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Shelach 5769

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey



One of the more ambiguous episodes in the Torah is that of the man who was found collecting wood on Shabbat (15; 32-36).  The pesukim are as follows:


“And Bnei Yisrael were in the desert; and they found a man collecting wood on Shabbat.”


1) Why must this scene begin the way it does? We already know the nation is in the desert!


“And they presented him, the ones who found him collecting wood, to Moshe, Aharon and the entire Eidah.”


2) Why do we have to be told that the ones who brought him to justice were specifically the ones who had found him?  Why does it use the strange word “åé÷øéáå”? Why did it have to be before Moshe, Aharon and the entire Eidah?


“And they placed him in prison because it wasn’t explained what needed to be done to him.”


3) Why didn’t they know what to do with one who desecrates Shabbat? These laws were previously detailed in Shemot.


“And God said to Moshe: ‘the man must surely die; the entire Eidah must stone him outside of the camp.”


4) Why does God state that it must specifically be the ‘entire Eidah’ who carries out the punishment?


“And the entire Eidah brought him outside the camp and stoned him and he died; just like God commanded Moshe.”


5) Why do we need such a verbose description of the execution? If it’s necessary to inform us that they carried out God’s will, simply state that ‘they did what God had commanded Moshe’ – i.e. just the final clause.


The popular explanation to Moshe’s uncertainty is not whether the sinner should live or die but how he should be killed (i.e. stoning, hanging, etc.) for this had never before been dictated; however, this approach is somewhat difficult because God’s answer begins with, ‘this person should surely die’. In other words, if Moshe et al were only waiting on the ‘how’, why would God start with the ‘what’? In similar situations (as will be discussed) God starts His response immediately with how the punishment should be carried out, not what should be done to him, but in this case God feels the need first to inform everyone that the man, ‘is in fact’, deserving of death. So, upon what was their uncertainty based?


In order to truly appreciate the uniqueness of this entire scene, we have to contrast it to the only other similar event in the Torah where a sinner was also brought to Moshe and placed in ‘prison’ to await God’s ultimate death-penalty instructions: the blasphemer episode at the of Parshat Emor. There, the Torah tells us, a man (whose mother’s name was Shlomit Bat Divri), blasphemed against God and was then brought to Moshe. Uncertain of the transgressor’s sentencing, Moshe places him in prison; God then decrees that he must be taken outside of the camp, have the witnesses place their hands upon his head and the entire Eidah must then stone him. In our scene, however, there is no name (he is called ‘man’ twice, and referred to as ‘him’ five times (!)) and we are first told that the witnesses specifically found him, and then that they are the ones who ‘present’ him to Moshe, Aharon and the entire Eidah. Also, this label ‘the entire Eidah’ is conspicuously mentioned three times: 1) referring to the people to whom the sinner was brought; 2) in God’s instructions concerning who should stone him; and 3) the report of who carried out the actual punishment.


The tone-setting first clause of this episode tells us that it happened when ‘Bnei Yisrael were in the desert’ and because of the redundancy the simple understanding of these words would convey, we must look for a deeper significance. Immediately before this episode, the nation was told that they would all die while wandering for forty years in the desert instead of entering Eretz Yisrael; therefore, when the Torah states that this episode was specifically ‘while they were in the desert’ it is placing this upcoming scene in the context of a people weighed down by the grave punishment which delivered them their newly imposed desert-wandering fate.


So why, in the second half of the verse, are we told that ‘they found’ someone sinning on Shabbat? They were looking, searching even[1], to actively do right in God’s eyes, hoping to demonstrate their deservedness to enter the Land by dedicating themselves to enforcing God’s law wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself. (This is actually the second time they looked to employ this flawed tactic to get into God’s good graces. After originally being told they could not enter Eretz Yisrael, they decided to attempt to conquer the Land anyway, demonstrating their readiness to follow God’s word; however, they were quickly decimated by the occupying nations because they were in fact defying God’s word again – He said they couldn’t go! Period). The Torah then tells us that it was these very same people who then ‘presented’ him (‘÷øá’ - the same verb used for bringing korbanot!) to Moshe and everyone else – a public spectacle, in essence declaring: ‘look what we found! He has defied God and needs to be brought to justice! See, we respect God’s word!” This is why there is no name for the sinner – only ‘the man’ and ‘him’ – and a deliberate repetition of the ‘finders’, because truly it’s the finders, and not the sinner, who are the real focus in this episode! And this is what Moshe was unsure about: does he simply impose the customary punishment of death by stoning like any other Shabbat desecrater (he certainly already knew these laws[2]), or must some special consideration be employed in this particular case so that these overzealous, overreaching, ‘good-point hounds’ do not believe they’ve succeeded in gaining their desired ‘Divine smile’ and ultimately a reconsideration concerning their deservedness to enter into the Land which God had already denied them. 


So what does God answer? He sinned, so he must die, and it must be by stoning – the standard sentencing – however, it must be the ‘entire Eidah’ who carry out the punishment. After the Torah had emphasized the active role of the finders, God specifically chooses the most passive players in this scene (they were previously mentioned only as the ‘third-stringed’ people to whom the sinner was brought) to carry out the punishment, purposefully removing the ‘proud vigilantes’ from any active role, dramatically teaching them the total failure of their plan (a brilliant contrast to the blasphemer case where the very ones who heard his curses were commanded to actively place their hands upon the sinner’s head before he was killed!). And this is why we need the verbose final verse: ‘and in fact it was the entire Eidah, (specifically not the finders), who executed the sinner, just as God commanded [the uncertain] Moshe.


A final question. Why is the mitzvah of tzitzit mentioned immediately after this episode as the conclusion of the parsha? The reason given for tzitzit is that, “you will see them, and remember all the mitzvot of God and do them; and you won’t stray after your heart and after your eyes which you desire. In order for you to remember and do all My mitzvot…” Unlike the second paragraph of shema and a myriad of other places in the Torah, the command by tzitzit is not to observe God’s mitzvot and/in order to avoid sin; but rather, we are told that we must use the tzitzit to a) remember and do God’s mitzvot, and b) not to stray after our own desires in order to remember and perform of all God’s commands! The message of this mitzvah, therefore, is to fully fulfill God’s desires, observing everything He commanded of us as opposed to what we may personally decide He wants from us instead, i.e. our personal interpretation of His mitzvot – which is exactly the message of the ‘wood collector’ story! It’s lesson’s significance wasn’t about avoiding sin; the story’s lesson was specifically about the mistake of attempting to ‘follow personal desires’ to redefine what God truly wanted by looking for ways of substituting other ‘mitzvot’ to redefine His previous decree.

[1] The word “åéîöàå” which is used here is employed throughout TaNaKH to denote a finding after a search. Therefore, the finding of this collector is specifically to be understood, as stated above, as a result of the people having actively looked for a ‘sinner’.

[2] The law already stated that venturing out of your immediate ‘place’ on Shabbat was prohibited (this law was mentioned regarding the laws of manna, but because of it’s general wording (i.e. it does not say ‘don’t venture out to collect manna’, but rather simply ‘don’t leave one’s place’) it is employed, even in halakha, as the source for the 2000-amah techum); and Abravenel adds that if he’s truly collecting wood in a desert, he would have had to venture out farther than just his immediate surroundings.


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