Already read it. Don’t like it.”

The father interjects. “She’s anti-Israel.”

The mother: “She’s not. She’s upset about the conflict.”

The grandmother: “Can you help us? I am a life member of Hadassah.”

“OK,” the rabbi says, turning to the 12-year-old. “What did you read that bothers you?”

“Numbers 13:17,” she replies. “When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, ‘Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, are they few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified?’ Well, today’s Israelis are many and strong, and the Palestinians are weak and they are fewer.”

Grandma speaks up. “I came to Israel as a refugee when I was very young. My brother still lives there with his family. It’s a little country, surrounded by enemies. David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir were my heroes.”

“We were on a one-week tour in 1995,” the father says, “when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Ruined the whole trip. There are enemies within, too, and there are no heroes.”

The girl says, “I never knew Meir or Rabin. I was born in 2009 and all my life it’s been the same leaders in Israel and Palestine and Gaza. I was 5 during the 2014 Israel-Gaza war. I know what I see on Facebook, and it’s bad. What can I say about ‘The Ten’ who see the land, don’t like their chances there, and only two want to go?”

Rabbi: “It looks as if when one first encounters Israel really influences our feelings.  One refugee, a couple of tourists and one who has yet to see for herself.”

“I have seen a lot on my phone.”

Grandmother: “But honey, it’s your inheritance. God gave us the land.”

“Grandma, you know mom converted and that I am adopted. You and Dad are the bloodline.”

“Not so fast,” says the rabbi.

“Amos Oz, the late, great Israeli writer, said that we are a Text line People, not a Bloodline People. Let’s pick up the story from where we left off. ‘The Ten’ say, ‘We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. But mighty is the people who dwells in the land; and the towns are fortified and very big; and also, the offspring of the giant we saw there. Amelek dwells in the Negeb land; and the Hittites and the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the high country, and the Canaanite dwells by the sea and along the Jordan.”

“See,” says the father. “No heroes here. They panicked.”

The girls speaks up. “Look at 13:30. Caleb says, ‘We will surely go up and take hold of it, for we shall surely prevail over it.’ What is it?

Rabbi: “The land, of course.”

The girl: “I don’t think so. Maybe something else.”

Rabbi: “What else?”

“Their panic. Caleb is saying that we must take hold of our panic, our fears, our fright. We will  prevail over it. Then we will be strong.”

Mother: “Ben Zoma says, ‘Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations. As is stated [in Proverbs 16:32], “Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city.’”

Father: “How do you know that, dear?”

“My conversion course. We studied Pirkei Avot.”

Rabbi: “See, we are more than the People of The Book. We are a book people. Back to Numbers, referring to the people in the land, ‘The Ten’ say, ‘We were, in our own eyes, like grasshoppers, and so we were to them in their eyes.’ How can they know what people thought of them? They never spoke with anyone in the land.”

Mother: “We need to go to Israel as a family to see more than just our own family. We need to see all of the families, Jews and Arabs.”

Father: “But we took a tour!”

Mother: “Yes, but I now see that Israel is not Disneyland. I did hear what the rabbi said from the Zohar. Before you enter into deep knowledge, first take a tour. We should all go to the country and see what kind of country it is and who the people are. We need deeper knowledge.”

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].