This week’s Torah portion, or parsha, is called “Shelach Lechah,” meaning “send for yourself.” The Torah had just been given to the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai as a gift from G-d on the high holy day of Shavuot. They now want to claim their Promised Land, so Moses sends twelve “spies” to scout out Canaan to see if it’s safe.
After forty days they return with grapes, figs, and a pomegranate, reporting that “the land is flowing with milk and honey and this is its fruit.” But ten spies also warn that the indigenous people are dangerous warriors, making them look like “grasshoppers” by comparison. Only two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, insist that the land can be conquered, as G-d has originally proclaimed. The majority, however, share the spies’ fear and complain that they’d rather go back to Egypt. G-d, seeing they are clearly not ready, delays their entry to the Promised Land by forty years as punishment. A group of them decide to go ahead anyway, but are fatally attacked by the Canaanites and Amalekites.
After this tragedy, the community despairs. Perhaps to inspire hope, G-d then instructs Moses to teach them the laws of menachot, or food, wine, and oil offerings. Other commandments, such as wearing tzizit, a four-cornered, fringed garment, as a reminder of the importance of living by Jewish law and keeping Shabbat, the day of rest are also enforced. One man is caught violating Shabbat by working on gathering sticks and is swiftly killed.
Here there is an apparent power struggle as the majority of the Jewish people struggle to accept G-d’s word, first in doubting they can safely enter the Promised Land, then in accepting their forty year punishment, and finally in adhering to the observance of Shabbat. Each time G-d is defied, there is a swift and often deadly consequence.
I was especially struck by the seemingly harsh act of killing someone for working on Shabbat. Why is rest such a vital imperative? For most New York professionals I know, especially type A ones like myself, our concept of self-worth is often deeply intertwined with our productivity. The more plugged-in and efficient we are, the better we feel about ourselves. Yet, a traditional observance of Shabbat, as alluded to in this passage, requires one to stop doing what is normally done during the week, and shift the focus to spiritual, personal, and social matters.
In her book The Tapestry of Jewish Time, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin writes: “For most of us, Shabbat is an acquired awareness, something, paradoxically, we must work at learning. May of us seek to be in control always, to do, to fix. We pride ourselves on the ability to get the job done…[yet] Shabbat is the quiet that defines our work.”
Maybe, then, sacrificing the man who defied Shabbat’s laws was G-d’s way of showing that we need to relinquish control regularly in order to remind us of our place in the universe and provide a larger perspective. Traditional observance of Shabbat requires discipline, as does practicing meditation.
My kavanah, or intention, for this week, is to use our meditation space as a mini personal “Shabbat” or resting place, to momentarily let go of trying to control, fix, and complete every concern and thought. I invite you to allow yourself to feel present in your mind and breath in this moment. When you find yourself swept up in a worry, gently bring yourself back and remind yourself that it’s okay to take a break to breathe. Even G-d says so.