Shlach: The Tale of the Spies by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Sh’lach (שלח־לך)
Torah: Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1 – 2:24

Scene: A tribal harvest-feast, in Canaan, c. 1380 BCE. Israelites of the tribe of Benjamin have celebrated with food, barley beer, wine, dance and song, thanking their Desert God, Adonoi, or He-Who-Is, for a bountiful harvest of both produce and cattle. The cooking-fires have died down, hearts are warm and bellies are full, and all are feeling well-content in the bounty granted them by a beneficent, if demanding, God.

As the cold desert night settles over their farms and fields, they gather around family- and tribal-fires to warm themselves, sing old songs of the Wilderness-Times, and call for stories from those who remember—in particular, one of the Surviving Elders, Palti-El ben Rafu, a Benjaminite Chieftain (Ret.), the only remaining member of the spying-party which Moses, their earliest and greatest leader, rabbi, and teacher, sent out years before to explore their strange and challenging Land of Canaan, some generations ago. These stories have not yet been written down; they are still being passed down orally—orature, rather than literature. It is important that the children and teenagers hear the tales of their past.

Palti-El: Before I speak, give me a drop of that barley beer—you, Even-ezer, you thieving son-of-a-sheep (jokingly), where are you hiding it?—thank you; no, don’t fill it up to the top; I am old, and am better served with the plain, cold water of this Israel, our native land, an inheritance from God, blessed be His Name! And where is Saphirah, my jewel, my youngest great-granddaughter? Ah, there you are, sweet little brown-eyed one; come, come sit by Savta, your great-gran’ther, (A smiling, little six-year-old girl, her hair in braids, wearing a brightly-colored holiday robe, climbs into his lap) and hear this story of how I, Paltiel-the-Mighty, carried the Great Bunch of Grapes over the Jordan River—bless me, how long ago was it?


A Voice from the back calls, “Ten years, Lord Palti!”


Other Voices object:

“Ah, what do you know?You weren’t even born, yet!”

“It was at least twenty rains—“

“I recall when the floods came; I was yet pregnant with my firstborn boy, Sodi-el!”

“Silence, All! We must hear the story,” etc.


Palti-El (continuing over the racket, and holding up his hand, silencing his audience somewhat): Oh, quiet down, quiet, my neighbors and children. I begin: hm. So: Rabbi Moses was old, and he assured us that we would conquer, surely conquer the Land, for our Lord God would go before us, as He did at the Reed Sea, and shatter the stone houses of the Mighty Canaanites—


Voice: I wish He would, and welcome. My Canaanite neighbor throws trash from his Idol-Offerings over his fence into my yard.


Another Voice: Will you not be quiet? I told you before, to bring that complaint to the Philistine Chieftain in charge of your District! Silence!


Palti-El: –But we doubted; we were free in name, but slaves in mind, still, and Adonoi had threatened to smite us, because we doubted Him—this we heard from Moses, by way of Aaron (Elder Aaron was no young man, either; he could no longer go out nor come in, and his grandsons had to lift the heavier bull-carcasses of the offerings), by way of Joshua and Caleb—that we were doomed to wander in the Wilderness of scorpions and serpents, to toughen us up; that was what God said—but Moses agreed that we, princes one and all of our tribes –(I was a prince, truly, younger then, and handsomer too; you needn’t giggle at me, from behind your hands, you young children, for these aged ears can hear your laughter!)

–Where was I? O yes; that we should spy out the land; yes, that was to be our task—and so, we packed matzos for the trip, and dried fruit in leathern bags, and crossed via the mountain-range, the better not to leave a trail; the Egyptians, y’see, had fortresses and sentry-posts and checkpoints and sentries and who-knows-what-all along the boundary-lines ‘twixt them and Canaan—and suspicious folks, they were, too, the Egyptian Border Guards, always checking us innocent farmers, shaking us down, to make sure we weren’t bringing in any contraband—one had to grease a palm, here and there, to make sure that Lance-Corporal Put or Sput or Knut wouldn’t go blabbing to his Sergeant-Major, do you know what I mean? I say—


Voice: tell us about the cities walled-up-to-the-sky, Great-Uncle Palti, and the Giants you saw!


Palti-El: Hm? What? Cities? Well, there were cities—not walled that high, I must admit; that was a story Shammua ben Zakoor, of the Reuben-tribe, cooked up in his head; those Reubenites—well, you can’t trust ‘em—they always have to make a big deal of everything, they do; they never liked being passed over to lead the People, their ancestor being the Firstborn Son, but what with Judah being the biggest tribe, and God choosing Levi to serve in the Mishkan-Sanctuary—it’s a family-tribal-thing with the Reubenites.

–(Moses said God made the Choice, but, betwixt you and me and tent-flap, I call it Politics, and Who Y’Know, not What Y’Know.)

And it only ended up by getting us all in trouble. Me, I agreed with Joshua ben Nun of Ephraim (a small tribe, that one, but still, my scrappy little Joshua managed to become Our Leader ‘til his death; a good and honest man, God rest his soul!) and Caleb ben Yefuneh of Judah, but somehow, the records weren’t kept, and it wasn’t ever written down in the final Report. It doesn’t figure anyway, because Moses tore it up; God was unhappy with what we said….


Voice: Why, Second Cousin Palti?


Palti-El: Hm? Why? Well, we were country bumpkins, d’ye see: a bunch of common ruffian

ex-slaves, herding goats and such, going up against a settled, advanced, farmer-folk, living in fortified cities—fifteen cubits or “up to the sky,” I believe our Official Report said; General Joshua—he was but a Major then—wrote it, and Captain Caleb ben Jefunneh signed off on it, so you could believe it; that’s certain.

Well, it didn’t matter; we had no way of storming any city. No ladders; nothing for a siege, not even a shovel to dig a ditch. Besides, the Canaanites, Moabites, Girgashites, all the other ‘Ites—they had iron weapons—wonderful metal, iron is, so strong and sharp, and we were still wielding ours of bronze, silly and soft—I tell you, there was no way we could beat them. We needed to use a—a—Trick! A Subterfuge, I believe it’s called…. And we had Joshua; smart fella, that one, God rest his soul. And Caleb, too. What a pair, they were. I can still see them, standing there, in the glow of the fire-flames, telling us what to do—(sighs)

Any beer left in that jug, Friend Even-Ezer? Ah, brave soldiers, all of us, and commandos, really—as we used to sing, ‘round the campfire, those long, chilly nights in the desert, under a full moon—Ha! (he croaks a song, in a half-rusty voice):

Why, then, let the cannikin clink, clink, clink;

            Why, then, let the cannikin clink.

            A soldier’s a man,

            A life’s but a span;

            Why then, let a soldier drink.

Yes, yes, good memories, of me and my comrades, may they all rest in peace, in Warriors’ Heaven…. How I remember! There was the night that a party of Canaanite dancing-girls heard our singing, during their donkey-journey from Jericho to Ai—and they detoured to introduce themselves to us, they so loved our strong, young voices!

Joshua forbade our spending any time with them—“It’s certain they are unclean and forbidden to us,” quoth he, most solemnly—but I know for a true fact that one or two of the boys didn’t exactly follow his orders—Ha! Ha! Your health, long life, my friends (drinks).


Voice: But what did you do, Neighbor Palti? About the spying out the land, I mean.


Palti-El: Do? Well, we spies walked, observed, hid during the day, took notes, counted sheep. But later, when Joshua led us, there was no such rigamarole as marching ‘round Jericho’s walls seven times and blowing shofarote, I can tell you, with “The walls come a’tumbling down.”

Nonsense. It was like the Conquest of the City of Ai, more like: we fooled their warriors and their king; made the bunch of ‘em run out of their nicely fortified city and into an ambush. When the silly fools chased after us, they left the city gates wide open; one squad of our boys ran into Ai and set the city ablaze—for all the stonework, the roofs of the houses were just made of straw, to keep ‘em cool, y’see—and then, when our pursuers left off running after us, and turned round and gasped and gaped to see their beloved city and houses afire, we turned about, surrounded ‘em, and massacred ‘em all.

A bloodbath, ‘twas—I feel bad about it, to this day. They never had a chance….


Voice: But Ai is a thriving city today!


What? Is it? Well, perhaps it was a different city we sacked and burned—Beth-El, or Nachal-Roi, or some such. My memory fails me, here and there. It’s old, like me.


Voice: What about the punishment from God, the forty years of wandering in the wilderness?


Palti-El: Oh, that. Well, we shouldn’t have gone against God’s judgment, bad-mouthing the Land like that. But we never heard about the forty years, y’see: Moses kept it to himself. He believed that another few years in the wilderness would toughen us up, make us more self-reliant, not so dependent on his leadership—poor man was getting too old, after all, and he was never much of a warrior. Yes, I know what you’re going to say: I heard tell he had killed that Egyptian slavemaster, but that had been long ago, when Moses was young and angry, full of fight—

Moses wanted to make certain that the younger folks and babes born in the wilderness would be born into freedom, and follow only God and our brave General Joshua. That was the main thing.

Any cool water left for a talked-out, dizzy old man? I’m dry, and tired. Story’s done. Bless you all, my children….


Voice: Thank you, bless you, Lord Palti. Nitza, Ish-Baal! Give us a song, while Divri and Achva play the drum and flute. A Harvest Song, All!


Now, everyone sing: Hallelu L’Adonai, Ki Tov—O Give Thanks to the Lord, for He is Good….



Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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