On July 19, this paper will be the subject of a Ruach HaYam study session. Find event details here or on Facebook.

“Wherever we travel in the Jewish world, we can see the positive effects of efforts to bring human laws, lives, and communities into line with divine standards of justice and loving-kindness. But those who don’t fit communal norms know the downside of this ideal: its tendency to cast an aura of sanctity over flawed and even oppressive social structures and to frame efforts to make communal norms more inclusive as threats to the essence and existence of the community…The emphasis on sacred normativity in Judaism and the Jewish community harms those, like LTBTQ Jews, who don’t fit established norms. It also harms the Torah by obscuring the queerness on which its moral and spiritual vitality depend.”
—Joy Ladin

Parashat Sh’lach (Numbers 13:1–15:41) tells of fear and courage at the border between wilderness and homeland, spells out a set of sacred norms about sacrificial offerings, relates the tale of a man who is stoned for gathering sticks on Shabbat and commands the wearing of the tzitzit.

At the border crossing, Moses sends 12 spies to reconnoiter the land. One of them, Caleb, is recognized by the divine as a man with ruach acheret. His “different spirit” carries within it the queerness of the divine, and life lived in the non-normative lane. Joshua, a strong and effective leader, has ruach, but it is not “different.” His accomplishments on the field of battle in the Book of Joshua fit into the normative communal pattern of kill and conquer, of obey God or die. The laws of sacrificial offerings are in line with Joshua’s directions to the people. The struggle for even balance between Caleb’s ruach acheret and Joshua’s just plain ruach, between living true to one’s nature and obeying norms, could be a good lesson about existing in the non-binary—holding two extremes in tension. Or would be, if it were not for the horrifying story of the stoning of the wood gatherer, and norms run amok. The commandment of the wearing of the tzitzit is oddly jarring after the stoning.

As Parashat Sh’lach opens, we find ourselves recovering from the temporary exclusion of Miriam from the camp, and at the brink of entering into the land of Canaan, which God has promised to the children of Israel. The way in which Miriam challenged authority and normativity is not the subject here and would take us astray. Nevertheless, keep in mind that we are standing at the brink of Eretz Israel, with the fresh memory of the unsettledness of Miriam’s banishment and our week-long wait for her to return.


Before we can enter Canaan, God commands Moses to send one man from each tribe to spy out the land and its inhabitants. The spies return after 40 days and present their report. The text says, “They told” Moses that though the land flows with milk and honey, it is full of fierce people from enemy nations living in fortified cities” (Numbers 13:27-28). It appears to be a consensus report by all the spies—until Caleb speaks up. His report is diametrically opposed to that of his fellow spies; he undertakes one person to stand against the entire community in favor of going up into the land at once. (Joshua does not speak here but will join Caleb’s cause later.) Furthermore, Caleb stills the people towards Moses, saying that they most assuredly can possess the land. He grasps the people’s unease at once, and determines to make them hear the truth.

Rather than instilling courage, Caleb’s speech provokes the other spies to an even greater effort to keep the children of Israel from entering the land. They bring forth an evil report about giants and a land that eats its inhabitants. “We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we appeared to them” (Numbers 13:33). The people raise up their voices and weep all night. They murmur against Moses and Aaron, and complain that God brought them out of Egypt only to die by the sword. “Let us make a captain and return to Egypt,” they say (Numbers 14:4).

This is a disaster. The people are in open rebellion, not only against Moses and Aaron, but against the Divine itself. Moses and Aaron try to intervene, falling on their faces in front of the assembly. Caleb and Joshua make a mighty effort. They rend their clothes and testify that the land is tovah meod meod—very, very good land—and that they must not rebel against God. The people refuse to listen; they determine to stone Moses and Aaron (to death). God appears in the divine aspect of kavod—glory— in Numbers 14:10. God as kavod entered the tabernacle when it was completed, and now appears as glory or majesty, with a voice, but without body, without gender (Exodus 40:35). God as kavod called out to Moses upon entering the tabernacle, securing Moses’s good counsel for the journey across the desert (Leviticus 1:01). Now God takes counsel with Moses: How long will these people despise me? God asks of Moses. “I will smite them with pestilence and dispossess them and will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they” (Numbers 14:12).

Moses argues convincingly that God needs to maintain the reputation garnered by rescuing the people from Egypt with a mighty hand. God is slow to anger and full of lovingkindness, Moses reminds God. He presses God to pardon the iniquity of this people. What exactly is their iniquity? Rebelling against God (Numbers 14:9), despising God and not believing in God (Numbers 14:11). We are reminded of Naomi, who accused God of making her lot bitter, of dealing harshly with her, and bringing misfortune upon her (Ruth 1:20-21). “For the hand of YHWH has struck out against me,” she says (Ruth 1:13). Yet Naomi was rescued by Ruth, and this people will not be rescued. As Moses has requested, God pardons the people, which means that they do not immediately die; however all those of the older generation are doomed to wander forty years until their dead bodies drop in the wilderness. Ten of the spies are not pardoned. God subjects them to deadly plague. But God saves alive Caleb and Joshua.

Joshua is destined to carry on Moses’ work. Further on in the text God tells Moses to lay his hands on Joshua as successor. He is “a man in whom there is spirit—ish asher ruach bo” (Numbers 27:18). His ruach serves mainly to hold up the communal norms—to lead the conquering and killing of the inhabitants of Canaan, as well as to remind the people of the dangers of forsaking the covenant and of serving foreign gods. (See the Book of Joshua.) But Caleb is different; in this text he does not champion norms. He plays Ruth to the suffering Israelite Naomis.

Although Caleb does not succeed in convincing the people of the goodness of the land, God saves Caleb “because he had ruach acheret and has followed me fully” (Numbers 14:24). This may be the only instance of ruach acheret in the Hebrew Bible. Ruach holds the meanings of spirit, animation, vivacity, vigor, maybe prophetic spirit. Acheret means other, another, different. Together they suggest a powerful life spirit, not like any other. The prophets are said to have ruach. See, for example, 2 Kings 2:9, where Elisha asks Elijah to give him a double portion of his ruach. So Caleb perhaps has a unique knowledge of the divine, of the people around him, and of himself. It may be his ruach acheret that enables him to experience and to follow the divine fully. Caleb does not speak the language of Joshua, of covenant, of adherence to the norms. Rather he is dissenter, cheerleader and truth teller. “We are well able to overcome the dangers,” he says (Numbers 13:30). “The land is exceedingly good. YHWH will bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey. Only don’t rebel because YHWH is with you” (Numbers 14:8-9).

I suggest that Caleb’s appeal, like Ruth’s, is to hearts of the people, meant to remove their fear and to fill them with courage. “YHWH is with you.” Not to frighten them with dire punishment as Joshua does. Joshua says, “You cannot serve YHWH [with other gods]; for he is a holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgression nor your sins. If you forsake YHWH, he will turn and do you evil and consume you” (Joshua 24:19-20). This is a scary prospect for the person who for whatever reason doesn’t fit in.

“The emphasis on sacred normativity in Judaism and the Jewish community harms those, like LTBTQ Jews, who don’t fit established norms” (Ladin).

Ruach acheret is by definition different from Joshua’s ruach; it does not emphasize normativity but rather courage and heart. I argue that in the leaderships of Caleb and Joshua we can see the tension between sacred normativity and queerness; between those bound by the strictness of law and those who live outside the norms. Norms are important, but queerness is that “on which [the Torah’s] moral and spiritual vitality depend” (Ladin). I do not mean that appealing to hearts and souls as Caleb does implies queerness in the common sense of gender identity, but in the sense of appealing directly, outside of rules and constraints, to the finest in the humans around him. Caleb tries to imbue them with moral and spiritual vitality.

Caleb fails in his mission to re-turn the people to YHWH. But he is rewarded for his different spirit and for his efforts by being admitted to Canaan, and by receiving a portion in the land of Israel. As further evidence of his different spirit, he is gifted with an extraordinary daughter. When he gives Achsah in marriage (see the Book of Joshua and the Book of Judges), she demands that her marriage portion of land contain water, ie the best of his land. A rarity in the Bible, she speaks directly to her father making this request. Her action is not unlike the daughters of Zelophehad who boldly ask to inherit the land of their father.

If our parsha ended here, we might wonder if our discussion of ruach acheret in Caleb is a bit far-fetched. What, Caleb as queerness and Joshua as normative? Perhaps the contrast in leadership is not so great we might say? There is an interesting writing by Chana Tolchin, in which Caleb represents dissent and Joshua continuity. Both important qualities of leadership, but quite different.

“The two prototypes of leadership that Calev and Yehoshua represent each hold unique value. Calev as an independent leader realizes the problems around him and possesses the strength of character to dissent and be a mouthpiece of truth. Yehoshua, on the other hand, represents continuity. When Moshe changes Yehoshua’s name at the start of the mission, he ensures that no matter what goes wrong in this group of people, one individual will certainly embody the values of Hashem. Throughout the episode, Yehoshua is Moshe’s representative. While Calev merits entering the land because of a ‘ruach acheret,’ Yehoshua enters because of an established ruach that is greater than himself but that he has been chosen to embody for the next generation entering Eretz Yisrael. Yehoshua stands for a type of leadership in which one pays deference to the leaders and systems of the present for the sake of serving as the vehicle for continuity in the future” (Tolchin).

If we understand Caleb and Joshua as leaders who represent the poles of dissent/truth telling and deference/continuity, we can find deeper understanding of the other three sections of this parsha. Chapter 15:1-29 presents the rules of sacrificial offerings—a version of holy/sacred order. After the terrible news about carcasses to fall during a forty year period of wandering in the desert, these rules serve to settle the narrative and give hope of survival. Yet they come with a dire warning to those who defiantly or willfully break the commandments, to those who live outside the norms. Whoever will despise the word of YHWH and break the commandments, their soul will be utterly cut off from their people (Numbers 15:30-31). This is similar to Joshua’s warning in Joshua 24:19-20. There is none of Caleb’s understanding of the feeling of fear and alienation in the wilderness.

As if to demonstrate the threat that arises when we “cast an aura of sanctity over flawed and even oppressive social structures,” the list of sacrifices and the warning are followed by the deadly punishment of a (no doubt) poor wood gatherer who picks up sticks on the Sabbath (Ladin). This is deeply disturbing. One is commanded not to work on the Sabbath, but our text here is normativity run amok. God Godself orders the people to stone the wood gatherer to death (Numbers 15:32-36). Surely the wood gather could have been taught to follow the rules without capital punishment. Perhaps he was simply cold, or desperately in need of selling a few sticks of firewood to buy food.  Perhaps he did not believe in (or know about) the Shabbat laws. God rewards ruach acheret  in Caleb, for seeking a way forward without punishment for his compatriots, but we nearly stone Aaron and Moses, and we kill the wood gatherer. This is the harshness of slavish adherence to form. As queer Jews, we know about the stoning of the wood gatherers. As people in general with a sense of the strictures of normativity, we all know about and can fear the stoning of the wood gather.

To close out our parsha, as if this horrible stoning had not occurred,  God commands the wearing of fringes as a reminder to do all God’s commandments (Numbers 15:37-41). This is a call to holy normativity; it again settles the narrative as it shows that there is a definite path to holiness. Yet we are left with the terrifying thought that if they will stone the wood gatherer, they may come for any one not conforming to communal expectations.

Our text is in tension between “the positive effects of efforts to bring human laws, lives, and communities into line with divine standards of justice and loving-kindness” and the need to make room for those living outside the norms (Ladin). At its best the two can live in a non-binary harmony;  taken to extremes, the non-normative are destroyed by the norms. Ruach acheret may not stop the tide of human misery altogether, but it may help. In the words of Rabbi Tarfon, “it is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”

So that we may not be left at the end with the picture of the death of the wood gather, I close with the words of Rabbi Camille Shira Angel regarding Caleb and ruach acheret:

“As long as queers are not grasshoppers in our own eyes, we can use this passage to cultivate within ourselves ‘a different spirit,’ the spirit that brings with it the intrinsic qualities of compassion, courage, and perseverance. As Jews, we take inspiration from our primary narrative about crossing the boundary between slavery and freedom. As queers, our experiences of wrestling the giants without and within help shape not only our memories of the past but also our actions in the present and our visions for the future.”

On July 19, this paper will be the subject of a Ruach HaYam study session. Find event details here or on Facebook.


Drinkwater, Gregg, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer, eds. Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. NYU Press, 2009. Camille Shira Angel “Parashat Shelach.”

Ladin, Joy. “Both Wilderness and Promised Land: How Torah Grows When Read Through LTBTQ Eyes.” Tikkun 29, no. 4 (Fall 2014): 17–20.

Tolchin, Chana. (2012, June 13). Parshat Shlach: Calev Versus Yehoshua.

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