Parsha Shlach: Dying to Show a People that They are not Lost

This week we learn about sacrifice. I don’t mean the killing of animals. Rather, I am talking about the willingness of a person to sacrifice themselves for the good of the whole.

I do believe Spock (a good Jewish boy, bless his soul) in one of the Star Trek movies essentially said the same thing when he declared, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.”

I am jumping ahead though. Let me give you the background.

This week we read the parsha (Torah portion) called Shlach, which is the command form of the verb to send.   It starts off with haShem (god) telling Moshe (Moses) that it is ok to send spies into the Promised Land. 40 days later, and after their report, the men within the children of Israel are crying because they are convinced they will be killed by the inhabitants of the land.

God hears this and is not happy and declares that if they believe they will die in the wilderness, they will in fact die in the wilderness, and that it will take 40 years for all the men to die off. The children and the women will be allowed to enter the land.

After this, and a misguided attempt by the men to try to go into the land (they get soundly spanked), the Torah talks about various sacrifices including those for unintentional sins.

After mentioning unintentional sins, the Torah tells us what happens to those who deliberately sin, and then tells us a story of a man who breaks a law of Shabbat by gathering wood.

We end by being told to put tzitzit (a string knot-work) on our 4 cornered garments, along with the benefits we will get from them.


Where in this does it talk about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the one?

In the story of the man gathering sticks on Shabbat.

Earlier, back in the second of the 5 books of the Torah (we are currently in the 4th book), we learned not to do a particular category of work (called Malachah) on Shabbat. Included in this is the prohibition against gathering or collecting sticks.

A particular man deliberately gathers sticks, and is brought in front of Moshe and Aharon and the assembly of the people. Moshe does not know what to do, so he asks haShem, and is told that the man must be stoned to death. The people then carry out the sentence.

What does this have to do with sacrifice?

According to our sacred text called the Talmud (Bava Batra 119b), Tosophot (a group of commentators from around 800 years ago) tell us: The wood-gatherer’s intention was for the sake of heaven. For when it was decreed that the people would not enter the Land, due to the sin of the spies (B’midbar (Numbers) 14:21-23), they thought that they were no longer obligated in mitzvot (commandments). So, this person took the stance by transgressing Shabbat, in order that he people should see him be punished by death for his transgression, from which they would learn that the mitzvoth were still obligatory.

In other words, the people were afraid that they had gone too far; they had screwed up and angered god one too many times, and that god’s decree of killing off a whole generation was god’s way of saying that not only was the covenant broken and no longer valid, but the whole relationship between god and the children of Israel was over.

If the relationship between god and the people was over, then the mitzvot would no longer apply.

The wood-gatherer of the story deliberately sacrificed himself by collecting wood on Shabbat, a sin punishable by death only if the mitzvot still applied, in order to show everybody that the mitzvot did in fact still apply, and that the covenant between god and the people was still intact.

What a selfless act of restoring the faith of a broken people.

If you care to read what I wrote about this parsha last year, click here.

About the Author

Picture of Shmuel Shalom Cohen Shmuel Shalom Cohen spent 10 years studying Torah in Jerusalem. Six years ago, he started Conscious Torah to help Jews connect to their tradition in ways they didn’t think possible. Shmuel also started, and is the executive directory of Jewish Events Willamette-valley, a non-profit whose mission is to build Jewish community, pride, and learning. In his free time, Shmuel likes walks in nature, playing music, writing poetry, and time with good friends.

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