Torah Portion

The Portion of Shelach

Numbers 13:1-15:41
Bible Portion
The Portion of Shelach

The Portion of Shelach

Numbers 13:1-15:41

This week’s portion focuses primarily on the Sin of the Spies, which results in God’s decree that the Israelites must wander in the desert for forty years instead of entering the land of Israel directly. It also includes details regarding a number of laws, such as the libations which must be brought alongside certain sacrifices and the separation of a portion of all bread baked for the sustenance of the priests. We are told what must be done to atone for sins and, through the example of the wood-gatherer, what to do with those who violate the Sabbath. The portion ends with the command to tie fringes, or tzitzit, onto the corners of any four-cornered garment.

Sin of the Spies

Numbers 13:1-14:10

In our portion, God tells Moses to choose a representative from each tribe to scout out the land that He has chosen to give the people. Moses selects reliable men and instructs them to examine the country carefully, not only militarily (are the cities fortified? What are the people like?), but also agriculturally (is the land fertile? Bring back a sample of its fruit). The men take forty days to tour the country, bringing back the iconic cluster of grapes so large it requires two men to carry it.

The land is fertile, ten of the men report, but none of that matters because the people are too powerful to overcome. Only Caleb and Joshua insist that if God wills it, the Children of Israel will triumph over the current residents.

The people are distraught by the report, and unwilling to listen to Caleb and Joshua’s counterpoint. They cry out in despair, saying, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would we had died in this wilderness!” (14:2). They lambaste God for having taken them and their children out of Egypt only to die in the so-called Promised Land, and suggest choosing a new leader who will take them back.

As the Israel Bible points out, the sin of the spies is one of the most grievous episodes in the Bible, if not the worst sin mentioned. God forgives many sins throughout the Bible, but for accepting the slanderous report brought by the spies, the entire generation of the desert is punished. Jewish tradition tells us that the sin occurred on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, the same day that later saw the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. This is no coincidence. When the people cried for the “misfortune” of being led to the Land of Israel, God decreed, “You cried on the 9th of Av for no reason; this day will become a day for crying for all generations.” The linkage between the dates in history teaches us that all of Jewish history is the unfolding of God’s divine plan. We must therefore remember to put our unwavering faith in God, to correct the sin of the spies and their generation and thus usher in the Messianic Era.

Points to Ponder

The Torah relates that prior to sending off the spies, Moses changed Joshua’s name from Hosea to Joshua. Why do you think he did this?


Numbers 14:11-45

God is infuriated by the people’s mistrust and ingratitude, and threatens to wipe out the nation. Moses begs God to reconsider, taking into account the impression such action would make on the nations that watched God take Israel out of Egypt. God relents, in accordance with Moses’s words, and opts instead to sentence the nation to wander in the desert for forty years — one year for each day the spies spent in the Holy Land. Their children, who they thought would die in the desert, would instead be the only ones to enter the land. He commands the people to break camp and turn back towards the desert.

The ten spies who brought the negative report died immediately, struck down by the hand of God.

After Moses conveys God’s message to the people, they are ashamed of what they have done. Wanting to make up for their mistakes, a group of them decide to climb the mountains facing them and enter the Promised Land, as they should have done in the first place. Moses warns them that now God is no longer with them in that endeavor; they have lost their chance and an attempt without God’s backing will fail. They ignore Moses and go anyway, resulting in the deaths of all the misguided rebels.

Points to Ponder

When God accepts Moses’s argument and agrees to spare the people, he mentions only Caleb’s name as being faithful and earning the right, alone in his generation, to enter the land of Israel (14:24). Yet when speaking to both Moses and Aaron, He singles out both Caleb and Joshua as exceptions to his decree (14:30). Why do you think that is? What might be the difference between Caleb and Joshua?

Libations, Challah and Atonement

Numbers 15:1-31

The Torah describes the accompanying offerings that must be brought alongside sacrifices. Depending on the animal brought, the Torah lists the amount of flour, oil and wine that is to accompany the offering. This applies regardless of who brings the offering.

The Torah also sets out the requirement of separating Challah, a portion of anything kneaded for the sustenance of the priests. This applies once the people arrive in the land.

The Israel Bible explains the purpose of separating Challah. Since the priests are not given a portion of the land, but instead are expected to instruct the people in the ways of God, Challah is meant to provide for their physical needs. In exchange, the priests’ teachings provide for the people’s spiritual needs.

Next, the Torah relates how to atone for sins. The text differentiates between the community and the individual accidentally engaging in a sin, as well as intentionally sinning.

The community can atone by bringing a young bull as an elevation offering, with its meal-offering and libation, and a he-goat as a sin-offering. If it is an individual who sins, he brings a she-goat as a sin offering. If, however, the individual sinned intentionally, there is no atonement — that person shall be cut off from the people for scorning God.

Points to Ponder

Why do you think these laws, prefaced with the statement “When you enter the land”, appear immediately after the story of the Sin of the Spies and the Ma’apilim?

Public Desecration of the Sabbath and the Commandment of Tzitzit

Numbers 15:32-45

A brief story is related in which an individual is caught collecting wood on the Sabbath, an act that is forbidden. The people bring the man before Moses, for they do not know what to do with him. God instructs Moses to execute the sinner by stoning him outside the camp.

The portion ends with the command to tie fringes onto the corners of all their four-cornered garments, including one thread of turquoise, or tekhelet. The purpose of the fringes, the Torah tells us, is to remind the wearer of the commandments of the Torah.

The Israel Bible explains the significance of the blue thread. The color is reminiscent of the sky, and by extension, God. For close to 1500 years, the source of the special dye for this thread was lost to the world, yet now, marine biologists and Talmudic scholars together have discovered the snail from which the dye is made off the coast of Haifa. Today, people are wearing tekhelet again, as the Bible comes to life in Israel.

Points to Ponder

Why do you think the story of the wood-gatherer is included in the Bible? Why couldn’t the Torah just list the consequence for breaking the Sabbath among the other laws of the day?

The Israel Bible Team

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