The Gatherer – Parshat Shelach

It only took one week.

From the day the Children of Israel were first given the Sabbath, they managed to observe just one day of rest together as a whole community. By Sabbath number two, it seems there were those who had already had enough. That’s what Rashi tells us at the end of this week’s parsha, when we read:

When the Children of Israel were in the wilderness, they came upon a man gathering twigs on the Sabbath day. (Numbers 15:32)

וַיִּהְיוּ בְנֵייִשְׂרָאֵל, בַּמִּדְבָּר; וַיִּמְצְאוּ, אִישׁ מְקֹשֵׁשׁ עֵצִיםבְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת.

Why, Rashi wants to know, does the verse tell us it was when they “were in the wilderness”?  Of course it was. Where else would they be? The answer, he suggests, is that it happened as soon as they were in the wilderness.

This is meant to indicate a shame to Israel, for they had only kept that first Sabbath, and then, on the second, this one came and desecrated it.

בגנותן של ישראל דבר הכתוב, שלא שמרו אלא שבת ראשונה, ובשניה בא זה וחללה

Not only that, says Rashi, but:

They warned him, but he still didn’t stop gathering – even though they had seen him and told him to stop.

שהתרו בו ולא הניח מלקושש אף משמצאוהו והתרו בו

Now, this was new to them, encountering someone who simply refused to keep the commandments. The people didn’t know how to to handle the situation. So they brought the gatherer before Moses and Aaron. But even Moses had no idea what to do. So they placed the man under guard, and turned to the ultimate authority for answers – the Almighty Judge.

And God did indeed have an answer for them. But it wasn’t a pleasant one:

The Eternal said to Moses, “This man shall be put to death: the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” (v. 35)

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶלמֹשֶׁה, מוֹת יוּמַת הָאִישׁ; רָגוֹם אֹתוֹ בָאֲבָנִים כָּלהָעֵדָה, מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה.

And that is just what they did.

Now, we know that the Torah has the death penalty. We’ve even seen it carried out once before, for a man who publicly cursed God. But why does the Torah go out of its way, now, to interrupt our story and give us another incident of stoning?

And then there is another, more serious narrative problem. This kind of gathering has actually happened before. It turns out the first Sabbath was not a complete success story either. When God first gave the commandment to rest on the Sabbath day, Moses specifically told the people, “Six days you shall gather [manna]; but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none.” And yet:

On the seventh day, some of the people went out to gather, but they found nothing. (Exodus 16:27)

וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, יָצְאוּ מִןהָעָם לִלְקֹט; וְלֹא, מָצָאוּ.

Well, there you have it! More gatherers! More Sabbath violators! Kill them all!!

Right, God?

But that’s not what God says at all:

The Eternal said to Moses, “How long will you men refuse to obey My commandments and My teachings? See that the Eternal has given you the Sabbath, and therefore gives you two days food on the sixth day. Let everyone rest: let no one leave his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day. (vv. 28-30)

וַיֹּאמֶר ה, אֶלמֹשֶׁה:  עַדאָנָה, מֵאַנְתֶּם, לִשְׁמֹר מִצְוֹתַי, וְתוֹרֹתָי. רְאוּ, כִּיה נָתַן לָכֶם הַשַּׁבָּתעַלכֵּן הוּא נֹתֵן לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי, לֶחֶם יוֹמָיִם; שְׁבוּ אִישׁ תַּחְתָּיו, אַליֵצֵא אִישׁ מִמְּקֹמוֹבַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי.  לוַיִּשְׁבְּתוּ הָעָם, בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִעִי.

Well, this is different. God is upset, certainly – but there is no death penalty. In fact, there seems to be no punishment at all. Just a patient repetition of the rules. A teaching moment. And it works! The people then keep the Sabbath. So why does the same violation, just a week later, result in a public stoning?

Maybe God only gives one second chance. Maybe God is particularly upset because this was already explained. Maybe it is the sheer brazenness of this guy: they warned him, after all, and he didn’t seem to care. What is it? What is so terrible about the case of the Gatherer?

The answer may lie hidden in the language of that title itself: ‘The Gatherer.’ The word used in Hebrew is not the typical term for gathering used in the earlier story, but an unusual verb – mekoshesh (מקשש)used specifically for collecting dead plant matter.

In fact, there is only one other time in the Torah when this verb is used – way back in the book of Exodus, when the Israelites are still slaves in Egypt. Moses has just begun the revolt against Pharaoh, and delivered his first “Let my people go” speech.  And Pharaoh, incensed, decides to show Moses who’s boss, by increasing the people’s already backbreaking labor in the following manner:

Pharaoh charged the taskmasters and foremen of the people, saying, “You shall no longer provide the people with straw for making the bricks as you have been doing; let them go and gather – kosheshu (קששו) – their own straw.” (Exodus 5:6-7)

וַיְצַו פַּרְעֹה, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, אֶתהַנֹּגְשִׂים בָּעָם, וְאֶתשֹׁטְרָיו לֵאמֹר. לֹא תֹאסִפוּן לָתֵת תֶּבֶן לָעָם, לִלְבֹּן הַלְּבֵנִיםכִּתְמוֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם:  הֵם, יֵלְכוּ, וְקֹשְׁשׁוּ לָהֶם, תֶּבֶן.

The people have to do the same amount of work they have hardly been able to keep up with, but now they have to gather the materials as well. In other words, Pharaoh is asking the impossible. He is pushing them beyond their limit.

This is the lowest moment in the history of the Egyptian slavery. This is the people at their most broken, most defeated.

And now, in these first weeks after liberation, along comes The Gatherer, and goes out gathering wood on the Sabbath, in just the same way that the slaves gathered straw in their darkest hour. That is, he chose an act that specifically recalled the labor one would most want to be freed from – as if to say, “even this I do not honor.” He meant not only to show disregard for the Sabbath day itself, but also to deliberately dismiss the pain and suffering of his own people.

The Gatherer, then, was not just a sinner – he was a sort of nihilist, filled with hate for all things, and already willing to destroy this delicate new society. He did not just deny God; he denied also the meaning of human freedom.

For these are the two underlying principles of the Sabbath itself: a celebration of the Divine, and of humanity. We see these two layers indicated in the Torah’s two records of the Ten Commandments. In the Book of Exodus, at Mount Sinai, the Fourth Commandment looks like this:

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy… For in six days the Eternal made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Eternal blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it. (Exod. 20:7,10)

זָכוֹר אֶתיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, לְקַדְּשׁוֹכִּי שֵׁשֶׁתיָמִים עָשָׂה ה אֶתהַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶתהָאָרֶץ, אֶתהַיָּם וְאֶתכָּלאֲשֶׁרבָּם, וַיָּנַח, בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי; עַלכֵּן, בֵּרַךְ ה אֶתיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּתוַיְקַדְּשֵׁהוּ.

But in the retelling of Revelation, in the Book of Deuteronomy, the same commandment has some distinct differences:

Guard the Sabbath day and keep it holy… Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Eternal, your God, freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Eternal, your God, has commanded you to keep the seventh day. (Deut. 5:12,15)

שָׁמוֹר אֶתיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, לְקַדְּשׁוֹוְזָכַרְתָּ, כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֹּצִאֲךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִשָּׁם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה; עַלכֵּן, צִוְּךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶתיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת.

The Sabbath is a recognition of God as the Creator. But the Sabbath is also a recognition of God the Liberator – Who hears the cries of the oppressed, and brings a redeemer to set them free.

The Gatherer broke the Sabbath, fundamentally rejecting God as the source of all existence. That, however, God can handle. God has forgiven gathering before, after all.

But the Gatherer also specifically broke the Sabbath with an action that made a mockery of human suffering. And that God will not abide.

If the Gatherer does not value human life, he has forfeited his own. Measure for measure.

As you have gathered sticks, we shall gather stones.


About Rabbi David Kasher

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