This week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, opens with Moses enlisting 12 spies to scout out the land of Canaan. Their marching orders are to bring back an assessment not only of their new home, but also of how best to conquer it.
The nation of former slaves imagines that the final steps of their long road home will commence as soon as the spies return from their secret sacred mission. This moment of destiny constitutes as much a covenantal homecoming dating back to Abraham as the culmination of a quest for freedom born in Egypt with miracles, signs and wonders.
The spies, however, return from the land of milk and honey with conflicting reports. Ten of them share tall tales of giants who cannot be beaten, thereby infecting the people with their own low self-perception, and calling into question not just their ability to succeed, but also the entire Exodus enterprise.
By contrast, two spies, Joshua and Caleb, assure the people that God’s promise to our ancestors still stands true. Despite their brave and encouraging words, mass hysteria breaks out in the Israelite camp. The 10 spies’ report paralyzes the nation and reveals to God that this generation is not capable of conquering the land and, equally important, their own demons. In a crushing moment of despair, God decrees that entry into the Promised Land will be delayed 40 years, when their children will be ready.
Immediately following this deflating episode, the Torah introduces commandments to be performed in the Land of Israel, including “taking” challah, the portion of the dough donated to the priest in service to God. The text reads: “When you enter the land to which I am taking you, and you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set aside a portion as a gift to the Lord. As the first yield of your baking, you shall set aside a loaf as a gift” [Numbers 15:18-20]. What we call challah today actually refers to the portion that is given away, rather than the loaf itself.
The juxtaposition of the commandment of challah with the people’s misery seems callous. What deeper meaning lies beneath the crust?
The 15th-century Italian commentator Sforno believes that God specifically introduces this mitzvah at this time because it needs to be performed in the Land of Israel. After the original generation of the Children of Israel is told that they do not merit crossing the Jordan, God reassures them that their children will fulfill their destiny. In Sforno’s eyes, the commandment of challah embodies hope.
By connecting the Israelites and the priests through the mitzvah of challah, God may also be utilizing challah as a vehicle of rapprochement. Precisely when our ancestors may have felt estranged from the divine, this commandment forces them to break bread with God’s representatives.
Challah is a staple of Jewish life. Every week two loaves of challah adorn our Shabbat table. Jewish tradition holds that this double portion reminds us of the manna that miraculously sustained the Children of Israel during their 40 years in the wilderness awaiting their destiny in the Promised Land.
Our portion suggests an alternative explanation. In rabbinic literature, the Shabbat table is compared to the altar in the Temple. In light of this, we might expect that the challah on our table would correspond to the 12 showbreads representing all the tribes, as it is written that the priests “arrange them before the Lord each and every Shabbat, for the Children of Israel as an everlasting covenant” [Leviticus 24: 8]. Yet, we only place two loaves on our Shabbat table. How are we to understand that the 12 became two?
I suggest that these two loaves of challah are intended to remind us of the spies’ mission. Twelve tribal leaders have the chance to usher the people into the Promised Land, but only two retain faith in themselves, the people and their covenantal quest. Only Joshua and Caleb possess the courage to speak the truth despite the pressure to remain silent. The two loaves are a testament to the power of speaking up for what is right and just.
The civil rights leader Rabbi Joachim Prinz asserted that “bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.” This weekend we not only recall the biblical heroism of Joshua and Caleb, but also three civil rights activists who were murdered on June 21, 1964, during the Freedom Summer project. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner are remembered for their willingness to speak up for justice and freedom despite the risks. While public outrage over their murders helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the tragic loss of these courageous young men conjures the image of a nation still waiting to enter the Promised Land.
By associating challah with the spies, the Torah teaches us that attaining freedom requires resilience, patience and the courage to take a stand. Each week the two loaves on our Shabbat table not only remind us of miracles and brave heroes in the past, but also fill us with hope that our generation can do its part in healing and repairing the world today.
Rabbi Charles E. Savenor serves as the director of congregational education at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.
Candlelighting: 8:12 p.m.
Torah reading: Numbers 13:1-15:41
Haftorah reading: Joshua 2:1-2:24
Shabbat ends: 9:21 p.m.