This week’s parasha is about the spies. It’s also my Birthday parasha, although growing up reform/conservative I didn’t know these things until I came to Israel. That’s not totally true, I must have known it at some point, I did have a Bat Mitzvah after all, but there was absolutely no sense of relevance or meaning when I memorized the Hebrew, so it never stuck in my mind.

Nonetheless, when I rediscovered this portion, Shelach, along with the idea that your birthday parasha holds some clue or connection to your individual mission in the world, the Zionist in me was thrilled. I had already moved to Israel, sight unseen, with little more than faith, passion and a healthy sense of drama (like our people were apparently supposed to do 3,500 years ago). Putting these pieces together one Shabbat in the hilltop city of Tsfat, I was actually a little freaked out, and quite a bit in awe that perhaps my life was on track afterall and I was participating in some cosmic Tikkun.

Shelach has since become one of my favorite parashot, even if I’m a little biased. It’s Zionistic, it’s dramatic, and deals with the human condition, group psychology, those spectacularly loaded moments in our life where the decisions we make can change everything, and the sheer power of our words.

Our tradition tells us that the whole world was created with words. God spoke and it came into being. We, being created “in the image of God”, seem to have a similar power. It is interesting to note that in Hebrew “dvar” means both “word” and thing”. These realizations were the beginning of me starting to think differently about speech. On the one hand, you say it and its gone, it has no mass or weight. But on the other hand, it is through words that people connect, or exchange ideas or are emotionally destroyed. Charismatic leaders use their speech to cause revolutions or incite violence. It is through a well versed argument that defendants are imprisoned of set free. We both value and fear what those we love say to us. The list could go on. (In fact, see Joseph Telushkin’s great essay here, and support National Speak No Evil Day)

The spies in this Parasha went in to the land, and by the a difference a couple of words, they affected an entire generation.

As speech plays such a pivotal role in this Parsha of my birth, I take it as a challenge to always try to improve the way I speak. I try to learn how to be more encouraging and empowering with how I speak to others and to frame my criticisms in a way that will leave room for someone to actually look at the issue from another perspective rather than putting them on the defenisive or simply provoking them to anger because I can’t be bothered to take a minute to phrase what I have to say with more sensitivity.

Bringing these two themes together, speaking well and in a well balanced manner about this land I love is of utmost importance to me, and why I sometimes feel like “tearing my clothes” like Joshua and Caleb (although I don’t think it would be Tznua) when I hear people speak about Israel and Israelis with an overpowering and unbalanced sense of self righteous indignation.

May we all learn a little more sensitivity, and respect for the power of words.

Shabbat Shalom

About the author

Laya Millman


  • happy b-day lay lay! i can’t wait to celebrate with u in less than 5 weeks, iyH! wooo hoo! and btw, shkoyach on the dvar torah– gut shabbos, gut shabbos!

  • I’ve been enjoying your blog for a while, but now that it turns out we share a favorite parsha, I thought I’d leave a comment.

    It is important to note Joshua and Caleb never refute the 10 spies’ statements. In other words, the 10 spies were not lying: all the problems they described were real. Yet the 10 and the 2 PERCIEVED the facts differently because of difference in their ideological and spiritual preparation. Joshua and Caleb understood that settling the land is not like choosing what house to live in; it is our holy mission and our apotheosis. The 10 spies were thinking of it it terms of “what’s the quality of life like,” by which standard Canaan could never compared to Egypt, just as, for most, Israel cannot compare to Westchester County. But it is the wrong question, and Joshua and Caleb bypass it entirely: since Eretz Israel it is THE Land for us, it does not matter how dangerous it is, because no other Land can be so perfect for us. So instead of dwelling on the hardships, Joshua and Caleb rejoice that the Land chosen for us by Hashem also happens to be pretty smashing.
    To put it differently, succesful aliyah is a matter of spiritual and ideological preparation more than getting a job in your field.
    Happy birthday, and shabbat shalom.

  • Mazel Tov Laya on your birthday, May Hashem bless you with good health, spiritual insights, and great joy! (I also enjoyed your birthdya drasha)

  • I grew up Orthodox and have no idea which my “bat mitzvah parsha” is. Because I didn’t have to learn or layn it. (I did a dvar Torah on Megillat Esther instead.)

    I think we need a new algorithm or something to number our Layas. I hope that Laya (my Jewlicious@the Beach roommate) enjoyed “her” birthday.

  • if that IS rabbi yo, I’ve changed it accordingly — Rabbi, your laptop must still be loged in as me, hit edit this on something and press log out…sorry. And thanks everybody for the B-day wishes.

  • What if the Spies could be looked at metaphorically as analogous to today’s scientists, who also go out to take measurements. But they should not come back with discouragements – if they can help it. Of course the conclusions other people draw are not their fault.

    The spies were sent out to find out things, not to editorialize “what does it all mean” and “what should we do”.

    Just a little thought. Laya is very clever.