Two thirds of the parasha are the story of the “spies” and the consequences of that disaster:
And that moves immediately into the rebellions of קרח, דתן ואבירם and און. For דתן ואבירם, at least, this was a response to the 40-year decree:
But before the Torah goes on with the narrative, there is פרק טו, a series of five halachot that are out of place here in ספר במדבר.
The law of wine and flour offerings with every personal sacrifice is new; we’ve only seen them with the קרבן תמיד so far:
This law is completely new; all previous תרומות have been from produce, not completed products.
I like this because Rashi brings an old French word that I can actually recognize:
###3. Korban Chatat
There’s a whole list of varieties of קרבנות חטאת for שוגגים. The problem is that this is not new; there’s a similar list in ויקרא:
But the details of the קרבנות are different. חז״ל say the difference is in the wording: כל המצות האלה vs. מאחת מהנה:
###4. Death Penalty for Violating Shabbat
This is the only paragraph of the set that is tied to a narrative, illustrating a principle in the Torah, that laws are tied to stories whenever possible:
The fact that חילול שבת is punishable by death has been presented before, but the exact punishment is new here.
This is also a new law. We know it well, from קריאת שמע.
The question is, what are these laws doing here? There are four possibilities:
It’s just random. The Torah was written by shuffling a bunch of sheets of paper together.
These laws are part of the narrative. They are new, given to בני ישראל in response to the sin of the spies.
The laws are part of the narrative. They are laws that had always been part of Halacha, but were taught (or re-taught) to בני ישראל in response to the sin of the spies.
The laws are not part of the narrative. They are included here for the reader (us) because they are thematically linked to the sin of the spies.
I’m going to ignore option 1. I don’t think options 3 and 4 can be distinguished (both imply that the laws were not given in response to the spies, but need to be learned that way). Option 2 is a radical idea that we have discussed before as the opinion of the Sforno:
But Rashi says all the laws of the Torah were taught to Moshe at Sinai:
So why list them here?
Presumably, they are connected to the narrative in some way. The easiest to understand is the last, ציצית. Note that the spies are never called מרגלים, but תיירים, ”tourists“. The “spies” were more on a fact-finding mission than a secret military campaign:
And ציצית are there to remind you not to be a תייר:
ציצית are the antidote to the האנשים אשר שלח משה לתור את הארץ, to keep you from seeing without thinking.
But the others? The libations and challah are unique mitzvot in that they only apply after the arrival in ארץ ישראל. Learning them now is a way of consoling בני ישראל:
The message is “don’t lose hope in the land of Israel”.
The laws of שוגג לעבודה זרה are also a response to the despair of בני ישראל:
This is a response to בני ישראל; just because ה׳ has punished them does not mean the ברית is ended. The relationship still exists.
The message is “don’t lose faith in the G-d of Israel”.
What about the מקשש עצים? It starts with a narrative, so the incident may have actually taken place at this time:
But Sifrei (and Rashi) says it was much earlier:
Rashi says the connection is between שבת and עבודה זרה, as “שקולות ככל המצות”.
But I would propose that this is a third response to the despair of בני ישראל. The death penalty for violating Shabbat is because it is an אות of who the Jews are and what they can be:
Ahad Ha’am was the father of ״cultural Zionism״׃ He was irreligious, but felt that the Jews needed Judaism as much as they needed a Jewish state. In 1898, he published a Hebrew essay called “Shabbat v’Tziyonut”:
So too here: by learning these laws now, the Torah is telling the people: even if you feel no connection to G-d and no connection to the land, you still have שבת. Don’t lose the connection to the Jewish people.