“Who was Caleb?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Shelach is probably the saddest parasha in the Torah. It is in this weekly portion that the Israelite men of the Exodus generation are condemned to never enter the Promised Land.

Twelve tribal princes representing their tribes were sent to scout the land of Canaan for forty days. Returning with samples of giant fruit from the land, they also brought with them tales of the fearsome inhabitants of the land. Their frightening report promptly broke the spirit of the ancient Israelites. Two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, refused to join in the evil reports of their ten comrades. The negative impression of the ten scouts, however, prevailed and the entire nation cried out in unison (Numbers 14:2): “Loo maht’noo b’eretz Mitz’rayim, oh ba’mid’bar ha’zeh loo maht’noo,” If only we had perished in the land of Egypt, if only we had died in this wilderness! Why is G-d bringing us to this land [of Israel] to be slain by the sword? Our wives and our children will be taken captive. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?!

G-d’s anger is kindled against the people, and with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, He decrees that all males age 20 and above are to die in the wilderness and never see the land of Israel.

Although the Torah tells of two individuals (Caleb and Joshua) who refuse to join with the evil machinations of the other scouts, only Caleb’s words of rebuttal are recorded in the Torah. Numbers 13:30: “Va’ya’has Kalev et ha’ahm el Moshe, va’yo’mer: Ah’lo na’ah’leh, v’yah’rahsh’noo oh’tah, kee ya’chol noo’chal lah!” Caleb silenced the people towards Moses and said: “We shall surely ascend and conquer it [the land of Israel], for we can surely do it!”

Except for the fact that we are told that Caleb is a prince of the tribe of Judah (Numbers 13:5), we have no information about the man’s background or history. We know that Joshua was a faithful servant to the revered Moses. We know that Joshua was the only person allowed to escort Moses as he began his ascent up Mt. Sinai. We know that Joshua led the victorious military battle against Amalek. We know that Joshua’s name is changed from Hoshea to Joshua before he is sent to Canaan as a scout. In stark contrast to Caleb, Joshua has a rich and formidable history. And yet, we hear not a single word of protest from the great Joshua when the spies demoralize the people. Joshua, the heir apparent of Moses, shows none of the leadership qualities that we rightfully expect. In fact, he seems to be very much in the shadow of the brave and courageous Caleb.

Our rabbis say that he was called “Caleb the son of Jephuneh” because in his report to Moses he responded according to his own heart (“k’lee’bo) and not according to the hearts of the other scouts. Similarly, he was known as the “son of Jephuneh” because he turned away (pah’nah) from the other scouts’ advice and conclusions. Clearly, Caleb was an independent thinker.

Where did Caleb develop this independent spirit? We do know that Caleb was descended from the tribe of Judah, and Judah, the patriarch of the tribe, was quite independent himself. After the sale of Joseph, Judah left his father Jacob and his brothers to live independently with his Adulemite friend, Chirah, and married a woman of Canaanite stock.

The Midrash on Numbers 13:22, cited by Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible), somewhat clarifies the enigma of Caleb. From the inconsistent language of the verse that states: “Va’ya’ah’loo va’neh’gev, va’yah’vo ahd Chevron,” they [the scouts-plural] ascended in the south and he [singular] arrived in Hebron, the Midrash deduces that although 12 scouts departed Canaan, only one person arrived at Hebron. The Midrash concludes that only Caleb went to Hebron, where he prostrated himself and prayed at the graves of his forefathers.

It could be, as the Alshich (a popular commentary on the bible by R’ Moshe Alshich of Safed, 1508-1593?) suggests, that Caleb went to Hebron to pray that Jacob forgive his son Judah for deceiving him with Joseph’s coat that Judah had dipped into the blood of the goat.

It is, however, more plausible to suggest that Caleb went to pray at the graves of the patriarchs for strength to resist the conspirational ideas of his comrades, to remain loyal to the traditions of his forefathers and to the entire ethical and moral system of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that had been recently delivered to the people at Sinai.

There is much that we may learn from Caleb’s behavior. Caleb’s actions in Hebron are actually of primary and vital importance to all of Jewish tradition and to all of Jewish life. We live in a world where moral relativism often reigns supreme. Democratic societies are especially subject to the vagaries of moral relativism. New trends and values come and go as often as fashion styles change and new models of automobiles are produced. Yesterday, wire-rimmed glasses were in vogue, today shell-shaped spectacles are the mode. Yesterday, it was customary for people to get married at a young age, today it is common for people to live together for many years before marriage. It is so easy to be swayed by popular customs and behaviors.

How then does one assert and affirm his or her own values, or the values that were taught and handed down by their families? Caleb goes to Hebron to pray at the grave of the patriarchs: Give me strength to be loyal to the values of the Torah! Grant me the fortitude to resist being swept away by the utterings and practices of my friends and acquaintances. The values that I have adopted are not ephemeral, they are not subject to the whims of the moment or the vagaries of popular trends. They are indeed absolute and eternal values, a legacy of our forefathers from Sinai.

When G-d decrees that the people who have tested Him and did not heed His voice will not see the Promised Land, the Al-mighty singles out Caleb, exempting him from punishment (Numbers 14:24): “V’av’dee Cha’layv, ay’kev haye’tah roo’ach ah’cher’et ee’mo, vah’y’ma’lay ah’cha’rai,” but my servant Caleb, because a different spirit was with him and he followed Me wholeheartedly, I shall bring him to the land to which he came, and his offspring shall posses it.

Because of his commitment to G-d and his loyalty to Torah, Caleb was able to swim against the tide, and buck even the most popular communal trend. To a certain extent, it is easier to be a general in battle, like Joshua, than to be a Caleb who defies the ancient Near-East “Gallop Poll” results, and goes against popular opinion.

Caleb, the independent thinker, has left an immortal legacy, a legacy of strength, commitment and moral courage for all Jews and for all generations. Let us make certain to guard and protect this important legacy.

May you be blessed.