Rabbi Ari Kahn
Seeing Through Wine-Colored Lenses
It was not supposed to happen this way: A group of scouts was sent to see the Promised Land, presumably to bring back a glowing report that would set the Israelites on their way into the Land of Israel. Instead, the report was devastating, and the people took it in the worst possible way. Rather than preparing to enter the Land, they were now forced to prepare for a new reality: Life in the foreseeable future would be a nomadic existence, and their ultimate goal would remain beyond their grasp.
And then, as the disappointing story of the spies comes to an end, the Torah moves on; new laws are imparted, in a seeming “return to business as usual.”
The interplay between narrative and law in the book of B’midbar is fascinating. Generally speaking, the book as a whole is comprised of narrative (as opposed to Vayikra, which is almost completely devoid of narrative and consists almost entirely of law). However, the laws that do appear in B’midbar are not randomly placed, inserted merely to break up the narrative; the laws in B’midbar actually seem to be part of the story, and in certain cases may provide commentary and insight. Thus, the law that immediately follows the episode of the spies:
God spoke to Moshe, and said: Speak to the People of Israel and say to them: When you come to the homeland which I am giving to you… (B’midbar 15:1-2)
The message is unmistakable: Despite the setback, all is not lost. God is moving forward, and He is speaking about the day the punishment will be over. Despite the sin of the spies and the people’s collusion in that sin, the Land of Israel has not been forfeited; it is still our homeland. Even now, as they suffer through the consequences of their lapse of faith, as they wander the desert, the Land of Israel remains their birthright. The message continues:
You will present fire offerings to God. They may be burnt offerings, or other sacrifices, either for a general or specific pledge, or for your festivals. Taken from the cattle or smaller animals, they shall create a fragrance that is pleasing to God. (B’midbar 15:3)
Despite the bleakness of their present situation, God assures them that they will one day have a Temple in Israel in which they will celebrate, bring offerings, and behave in a manner that will be pleasing to Him. The Torah then provides some very specific information about these future offerings, which will include wheat meal, olive oil, and libations of wine. (15:4-5)
This list of offerings does not come as a surprise to us; the Land of Israel is described as a land that flows with milk and honey, as well as “a land of wheat, barley, grapes, figs and pomegranates; a land of oil-olives and honey-[dates].” (D’varim 8:8) Indeed, when the spies arrived in Israel, “they cut a branch and a cluster of grapes, which two men carried on a frame, and they brought of the pomegranates, and of the figs.” (B’midbar 13:23) When they returned to report their findings, they carried the fruit of the land: “We came to the land where you sent us, and surely it flows with milk and honey; and this is its fruit.” (B’midbar 13:27)
The spies saw Israel’s grapes, and they brought back large clusters – so large, in fact, that it took two people to carry each one. Should it have been a surprise that the local inhabitants, whose diet consisted of the oversized fruits of the land, were themselves oversized? Surely, their conclusion should have been that the Land of Israel is indeed a wonderful place. The people should have been thrilled by the knowledge that they, too, would soon be living off the almost magical bounty of the Promised Land, and that their own children would grow big and strong. Instead, the spies looked only at the physical realities their eyes had seen, and gave no consideration to the spiritual aspects of the land and their connection to it. They were guilty of seeing the future through the lens of the present or the past.
Perhaps this is the underlying message of the laws that immediately follow the episode of the spies. The lesson God teaches with these laws is profound: The future that lies ahead is nothing like the reality of the present. It is a future infused with holiness, with spirituality, not bounded by the mundane, physical constructs that limit the present reality. Look toward the future, He tells them; look ahead to an existence of holiness. The offerings they will bring in the Holy Land are made from wine – and not grapes in their present form. The spies saw only the ‘here and now’, the familiar physical realities of the present. They lost sight of the power that holiness has to transform that mundane reality into something far greater. Like wine, that future reality requires a process; it requires time and patience, faith and trust. This is the message God imparts in these laws. He focuses them on a new perspective of the future.
The spies saw grapes; they were alarmed by the oversized fruits and terrified by the oversized people. Instead, God teaches them to turn their gaze to the future and to see the wine and the holy service of the Beit HaMikdash. Had the spies seen the potential, and not merely the “reality,” they never would have sinned. Had they seen the holiness and not only the mundane, the Israelites’ stay in the desert would have been much shorter. Had they maintained their faith in God’s ability to create a new reality, unlike anything they had experienced in the past, they would have immediately embarked upon the short path to realizing that new reality. Instead, they would have to endure a long and challenging process of maturation in the desert.
The lesson of the juxtaposition of these laws with the episode of the spies is as relevant to us as it was to the generation of the desert: What do we see when we look? Do we see “reality” – which is no more than allowing our eyes to refract the future through visions of the past? Or do we see the future as potential? The lesson of these verses is just this: Seeing the future through lenses colored by holiness allows us to see a completely different reality.
For a more in-depth analysis see: