Light from the Sidra

Shelach ('Send') 14 June 2014. 16 Sivan 5774.

Torah: Numbers 13: 1-15:41. Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


Many years ago I had a friendly discussion with a rabbi in Golders Green who reminded me that there was a difference between intentional and unintentional sins. He was right of course. The point of disagreement between us was that, according to the rabbi, only unintentional sins required the shedding of sacrificial blood to secure atonement, whereas intentional sins required only sincere repentance on the part of the offender. I didn’t agree with him and suggested that it was strange that the lesser sin required blood atonement, whereas the more serious transgression required only repentance.

The distinction between deliberate and accidental sin is very important because there was a way of atonement for unintentional sin, but not for deliberate rebellion. The penalty for sinning with a ‘high hand’ was death, and the Sidra provides a graphic example of such an offence in the account of the Israelite man who gathered sticks on Shabbat. The penalty was death. Although the man’s sin might appear trivial to us, we shouldn’t forget that the sin which plunged the world into the state of misery that now exists was the eating of a piece of forbidden fruit. The Israelite man was aware that work on Shabbat was prohibited but he treated God’s command with contempt. Apart from the account of ‘man’s first disobedience’ in Genesis 3, there is no clearer example of wilful rebellion than the one found in Numbers 15:32-36. All sin is serious but deliberate rebellion – the shaking of the fist in the face of the Almighty – is infinitely more serious.

Before the days of smart phones on which you can set reminders for yourself, people used all kinds of methods to remind themselves of things they had to do. I once worked with a man who, in the middle of business discussions would take out his wallet and lay it on the table. It was a reminder to him to do or say something after everyone else had finished talking. After the incident of the Shabbat breaker, HASHEM issued the command to the men of Israel to wear tzitzit. The tassels served the same purpose as my former colleague’s wallet; they served as a permanent reminder of the instruction of God. Tzitzit could be seen at all times and therefore were a constant prompt to Israel to remember God’s Torah and obey it.

The parasha begins with another example of wilful sin, one which involves not only an individual but also the entire people. After having witnessed the power and faithfulness of their God in the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the daily provision of manna and victory over enemies greater and more powerful than themselves, Israel refused to believe their God could bring them into the land he had promised them on oath.

When the people heard the negative report of the ten spies they should have remembered that if the Almighty was able to deliver them from the mightiest nation on earth, saving them from the inhabitants of the land he had promised them would be a piece of cake. But they complained and talked of replacing Moses with a leader who would actually take them back to the house of bondage from which they had been delivered by God’s mighty hand!

Unbelief is the fundamental sin because it insults the character of HASHEM. Unbelief says God cannot be trusted and if someone tells you they don’t trust you, they are casting a serious aspersion on your character. And that is very hurtful. To say you don’t believe God is – not to put too fine a point on it – to call God a liar. To not believe God is to doubt his character and to question his trustworthiness. Unbelief was the original temptation in the Garden of Eden: ‘Has God said...?’

Let’s cut to the chase. None of us can plead ‘not guilty’ to unbelief. I’m astonished by the number of Jewish people I meet who are either atheist or agnostic. I’m amazed that many Jews and professing Christians who pay lip-service to the notion that the Bible is the Word of God know so little about the Bible, read it so little and/or believe that ‘the things that you're liable to read in your Bible... ain’t necessarily so.’

In particular, I never cease to be flabbergasted when Jewish people tell me that certain statements in the Hebrew Bible are ‘Christian’. To take one example, God says in Leviticus 17:11 that atonement is achieved only through blood sacrifice but most Jewish people are happy to state that Jews don’t believe that any more. That’s unbelief and none of us can hide behind the excuse that our religion ‘no longer believes’ such things. If the Bible is the Word of God, then to reject the smallest word of it is to refuse to believe God.

One of my friends recently told me about a lecture he had attended in which a respected Jewish rabbi had stated that all Jews will embrace truth from wherever it is found. In a discussion after the meeting my friend took issue with the rabbi over a claim he had made about the prophecy about the ‘virgin’ giving birth to a son in Isaiah 7:14. The rabbi had claimed that the verse was, in reality, nothing more than a prediction that a ‘young woman’ would become pregnant and bring forth a son. My friend presented very powerful evidence from Jewish sources that the Hebrew word almah really did mean ‘virgin’ and suggested that the rabbi did not understand the biblical meaning of almah. The sedate conversation ended abruptly as the rabbi exploded: ‘I don’t want to understand!’ That, in a word, is unbelief.

If the Bible is the very Word of God, then we should love it, read it, believe it and obey it for, as Bob Dylan inimitably put it: ‘Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain't neutral ground.

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