Light from the Sidra

Shelacha ('Send') 12th June 2015. 26th Sivan 5775

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)


No neutral ground

They say confession is good for the soul, so here goes. A few months ago I was driving home late at night after a speaking engagement. There was nobody else on the road and I was on autopilot. The motorway narrowed and, before I knew it, the speed limit dropped from 70 to 50. There were two brilliant flashes behind me and my heart dropped to the pit of my stomach as I was jolted to attention. For the next few weeks I lived in dread, each day expecting to find on my return home an ominous brown envelope containing incriminating photos. To make things worse, I already had six points on my driving licence. What was I going to do? I was facing a driving ban and I need my car for my work. I was gutted. What could I plead to be let off the hook? ‘Your honour, it was late at night. I was tired. I was about to slow down’?

‘So are you informing this court that you were driving without due care and consideration?’

Had I been summoned to appear before the magistrate I would have been without excuse. As far as the judge and the police would be concerned, I knew the law and wilfully broke it. I would have been sunk. Thankfully, it’s now been some three months and several sleepless nights since the night of the flashing camera and no brown envelope has materialised. So I figure I’m safe; for now…’

In the Torah there is a difference between intentional and unintentional sin; between wilful rebellion and accidental disobedience. According to this week’s Sidra, the difference is an important one, for there was a way of atonement for unintentional sin, but not for deliberate rebellion against the revealed will of HASHEM. The penalty for acting ‘high-handedly’ (Numbers 15:30) as in the case of the man who gathered wood on the Sabbath, was death. He was aware of HASHEM’s command not to work on Shabbat but he treated the command with contempt. It doesn’t matter that we might find the offence trivial; the man’s action was a clear example of wilful rebellion against God. In the Garden of Eden, the penalty for eating of a piece of fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil appears to us to be trivial but the offence lay not so much in eating from that particular tree so much as saying to God, ‘Not thy will but mine,’

After the Sabbath breaking incident, HASHEM issued a command for Israel to wear tzitzit as a permanent visible reminder of his Instruction. When plays are staged there is always someone with the script off the edge of the stage to prompt actors who forget their lines. The tzitzit had a similar function. They could be seen at all times and they prompted Israel to remember to obey God’s Torah.

But the major example of wilful disobedience in this week’s Parasha is the refusal of the people en masse to enter the Promised Land. It had been only a matter of months since the people witnessed the plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Sea of Reeds. HASHEM had miraculously provided water in the wilderness and fed them with quails. He had empowered the disorganised rabble to defeat Amelek. Although Israel had seen the works of HASHEM they put him to the test. God had been faithful but when the spies returned from the expedition, instead of rejoicing at Joshua and Caleb’s positive report they went with the majority report. The people should have remembered that if HASHEM was able to deliver them from the mightiest nation on earth, subduing the giants in Canaan would be a piece of cake for him. Finally, the congregation voted to ditch Moses and replace him with someone who would take them back to Egypt and slavery. How true to life the account is. At the Passover Seder every Jew is to account himself as though he personally was present when HASHEM redeemed his people. Imagine you had been present in the wilderness and heard the two reports; whose report would you have believed?

Ask any religious Jews what constitutes intentional sin today and they might name Shabbat breaking, or murder, or theft or adultery. But what about unbelief? As Bob Dylan sang: ‘You’ve either got faith or you got unbelief and there ain’t no neutral ground.’
Unbelief is serious. When someone tells you they don’t believe you, it’s a slur on your character. It’s the basic sin. It’s an insult to HASHEM because unbelief says God can’t be trusted and to refuse to trust God is to call him a liar; it is to doubt his character and question his trustworthiness.

How many times have you suspected that ‘the things that you’re liable to read in your Bible… ain’t necessarily so’? And why? Because ‘Nobody believes the Bible anymore.’

Few Jewish people today believe the early chapters of the Bible because no one else does. There are Jews who believe Abraham, Moses and David are fictional characters because everyone believes that. A Jewish lady once told me that Moses made up the Ten Commandments in order to control the Israelites. If that was true, I told her, the greatest moral code in the world is founded on a lie.

And what about the Messiah? There are Jewish people who love George Frederick Handel’s oratorio The Messiah but don’t stop to think that most of the words are about a person they reject as the Messiah. They are blissfully unaware that the words describing the birth, life, death and resurrection and the hope of eternal life found in him are taken from the Hebrew Scriptures. Not all ignorance is bliss. I was unaware of the fact that the speed limit on the motorway had changed but my ignorance almost resulted in me being banned from driving.

When you point out to Jewish people (and non-Jews, for that matter) that Jesus is the Messiah foretold with crystal clarity in the Hebrew Scriptures, they dismiss the evidence. That is what the Bible calls unbelief. And there is a penalty for those who continue in unbelief.

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