Shelakh-lecha (Num. 13:1 – 15:41)

First, a shout out to my favorite daughter, Rosalyn E. Plotzker, M.D., who became privileged to use those last two initials on May 29:

tph roz md


OK, that happy news should partially inoculate us against this downer of a portion.

Why spy?  That is not meant as a reference to a 1960’s TV show.  It’s a key question relating to this week’s Torah reading.  Moses sends out 12 tribal leaders (extra credit: What tribe is not represented and why?) to spy out the land of Canaan.  They are to gather very specific information concerning the land’s inhabitants (strong or weak, few or many), how fortified the cities are, and how fertile the land is (and bring back some fruit).  That’s it.  This isn’t a feasibility study (“can we?”) nor is the information to be used for making a decision (“should we?”).  The decision to conquer the land has been made.  The spies’ information may be useful for determining strategy (“how will we?”) and maybe for reassuring the people.  But we know what happened.  Ten of the spies report the expected positives first (typical manipulative rhetorical technique) but then add their own deadly spin:  The lad devours its inhabitants.  The people are giants and we were grasshoppers beside them (a vivid image of low self-esteem).  Bottom line: We can’t do it.  Joshua and Caleb disagree vehemently but are drowned out and almost stoned.  Then the people freak out and want to return to Egypt, the Lord wants to destroy them, Moses talks the Lord out of it, the Lord says OK, but the people are condemned to spend 40 years in the desert, one year per day of the spies’ trip.  A group tries to attack Canaan anyway, but it’s too late; there’s no divine support, so they are beaten back.  The spies who spread the evil report die by plague (there’s usually a plague).  Then we get back to law-giving: more on sacrifices for when (not if) Israelites eventually capture the Promised Land, the penalty for violating the Sabbath (stoning), and the commandment to put fringes (tzitzit) on the corners of garments as a reminder of the Lord and the Law (sort of like a string around your finger).

In the haftarah, Joshua 2:1-24, Joshua, a veteran of the debacle just described, uses a more sensible strategy: only two spies on a very quiet mission, solely for military strategy purposes.  So why did Moses send his spies the way he did?  Moses is given permission by the Lord to send out spies (13:1-2), but Moses is going to make the final decision.  Later on (Deut. 1:21-22), he claims this wasn’t his idea, but a concession to the people’s demand.  Apparently, Moses had thought that, after a miracle-filled year in the wilderness, there was no way the people would back out.  Instead, I guess he expected the report of the returning spies to be like a pep rally and fire up the people to move forward.  Consequently, he sent out a group of well-known, well-respected leaders, with very concrete instructions, maybe with public fanfare.  And the fruit they brought back was certainly impressive (that iconic image of two men carrying one cluster of grapes).  But Moses underestimated the fragility of the people’s faith: in the Lord, in Moses, and, critically, in themselves.

38+ years to go.

Shabbat shalom,

Parshas Shlach  On 1 Foot
by S. Galena Posted: 07-09-2006

Moshe sends spies into Israel to scout out the land.
Spies: Land sucks.
God punishes the Jews with 40 years in the desert.
Moshe: We are taking the long route.
The End.

‘Book Of CIA Humor’ Declassifies Top-Secret Jokes
September 24, 2011

Excerpts from a “Weekend Edition” interview. Listen to the whole thing, 3 min 50 sec , at the website.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:  A man named Ed Mickolus joins us now. Two spies walk into a bar. One spy says to the other…

ED MICKOLUS: I’m sorry, Scott. You’re not cleared for that punchline. (SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Mr. Mickolus is a 33-year veteran of the CIA and a former stand-up comic. He’s now written a new book called “The Secret Book of CIA Humor.”  Thanks so much for being with us

MICKOLUS: Hey, just delighted to be here.

SIMON: Is that a smile face on your CIA I.D.?

MICKOLUS: Well, oddly enough it is a Family Day badge that we have. So…

SIMON: Is that like bring your children…

MICKOLUS: Bring Your Kids to Work Day, right. Last year one of my friends came in with his eight-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter. And he was asked by his son, Jeez, this is so cool, dad. Did you actually use any of this stuff? And he comes up with the standard line, Well, son, if I told you I’d have to kill you.


MICKOLUS: The son says, tell my sister. (SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Now, do I have this right? You actually started a comedy club in the CIA?

MICKOLUS: I did. I wanted to try out some of the material that I was using for regular comedy clubs in the D.C. And eventually I learned that, you know, this is a lot tougher than it looks when the professionals are doing it. [Comment sent in by Marty of Boise: “Spying is easy. Comedy is hard.”] So, did it for a little while then decided, eh, let’s keep the day job.

SIMON: Tell us one of your favorites, if you could.

MICKOLUS: Why did the case officer cross the road? To make sure that surveillance was going to follow him. (SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: You guys think that’s really funny?

MICKOLUS: You know, that just kills in training. (SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: No, don’t judge it by my reaction alone. Like, wouldn’t an alternative punchline be, you know, something like: I’m sorry we can’t confirm or deny that the operative has crossed the road?

MICKOLUS: Let me write that down, if you don’t mind. (SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER) I’ll use that one instead. [Alternative punchline sent in by Mark Hill: “To go over to the other side!”]

SIMON: Mr. Mickolus, thanks very much.
Low self-esteem
A guy had been feeling down for so long that he finally decided to seek the aid of a psychiatrist.  He went there, lay on the couch, spilled his guts then waited for the profound wisdom of the psychiatrist to make him feel better. The psychiatrist asked a few questions, took some notes then sat thinking in silence for a few minutes with a puzzled look on his face. Suddenly, he looked up with an expression of delight and said, “Um, I think your problem is low self-esteem. It is very common among losers.”
From 2001

Q: What happens when a paranoid has low self-esteem?
A: He thinks that nobody important is out to get him.
From 2007

The spy

During a critical mission, a CIA agent was given the task of finding a spy named Epstein in New York and giving him a secret code that only he would understand.

The agent entered the lobby of an apartment building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and browsed the directory. He noticed there were two Epsteins listed; one on the first floor, the other on the second.

He took a chance and knocked on the door of the Epstein on the first floor. When Epstein opened the door, the agent told him, “The sky above, the mud below.”

Mr. Epstein replied, “Oh! You want Epstein the spy. Second floor.”
Besides the tzitzit on a tallit, highly observant male Jews wear a four-cornered garment with tzitzit daily (tallit katan, “little tallit” or Arba Kanfot, “four corners”) under their clothes.  Last year, I included a picture of such a garment that belonged to my great-great-grandfather and was donated by my mother to what is now the National Museum of American Jewish History; villagers thought it had special powers (healing the sick, etc.).  See it at

Below is a pretty, embroidered one currently on the museum’s website:

TPH Embroidered tzitzit from, religion collection

Tallit katan of Samuel Stein
Russia or Poland ca. 1888
Embroidered cloth
National Museum of American Jewish History, 1992.11.1

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1 Response to Shelakh-lecha (Num. 13:1 – 15:41)

  1. Ava waisbord says:

    As always, I enjoy reading your commentaries. Shabbat Shalom

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