The Torah portion for the upcoming Shabbat is Beha’alotecha, which I have already discussed here. Thus, in this blog post, I will discuss the Torah portion for June 25th, Sh’lach (Numbers 13:1 – 15:41). Sh’lach contains the sending of scouts into the Land, the spreading of a bad report, more Israelite disobedience, conditional divine forgiveness accompanied by divine punishments, a description of types of offerings in the Land, the stoning to death of a Shabbat-breaker, and the commandment for tzitizit. From a feminist perspective there are two main areas I want to focus on in this post: the many ways in which the death penalty is prevalent in this parshah and the commandment for tzitizit.
Sh’lach has essentially two examples of death penalties, both, if the reader can believe it, divinely-inspired/required. First, let us look at the case of the man gathering wood. In verse 15:32, a few Israelites catch a man gathering wood on Shabbat. They take him to Moses, Aaron, and the entire congregation (15:33), all of whom were not sure what to do with him. Moses consults with the deity, who pronounces a death penalty by stoning outside of the camp (15:35). The people do as divinely instructed (15:36).
Besides the fact that I genuinely oppose the death penalty, the sentence here does not fit the transgression. How does breaking Shabbat warrant death? It does not.
Part of me wants to know why he was collecting wood. Clearly, the Israelites would have known how the deity behaves at this point and how important strict adherence to the laws are to that same said deity, so there has to have been a compelling reason for him to be collecting wood. Did he need the wood to cook food for a sick relative, heat the house for a newborn baby or to sterilize water? Is he someone who normally gathers wood every morning and just didn’t realize it was Shabbat?
And, for that matter, who would want to be part of a community whose deity commands such punishments? Who would find that kind of deity worthy of worship? Likewise, to comport oneself out of fear of punishment does not a sincere devotee make.
Thank goodness that we soon realized that there are legitimate reasons for violating the sanctity of Shabbat. In addition, we have had and continue to have meaningful discussions as to what qualifies as work. See here for example. One final thought about this work, I find it interesting that, in this example, it is a man collecting wood. In most places around the globe, this task is often assigned to women. I wonder what would have happened if she had been caught? Would there have been this same confusion as to what to do with her? We will never know.
Moving on, there are more divinely-sanctioned deaths. In verse 14:12, the deity wants to kill the Israelites with a plague because they wanted to stone Joshua and Caleb to death. In verses 14:22-23 and 14:29-30, 33 and 35, the deity condemns the generation who questioned him ten times to die outside of the Land, and their descendants must wander in the desert for 40 years, one year for each day of their wanderings. In verse 14:37, we read that the men who spread the falsehoods about the Land which then caused the Israelites to revolt again against the deity have died by divine plague. Finally, many of the Isrealites were troubled to learn that these men died, so they walked up the mountain to face the Amalekites and Canaanites without divine protection and were killed (14:43-45).
What is the point of all of this death? How could it possibly benefit the deity? Why is the deity so obsessed with death?
In my opinion, these events are best understood as human interpretations of events and not a true picture of who the deity is. For example, it made sense to the Israelites that the death of scores of Isrealites by the Amalekites and Canaanites were because of divine’s withdrawal of protection. The deity had after all promised them the divine presence. In addition, it is important to remember that, in the ancient world, sickness was divine punishment for unacceptable behavior. Thus, Sh’lach is an attempt by the Israelites to make sense out of the copious amount of death they faced and give it divine significance.
There is another aspect of the parshah that is less problematic: the requirement of tzitzit (verses 38-39). These knotted tassels on the corners of a four cornered garment is to remind the wearer of a number of things. Tzitzit remind one to follow the commandments and remain faithful to the deity. Interestingly, they also remind the wearer of the deity, but not the fierce, angry, vengeful deity of the last few chapters. Rather, holiness and liberation are now the divine characteristics.
As this discussion of tzitzit has made clear, there are two main understandings of the divine in this parshah, and unfortunately, the more patriarchal one takes precedence. The focus on death and the pronouncements of the death penalty as holy is highly problematic. However, as we have seen, much of that patriarchal understanding can be dismantled through contextualization: the theodicy of the ancient world often blamed disease and death as divine punishments. Luckily, Sh’lach also paints a picture of the divine as liberator who wants us to practice faithfulness, holiness, and right action. That is considerably more feminist.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.