Let every breath praise You
Updated: Jun 4, 2021
Dvar Torah: Parshat Shelach
The plot of parshat שלך is familiar: the appointing of the spies to ‘case out’ the land and report back to Moshe, their failure to stay on task, Moshe’s plea for mercy and the ultimate judgements wrought.
What is intriguing about this tragic episode, is the people’s response to the spies, who reported that both the land and its inhabitants were invincible. The Children of Israel were swayed by the spies’ deceiving embellishments, and in despair, lost all faith and hope. They fell prey to the devious words of the spies, despite having witnessed and personally experienced so many life affirming events: their liberation from slavery, the parting of the sea, drowning of Pharoah’s pursuing army, daily sustaining wonders of manna, protection of the pillar of fire and the giving of the Ten Commandments.
Why were they so vulnerable, forgetting all the good bestowed upon them? And why was promise of return to the land of their ancestors deemed an impossibility?
Is this simply a case of perceiving what one hears as a cup half full or empty? Did life’s multiple experiences lead to a 180 degree shift in perspective, from resilience and optimism to fatalism, resignation and rebellion?
Sefer Tehillim (the Book of Psalms) provides us a glimpse of insight. Psalms mirror the breadth of human experience and their recitation serves two purposes, praise and supplication. The psalms of Hallel are among the most familiar of these.
We tend to attribute the psalms to King David; however, Rabbi Elie Munk proposes a compelling alternative in his The World of Prayer:
“Hallel was already known long before the time of King David. Parts were sung by Deborah, Joshua, and by Moses and the Children of Israel at the banks of the Red Sea. It was even sung at the time of the actual Exodus from Egypt, wherefore it is called “The Hallel of Egypt, or Great Hallel.” (Psalms 113-118.) Many years later, King David assembled these hymns which were well known in Israel, and set them down in their final form in his book of Psalms.”
Going back to Shelach, if indeed the Children of Israel experienced such wonder while escaping slavery and sang the Great Hallel during their liberation from Egypt, why did they lose trust in G-d’s promise upon hearing the spies’ report?
The context of our parsha provides an insight. Last week, in Beha’alothcha, the Children of Israel travelled from Mount Sinai. Ramban comments that “they entered a great and dreadful wilderness. They became upset and said, What shall we do? How shall we live in this wilderness? What shall we eat and what shall we drink? How shall we endure the trouble and the suffering, and when shall we come out of here? They felt anxious and upset, k’mithon’nim, complainers, murmurers. They spoke with bitter souls as do people who suffer pain.”
It is no understatement to say that they forgot how not so long ago, they sang the Great Hallel. They forgot how as their anxiety, ratcheted up from previous instances of complaint, overwhelmed them. Although G-d still provided for all of their needs and they lacked nothing in the wilderness, they now cried out bitterly for the abundance of Egypt (fish, onions, cucumbers, melons, leeks and garlic).
As Shelach opens, G-d commands
שלך -לך אנשים ויתרו את-ארץ כנען אשר-אני נתן לבני ישראל.
This is usually translated, ‘Send for yourself men that they may scout out (ויתרו) the land of Canaan.’
The Ramban, in his Commentary on the Torah, states that the Hebrew command ויתרו refers to a choice, similar to those that one has when they go to the market to purchase something.
In other words, we can understand that free will is an essential component of the command to scout the land and report back.
One could extrapolate that choice is not merely for the spies. There is also choice in the act of how the Children of Israel received and responded to the spies’ reports. They became despondent, totally overwhelmed upon hearing the spies’ negative reports. In choosing to believe the spies’ deceiving and negative report, the people were unable to hear the positive reports of Caleb and Joshua.
It is essential to note that the spies chose to disregard the ending phrase in which G-d promises possession of the land, אשר-אני נתן לבני ישראל
‘Scout the land which I am giving to children of Israel.’
The people in their anguish at hearing the spies report either were incapable in their grief to remember the promise, or worse, disregard the promise.
Their reflexive acceptance of the spies’ negative narratives indicate their inability to sing the Great Hallel that they so spontaneously expressed escaping Egypt at the Red Sea. They had forgotten not just the words, but also the melodies and rhythms.
Forgetting how to sing is something that we all can relate to or have experienced in one way or another this past tumultuous year.
A plague continues to ravage all of humanity. Too many continue to suffer immense personal losses. Here in Minneapolis, we witnessed George Floyd’s murder and all that represented. We endured a divisive and bitter election. And most recently, the existential threat to Israel and its aftershocks of growing antisemitism have stung us with a discordant crescendo.
It has been a heavy, laden year, much like living in a desert wilderness. The traditional response to all this devastation, reciting tehillim, has been filled with pain, supplication and deep desire for compassion, safety and relief.
It has been so very difficult to take a long, slow, deep breath, to open our mouths and sing praise, that many of us either forgot how or lost the will to sing.
Once we find our voices, tehillim’s dual role, to praise and to receive comfort, will again resonate.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote (I Asked For Wonder):
Psalms inhabit the hills,
The air is hallelujah.
May we lift our eyes upward to be inspired and raise our voices in song once again.
I’ll end with the final line of the introductory psalm of BirkathaMazon, Shir haMaalot as recited by Dutch Ashkenzim every Shabbat and Yom Tov meal...
כל הנשמה תהלל י-
Let every breath praise You.