Shelach (Num. 13:1 – 15:4)

Spies.  Surveillance.  Sanctioned and unsanctioned.  I took a course at Osher this spring on the workings of U.S. intelligence agencies.  It was given by a retired CIA operative.  I learned that the CIA is supposed to just gather intelligence, not get into policy decisions, and the FBI is supposed to focus on domestic crime, not foreign.  I also am listening a course on the history of espionage and covert operations back to ancient times, including the stories of the spies Moses sends out in this week’s Torah portion and Rahab and Joshua’s spies in the haftarah, Joshua 2:1-24.

The task Moses sets for 12 men, one per tribe, is CIA-like information gathering.  It is not to decide policy, i.e., if the Israelites could invade the Promised Land successfully.  They have a list of very specific questions to answer (13:7-20):

“Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.”

And they duly scout out the whole land for 40 days, gather data and report that the land is indeed very fertile, bringing back a giant bunch of grapes that had to be carried by two men, some figs, and pomegranates.

Unfortunately, 10 of the 12 also report, publicly, that there is no way the Israelites can conquer the land.  The cities are fortified, and the inhabitants are like giants, the Israelites like grasshoppers beside them.  The youngest of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, vigorously disagree.  But the people accept the majority report, with disastrous results.  Some cry out that it would have been better to die in Egypt.  Some actually propose going back to Egypt.  The Lord is understandably outraged.

After eloquent pleading by Moses, the Lord agrees not to destroy all of the Israelites (the 10, naturally, die of a plague). Instead, they will have to wander in the wilderness for a total of 40 years, one for each day of scouting, so that the slave generation will die off and the next generation will grow up untainted by the timidity of slaves.  When some of the people then repent and try to invade anyway, even though Moses tells them the Lord won’t be with them, they are crushed.

So what went wrong?  Was it unreasonable for the spies to be sent out? Not really, but there were probably too many of them, it was all done too publicly, and the men were chosen because of local prominence, not skill or faithfulness.  But their caution, lack of confidence, and low self-esteem were mirrored in the people at large, so I wonder whether the people really would have been gung-ho about a military invasion, even if the 10 naysayers had given a less negative report.

And what happens next?  The Lord gives Moses some more laws, for when (not if, when) the people finally settle in Canaan, concerning sacrifices (e.g., first bread, unwitting and defiant sins), Sabbath desecration, and tzitzit.  These are the fringes that go on the corners of a four-cornered garment (for example, a tallit), a concrete reminder of the laws.  This section, Numbers 15:37-41, became the last paragraph of the Shema in our liturgy.

The haftarah tells of a successful spy mission.  Joshua, no doubt remembering the earlier debacle, secretly sends out two spies, who infiltrate Jericho and are hidden by the innkeeper (harlot?) Rahab. They make a deal: The Israelites will not harm her family if they stay in her house and she doesn’t spill the beans about the coming invasion.  The protected house will be identified by a red cord tied to the window (an echo of the tzitzit?). After 3 days of hiding, the spies report back to Joshua, “…all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before us.”

Next week, we’ll see how meekly (or not) the Israelites in the wilderness accept their fate.

Shabbat shalom,


Pizza Spy 

[This really happened! Go to  ]

FBI agents conducted a “search and seizure” at the Southwood Psychiatric Hospital in San Diego, which was under investigation for medical insurance fraud. After hours of poring over many rooms of financial records, some sixty FBI agents worked up quite an appetite. The case agent in charge of the investigation called a local pizza parlor with delivery service to order a quick dinner for his colleagues.

The following telephone conversation took place:

Agent: Hello. I would like to order nineteen large pizzas and sixty-seven cans of soda.

Pizza man: And where would you like them delivered?

Agent: To the Southwood Psychiatric Hospital.

Pizza man: To the psychiatric hospital?

Agent: That’s right. I’m an FBI agent.

Pizza man: You’re an FBI agent?

Agent: That’s correct. Just about everybody here is.

Pizza man: And you’re at the psychiatric hospital?

Agent: That’s correct. And make sure you don’t go through the front doors. We have them locked. You’ll have to go around to the back to the service entrance to deliver the pizzas.

Pizza man: And you say you’re all FBI agents?

Agent: That’s right. How soon can you have them here?

Pizza man: And you’re over at Southwood?

Agent: That’s right. How soon can you have them here?

Pizza man: And everyone at Southwood is an FBI agent?

Agent: That’s right. We’ve been here all day and we’re starving.

Pizza man: How are you going to pay for this?

Agent: I have my check book right here.

Pizza man: And you are all FBI agents?

Agent: That’s right, everyone here is an FBI agent. Can you remember to bring the pizzas and sodas to the service   entrance in the rear? We have the front doors locked.

Pizza man: I don’t think so.


[They did eventually get their pizzas – take-out, not delivery.]


tph paranoid


Low Self-Esteem Quotes

Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your hand-brake on.  Maxwell Maltz

Hiding, secrets, and not being able to be yourself is one of the worst things ever for a person. It gives you low self-esteem. You never get to reach that peak in your life. You should always be able to be yourself and be proud of yourself.  Grace Jones

I think high self-esteem is overrated. A little low self-esteem is actually quite good. Maybe you’re not the best, so you should work a little harder.  Jay Leno

The thing that drives me crazy is when comics say, ‘I have low self-esteem.’ No, you don’t. You’re standing on stage asking people to pay. You don’t play an instrument. You want people to pay to hear what’s in your mind. You don’t have low self-esteem. You might have other problems.  Colin Quinn

tph 40 laps


Goldstein the Spy

From RABBI SHRAGA SIMMONS d’var Torah, Shlach 5778 ( (Thanks, Arlene)
The Israeli government has a spy in France named Goldstein. They want to send him a message, so they call in another spy and say, “Go over to France and you’ll find Goldstein living in an apartment at 16 Champs Elysee. To make sure there’s no mix-up, when you meet him, say the secret password: ‘The blue bird flies over the cloudy sky.'”

The spy flies to France and takes a taxi to 16 Champs Elysee. He walks up the steps to the apartment building, looks at the mailboxes, and lo and behold – there are two Goldsteins!

So the spy flips a coin and tries the Goldstein on the first floor. An old man answers. The spy says nervously, ” Umm … the blue bird … umm … flies over the cloudy sky!”

The old man thinks for a moment and says, “Oh, you want Goldstein the spy – he lives upstairs!”


Tzitzit have come to be regarded as having supernatural, protective powers, providing a spiritual bulletproof vest.  In fact, my mother told me that my  great-great-grandfather’s arba kanfot was regarded as having magical healing powers in Koval, Poland, Titusville, PA, and West Philadelphia. 

Ben’s Tallit Shop: Tzitzit for IDF Soldiers (excerpts)

The campaign to stop Gaza rockets has now resumed, and in the meantime Lt. Colonel (res.) Rabbi Yedidya Atlas of the IDF Central Command is continuing his campaign to supply IDF soldiers with army issue tzitzit and other religious articles needed by soldiers in the field.

tph tzitzit for idf

IDF soldiers with two layers of protection

He told me that he has received repeated requests on the command level, both from units in the south around Gaza and in Judea and Samaria, for the IDF Rabbinate to meet the demand for olive green “dri-fit” tzitzit for all the combat soldiers who request them.

Many combat soldiers refer to the olive green tzitzit as השכפ”ץ האמיתי (“the real bullet-proof vest”). Most combat reservists only have a white tallit katan to bring with them when they report for duty. The white not only compromises unit discipline but can actually pose a danger since it can be too visible at night, with flashes of white peeking out from under army fatigues. Normally the IDF distributes simple cotton tzitzit garments that  become saturated with sweat, making them uncomfortable during training and combat, and making soldiers more vulnerable to skin irritation. The “dri-fit” type features an inner layer designed to wick away moisture and odor.


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