The theme of vision is paramount in SHELACH LECHA. The parshah begins with G-d telling Moses to send men who “will SPY OUT the Land of Canaan which I am giving to the Children of Israel”. The parshah ends with the passage recited by every Israelite in the SHEMA morning and evening: “They will make for themselves TZITZIS on the fringes of their garments. and you shall LOOK at it and remember all the commandments of HaShem and you shall do them, AND YOU SHALL NOT GO SPYING AFTER YOUR HEARTS AND AFTER YOUR EYES that you went astray after them.” (Numbers 15:38-39). The same word for spying occurs in the opening and closing verses of the parshah, highlighting the importance of the theme of vision throughout the parshah. The Tzitzis are the remedy for faulty and sinful vision.
In the words of Rashi’s comment on the latter verse (Numbers 15:39): The heart and the eyes are spies for the body, and they act as the body’s agents in sinning. The eye sees, the heart desires and the body carries out the sins.” The fringes of the Tzitzis surrounding us on all four sides, are a visual reminder of G-d’s presence everywhere. The blue TECHEILES thread in the Tzitzis is the color of the sea, which is a reflection of the color of the heavens, the seat of G-d’s glory.
Tzitztis is the first mitzvah to which a young boy is introduced (customarily at the age of 3), because this mitzvah comes to remedy the vision of the eyes, which caused Adam’s downfall. “And the woman SAW that the tree was good for food and it was desirable to the EYES. and she ate and she gave also to her husband with her” (Genesis 3:6).
Likewise, it was deceptive vision that led to the fall of the Children of Israel forty days after the revelation at Sinai. “And the people SAW that Moses’ was delayed in coming down from the mountain.” (Exodus 32:1). According to the sages, Satan deceived the people with a “desert mirage” of Moses being carried up dead to heaven. They didn’t want an invisible leader. They wanted one they could see with their own eyes. “And the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, Rise, make us gods who will go before us.” (Exodus 32:1). They couldn’t stand not being able to see G-d. They felt impelled to violate the Second Commandment against making graven images. They wanted a visual representation of the divine — the demanded to see the unseeable — but their representation turned into an idol, giving a license to lust.
In the sin of the Golden Calf, the heart went astray after the image before the eyes. The sin took place at the very height of TEKUFAT TAMUZ (season of Vision), on the 17th of the month. The sin of the Golden Calf led to all the subsequent trials and tribulations of the Children of Israel, represented in the Forty Years of Wandering in the Wilderness (for it is only after 40 years that a person attains BINAH, “understanding” — Avot 5:21). Although the decree of forty years wandering was specifically incurred through the sin of the spies, Rashi (on Numbers 14:33) tells us that “From the moment they made the calf, this decree arose in His Thought. Except that He waited for them until their measure was filled, as it says (Exodus 32:34): ‘On the day of my visitation I will visit upon them their sin’ “.
The forty-year penalty corresponded to the forty-day journey of the Twelve Spies from the Wilderness around the Land of Israel. This also took place during TEKUFAS TAMUZ, one year after the sin of the golden calf. The spies left at the end of Sivan, they were travelling around Israel during the entire month of Tammuz, and they arrived back at the Israelite camp in the Wilderness only on the 9th day of the month of Av.
On their tour of the land, the spies saw exactly what they wanted to see. With the exception of Joshua and Kalev, they rejected the vision of the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They did not want to accept the traditional report that their ears alone had heard: that G-d promised to take them to a land “flowing with milk and honey”. They could not take it on trust. They wanted to check it out with their own eyes and decide for themselves. And they saw what they wanted to see: a real place, a land governed by natural laws, where people live and die. A beautiful land, but one which it was against all the laws of nature that the puny ex-slave Israelites could conquer in the face of a sea of entrenched Amalekites and Canaanites. “And we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes” (Numbers 13:33).
The sin of the spies was a failure of faith. They allowed themselves to be misled by the external appearance of the natural world into a colossal failure of nerve, despite all the promises given by G-d that He would bring them to the land. The faith of Israel does not depend upon what the eyes see. On the contrary, we declare our faith wrapped in the Tallis, clutching the Tzitzis by our hearts, closing our eyes to the visual world around us and covering them with our hand: “Sh’ma Yisrael, HaShem is our G-d.!” Only Joshua and Kalev closed their eyes to external appearances, knowing that with G-d’s help, it is possible to “bend” nature. “We will go up and take possession of it, for He can — we can — (conquer) it.”
Eretz Yisrael looks like a regular country with houses, roads, fields, forests and mountains, etc. (as Rabbi Nachman put it, “these actual stones and houses”). Yet in reality, the law of the land is totally beyond nature. It is: “A land that HaShem your G-d cares for constantly, the EYES of HaShem your G-d are on it from the beginning of the year and until the end of the year” (Deut. 11:12).
Every Israelite recites the law of the Land of Israel twice daily, morning and evening in the Sh’ma: “And if you will surely listen to My commandments. And I will give the rain of your land in its season.and you will eat and be satisfied. Guard yourself lest your heart seduces you and you go astray. and you will be lost quicfrom the good land which HaShem is giving you” (Deut. 11:13-17).
Perhaps the spies feared the people could not live up to the level of the law of the land, and they preferred an easier, more natural way of life outside of Israel. As leaders of their tribes, the spies conducted an ingenious operation of public opinion manipulation, using skillfully chosen words to implant in the people’s minds a vision of the impossibility of achieving their natural destiny that led them all to tears. (This the spies achieved with words alone, even without the use of television, which is the Satan’s ultimate deceiver of eyes.) “And all the community cried out, and the people WEPT on that night.” Tears come from the eyes, the organs of vision. With our tears we try to wash away the bad that our eyes have seen.
The people should have focussed their vision on that which is beyond nature — the miracles that had been performed for them. This should have given them the faith that G-d has the power to fulfill His promises. (See Rashi on Numbers 14:11). Those who had seen the miracles and still did not believe in G-d would not see the land. “All the men who see My glory and My signs that I did in Egypt and in the Wilderness yet have tested Me in this ten times, and have not listened to My voice — They shall not see the land that I have sworn to their fathers, and all who despise Me shall not see it” (Numbers 14:22-3).
Yet immediately after the imposition of the decree, the Torah continues with a series of commandments that can only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel, including the laws of the wheat, oil and wine libations that accompany animal offerings in the Temple, and CHALLAH, the gift of the first portion of one’s bread to the priest (Numbers Ch. 15). The positioning of these commandments directly after the narrative of the spies is a reminder that even though the exile (“forty years”) may be lengthy, eventually Israel will inherit the entire land and have the merit of offering its choicest produce in the Temple and on the table of the priests. [The Challah, separated by the woman and given to the priest, rectifies Eve’s sin of giving the forbidden fruit to Adam.]