Sh’lach – The Testimony of Caleb ben Yefunneh by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

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


Welcome to the hospitality of my tent, Stranger! I am Brother Caleb, son of Yefunneh, by your leave! It is now twice-ten years since Rabbi Moses ben Amram sent us, twelve spies altogether, over Jordan River (River? Pah! It was but a rivulet, a trickle even, in spots, except during rainy season), and into the Promised Land.

Our mission? To spy it out, that was plain—not only the walled cities, to see how powerful were the inhabitants, and how wary and watchful of invasion; yet also to see the richness of the earth, the blackness of the soil, to smell and feel of it—for we Israelite herdsmen were to become farmers. From goatherds to manure-spreaders, ha!

I was not alone, of course; had I been, along with my bold Joshua ben Nun, he who was destined to succeed our poor old Moses after his death (and no one knew when that might come; the old duffer looked weaker and more skeletal daily), we would not have been punished; no. Why, we would have brought back such a sparkling report of the Land, that the Lord God Almighty would have stormed us over the River, forward and forthwith!

But such was not to be. Why not? Well, I will tell you of our—companions, and you will understand. I am a plain man, and I speak plain words, Stranger. In brief, we had with us the worst bunch of scoundrels, waggle-tongues, and liars ever assembled for a holy mission such as ours! How could we not but fail?

From the Tribe of Simeon, there was Shafat ben Hori—just as his ancestor Simeon had betrayed Father Jacob at the Seduction of Dinah, so was this weasel prepared to lie and lie again, to prevent our inheriting the Land.

From Benjamin, came Palti ben Rafu—all of us knew that Benjamin was to be forever a tiny tribe. And Palti thought he could increase his tribe’s importance by exaggerating the might of the Canaanites. He played upon the fears of our people by lying about the height of the stone-walled cities, compared to the weakness of us wanderers. And he planted within our people a panic fear.

And me? I fought their lies by telling the truth, standing alongside my Joshua, and swearing that, with the help of the Lord, we could defeat an infinity of Canaanites—but it was no good. The people were scared stupid, and then, they rebelled, invading the Land before God said they were ready.

Well, it was a debacle.

They were driven back in disgrace by a raggle-taggle force of Canaanites and a shock troop of Amalekites, our arch-enemies, who were ready for revenge after the Battle of Rephidim, when Aaron and Chur had held Moses’s hands aloft the livelong day….

But now, years later? All are dead—those spies who bore the monstrous big cluster of grapes, and all the misguided fools who invaded at the wrong time, gathered to their fathers. Joshua himself died just six years back, in battle against a rebel band of Gibeonites, God rest his warrior soul!

As for me, I am an old man—a “Village Elder” they call me—but I am no source of Torah wisdom. All I can do is teach the young boys to wield a small sword, to rush into battle when the time is necessary, to defend family, farm, and home. Torah is important; yes. Moses taught me that. But a living dog is better than a dead lion.

And I, Caleb, will be the living dog who teaches other dogs to use their teeth. That’s the meaning of my name; Caleb means “dog”….

Hark! Is that the battle-shofar I hear? Ha! Good! There must be Canaanites at the gate. Get me to my feet, Boy. Help me strap on my small sword and leathern shield. Faster, Little Fool!

And, Lord God, if this battle be my last, let me die—as a true Warrior of Israel!


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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