“Where Did the Spies Go Wrong?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, G-d tells Moses (Numbers 13:2): “Sh’lach l’chah ah’nah’shim, v’yah’too’roo et Eretz C’na’an, ah’sher ah’nee no’tayn liv’nay Yisrael.” Send forth for you men, and let them spy out the land of Canaan that I am giving to the children of Israel.

As the people of Israel stand on the threshold of entering the land of Canaan, Moses, upon G-d’s instruction, sends twelve distinguished men, heads of the children of Israel, to survey the land and report back to the people. After forty days in the land, they return. Two of the twelve men, Caleb and Joshua, urge the people to have courage and to march forward. Ten of the men, however, deliver a demoralizing report that causes the people to lose faith of ever taking hold of the land. As a result of the spies’ calumny, the children of Israel are punished and forbidden to enter the land of Israel. For forty years, they must wander in the wilderness, until all the men who are age 20 and older at the time of this mission die in the wilderness.

The entire episode of the spies is shrouded in confusion. If G-d instructed Moses to send the spies, why is He angry at the people when they come back with the evil report? After all, they only reported what they saw. So, why should they be punished?

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105 foremost commentator on the Bible), citing the sages of the Talmud, suggests that it was at the people’s initiative that the spies were sent to the land of Canaan. Since Moses was reluctant to do so, he asked G-d, who said, “I have told them that the land is good. [But since they question me,] I will let them test my veracity at the risk of being misled and losing their chance to enter the land.”

While Moses ultimately approved of sending the spies, he actually hoped that his agreement to send them would dissuade the people from pressing their request. Our sages offer a parable: Someone wishes to buy a donkey, but says that he must first test the animal. The seller enthusiastically agrees. “May I take it to both the mountains and valleys?” “Of course.” Seeing that the seller is so confident of his animal’s powers, the buyer decides he has nothing to fear, and forgoes the test. He buys the donkey, and is very satisfied. So too, Moses thought that his willingness to let the people send scouts to survey the Promised Land would convince them that they have nothing to fear. He was mistaken. They insisted on hearing about the land from their peers. So he sent the spies (Artscroll Chumash, Stone edition, p. 799, note on verse 2).

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Yehudah Leibish,1809-1879), however, offers a radically different interpretation. The Malbim, once again astounding in his perspicacity, delves with his keen insight into specific word usage, uncovering textual interpretations that are so radical, yet so faithful to the basic meaning of the text.

In his commentary on parashat Shelach, the Malbim notes that G-d instructs Moses to send for himself people who would tour the land of Canaan. In fact, the Hebrew word is “v’yah’too’roo”--let them tour, not “l’rah’gel”–to spy! The Malbim notes that there are two types of spies. A nation that seeks a place to settle, first sends out scouts to survey the land, to find out if the land is good or bad. When the first set of scouts return and report that the land is favorable, the nation sends out a second set of spies to conduct a systematic military study of the land to note the vulnerable locations and the strategic fortified areas.

To perform the task of scouting, the nation sends representatives from each tribe to see which part of the land is suitable for each individual tribe. Zebulun, a seafaring tribe, will check out the coast. The tribe of Judah, which is involved in grape growing and manufacturing, will look for the luscious fertile land in the hills of Judea and Hebron. Each tribe must find the location that best suits its own talents and strengths.

On the other hand, the Malbim points out, when military spies are sent to the land, they are sent secretly. After all, what are the names of the spies that Joshua sends from Sheetim (Joshua, Chapter 2) to check out the City of Jericho? We don’t know, because it is classified information! Joshua does not send out twelve people. Only two spies are necessary, so the mission can be conducted in utmost secrecy. That’s why the text in Joshua 2:1 says: “Va’yish’lach Yehoshua bin Nun, min ha’shee’tim, sh’na’yim ah’nah’shim, m’rahg’lim, cheh’resh, lay’mor.” And Joshua the son of Nun sent out of Sheetim two spies, secretly, saying: “Go view the land and Jericho.” The people do not need twelve representatives. They need two skilled intelligence officers. Their names are unimportant, because they do not represent tribal interests, they are agents who serve in the security services of all the people of Israel.

So where did the scouts go wrong? Originally, says the Malbim, Moses sent the twelve tribal representatives to check out the land, not as an espionage mission, but rather to survey the land. The Malbim deftly observes that when Moses retells the story, Scripture notes that the scouts turn and ascend the mountain and arrive in the Valley of Eshkol. Deuteronomy 1:24 reads: “Va’yif’noo va’ya’ah’loo ha’ha’rah, va’yah’vo’ooh ahd nachal Eshkol, va’y’rahg’loo oh’tah.” Says the Malbim: Until the emissaries came to Nachal Eshkol, the Valley of Eshkol, they were scouts. It was only at the valley of Eshkol that they were converted into spies!

Scripture there reports that the men proceeded to take samples from the fruit of the land. When they saw the giant fruit and the giant people, they were intimidated, resulting in their loss of faith. Instead of serving as scouts, at that point they became spies. They looked at the land of Canaan, not as a place to settle, but rather as a place where they would have to battle with the giants of the land. How will they ever be able to defeat the people who eat such enormous-sized fruits? Despite the fact that G-d had clearly told the People that He would fight the battle for them in Canaan, the people lost faith.

The scouts report upon their return (Numbers 13:33), that they saw the “Neh’fee’lim” and the sons of the giants, “Va’neh’hee v’ay’nay’noo kah’chah’gah’vim, v’chayn hah’yee’noo b’ay’nay’hem,” we were in our own eyes like grasshoppers, they report, and so were we in their eyes. The scouts’ image of themselves had been so reduced that they lost faith and the courage that they would ever be able to take over the land of Canaan from its fearsome inhabitants.

Every Jew, indeed every human being, has both a human and a Divine mission to fulfill. This mission is always Divinely directed. However, we often don’t understand the message. In fact, sometimes we don’t even hear the message! The price we pay for not hearing and/or understanding G-d’s message is often immense. We find ourselves wandering in the desert for forty years or more, aimlessly and helplessly. The Al-mighty has given us precise instructions. We, His people, must heed them, and abide by them. We must study His instructions carefully so that we know exactly what the Al-mighty expects of us. If we do so, the “Promised Land” will be ours. If not, we will face wilderness and possible oblivion, for a frightfully long period.

One need not be a brilliant or insightful commentator like the Malbim in order to hear the message of G-d. All we need to do is open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to the Al-mighty, and allow His message to penetrate, so that we may conduct our lives, not doing battle with G-d, but rather walking alongside Him.

May you be blessed.