Parshat Shelach

Imagine the situation, Bnei Yisrael have experienced the wonders of Hashem’s miracles and received the Torah at Sinai, learned to march in magnificent order through the desert and are now ready to face the challenge of entering the Promised Land. But calamity strikes and the spies mess it up and bring back a problematic report and Bnei Yisrael react badly in their disappointment. Hashem despite Moshe’s pleas decides to punish them with forty years in the wilderness and looks to build on the next generation. Some react in an instant rebellion, take up arms and try to get to the Holyland on their own, but are defeated by the Amalekites and Cananites. However the rest remain in lackadaisical depression, with nevertheless a pretty idyllic life, under a protective pillar of cloud with no need to go shopping for food and drink. They probably lived a yeshiva style life of learning Torah all day, as there was not much else to do, which by the way, causes lots of unrest and problems for Moshe throughout the forty years of dessert roaming.

Now Hashem seems to pour salt onto the wound and promptly presents two mitzvot which are to be carried out when the people reach the Holy Land, which of course this lot are destined not to achieve. A meal offering with a libation of wine (a new word for me, but probably not for Jonathan Sacks meaning a drink poured out as offering to Hashem) and the taking of Chala, when kneading the dough, both clearly only to be carried out after settling in the land.

The Second Gere Rebbe, the Sefat Emet, takes a fascinating view of what is going on here. Hashem wants to bring hope and thoughts of the future for Bnei Yisrael and tells them, do not be too sad, your children will inherit the land and here are some positive mitzvot that I wish them to carry out when they get there. Rashi even hints that Hashem says do not worry even if the next generation do sin on the way I promise to bring them to the land of Israel.

The Sfat Emet explains that to emphasize this Hashem presents three mitzvot which replace the three miraculous protective systems of the wilderness. The taking of Chala, when making bread in reminder of the manna, the libation of wine in reminder of the free flowing water each day, and then at the end of the Parsha  comes tzitit, as personal covering in place of the heavenly pillar of cloud. There are those who see these three mitzvot as more personal message for the future of Bnei Yisrael in the Promised Land, the libation offering with the wine pouring an offering that any individual, including proselytes, can bring when wishing to thank Hashem for his goodness, the tzizit for the men and the Chala for the women, which really has become something special over the last few years.

I would add that I think that it is more than that. In the previous chapter, we see Moshe pleading with Hashem to forgive as he did after the golden calf and Hashem here, as at Sinai responds – Salachti Kidevarecha – I forgive because of your words.” Hashem does then say he will punish this generation with forty years in the wilderness, but this is followed by these three positive mitzvot – chala, libation offering and tzitzit. Possibly this is Hashem’s way of giving hope, and if Bnei Yisrael will behave in the wilderness he may change his mind and bring this generation to the Promised Land, which unfortunately does not happen, but the hope for the future was always there if not for them at least for their children.

As to libation, someone was recently mocking the strange custom of the English to drink warm beer which others would pour out in disgust. I explained to them the recent high tech project I learned about of Guinness using high-tech technology to serve beer in the pub at exactly the right consistency and temperature. Guinness were very concerned that their reputation was being damaged by their fine tasting beer being watered down or served too warm at pubs. They set up a system of sensors and SIMs (mobile phone chips) in the delivery trucks and the vats at the pubs that monitor and report on the quality of the beer and assure that the customer gets his (or her) Guinness – libated just as it should be.

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