Parashat Sh’lach L’cha 5784

27 June 2024 – 21 Sivan 5784

Rabbi Elisheva Salamo


As a young woman, I grew up with my grandfather’s chumash, a slightly age-scented book with our birthdays inscribed in my grandmother’s hand in the front, and the JPS translation from 1917. In this parsha, it contained graphic imagery that gave me a frisson:  (Numbers, 14:32ff) But as for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall be wanderers in the wilderness forty years, and shall bear your strayings, until your carcasses be consumed in the wilderness.

To situate you, this is after the rebellion of the people in response to hearing of the might of the current inhabitants of the promised land, and their desire to go back to Egypt (to be slaves again?) rather than the seemingly inevitable death at the hands of these giants that awaits them once they cross the Jordan. But let’s get to the heart of my discomfort: As a modern person, the notion of dropping carcasses demotes more plague, airplane engine failure, bus bombings or Auschwitz than the death of a generation that could not trust the Divine at a reasonable if not advanced age (60s, 70s, depending on how old they were when they left Egypt). I’m not the only one to be bothered by this concept, and I think that the implication of the harshness of the punishment in our collective understanding stems in part from this image.

When reading this parsha now, I remind our scholars of the fact that most of the time ‘wandering’ was likely spent at the oasis of Kadesh Barnea, and that it was indeed about the waiting game: the former slaves (and not all of them, just the ones who were called to fight for the land) just somehow could not bring themselves to trust that it would be safe, and so a fresh, desert-raised and freedom understanding generation was needful as the agents of relocation. This would be a generation used to being fed, housed and protected by G!d, and so perhaps better equipped to handle the uncertainty of conflict on the other side of the river. There is the odd premonition as well: earlier in the paragraph, the former slaves say (Num 14:2) “If only we had died in the land of Egypt,” the whole community shouted at (Aaron and Moses), “or if only we might die in this wilderness!”.

That is helpful, if not satisfying, in understanding the nature of the restriction. But then I came across this fabulous midrash that suggests that the people became compliant with this latest bit of G!s decree, and even complicit. It is from Rashi’s comment on Ta’anit 30b, which discusses Tisha B’Av. Apparently, knowing that this was a day marked for destruction in the future, on that night all the Jews would dig themselves graves and go to sleep in them, thus making it easier to bury them if they did indeed die in the night. Apparently, ‘the next day, the proclaimer would go out and proclaim: let the living separate themselves from the dead. And every one who had the soul of life would rise and go out [of his grave]. And every year they would do this. And in the 40th year, they did it, and the next morning everyone stood up alive. And when they saw this, they were astonished, and they said, ‘perhaps we made a mistake in calculating the month [and it is not yet Tisha B’Av].’ So they keep sleeping in these graves until they can be sure of the month (at the 15th, when the moon is full), and then realize that they are now not only free from slavery, but free to go and reap the harvest of the Divine promise..

In this Rashi, not only are their carcasses NOT dropping, rather they are all, former slave and freeborn, doubter and truster alike, offering themselves to the ground, digging into the harsh and warm sand that has required them to turn to G!d for sustenance for forty long years. It brings to mind the line from Adon Olam (which is what I was researching when I found the text): ‘In G!d’s hand I place my spirit’. Digging one’s own grave takes on a different meaning – we, who are uncertain of our abilities to connect to G!d, recognise our innate humanity and, most especially, the needs of others around us, by taking the preparations for our death into our hands. In doing so, we offer ourselves the ultimate kindness, nowadays offered by the Chevre Kaddisha, of preparing ourselves to cross the line from the fears of this world into the unknown of the next. Our spiritual ancestors have a thing to teach us here about understanding resistance and rebuilding relationships in the face of those desperate actions we take when we are afraid and panicky. Who among us has not escalated a situation when we felt out of control?

Our stubborn ancestors are telling us that it is fine to come back, to enjoy the desert, that small steps are good when it comes to growth. We never know if we might rise again to see the blessing of a new day, a new home, a new world. Or what we might see upon arising. Just that even in despair, there can be faith, and the straight path is not always the best one. Imagine yourself, sleeping in the soft sands by the Jordan, waiting each night to see if you have silently drifted from the land of the living, waking each morning to find the sun upon your face once again, standing in awe to greet the day, to revel in possibility. On this occasion you don’t need to bury behind you any of the obstacles because they have left, and you have only the hope that moving forward will bring all of the community to goodness. We all walk through that valley of the shadow of death in various ways throughout our lives. Inasmuch as we are part of the shadow too, we can be part of the overflow of joy. So perhaps the request to die in the wilderness is as metaphorical as it is real: Let us indeed bury the selves that no longer serve the great bounding leap of faith, and be a part of the new generation to promulgate change in the name of holiness. Then there is no need for dropping carcasses, only the blessed burial of that which no longer serves us. From which we rise, in power and in joy.

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