“The Sin of the Spies–Revisited”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, we read of the sin of the scouts whom Moses sent out, at G-d’s behest, to scout out the land of Canaan in anticipation of the conquest of Canaan.

In Numbers 13:2, G-d says to Moses: שְׁלַח לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו תִּשְׁלָחוּ, כֹּל נָשִׂיא בָהֶם, send forth men, if you please, and let them scout out the land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel; one man each from his father’s tribe shall you send, every one a leader among them.

These twelve men of stature set forth to Canaan to scout out the land. Ten of the twelve scouts return with a negative report, and convince all the Israelites that the land of Canaan is (Numbers 13:32) “a land that devours its inhabitants.” Upon seeing the huge samples of fruit that the scouts brought back and after hearing the reports of the giants who inhabit Canaan, the people were traumatized by fear.

After crying the entire night, the Israelites began to murmur against Moses and Aaron, saying, Numbers 14:2,לוּ מַתְנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, אוֹ בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה, לוּ מָתְנוּ “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in the wilderness. Why is G-d bringing us to the land [Canaan] to die by the sword, our wives and young children will be taken captive?! Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?”

Joshua and Caleb make one last effort to calm the people, begging them not to rebel against G-d, assuring them that the land of Canaan could be easily captured. The people, however, and the entire assembly would not listen, and were ready to pelt Joshua and Caleb with stones, when the glory of G-d suddenly appears in the Tent of Meeting.

The Al-mighty informs Moses that He is prepared to destroy all the people with a plague. Moses, however, convinces G-d to spare the people, but the Israelites will be severely punished. Rather than go forth to the land of Canaan, all the people are to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, one year for each day that the scouts were in Israel. All the men of Israel who are 20 years and older are to die in the wilderness, never reaching the Promised Land of Israel.

According to tradition, the peoples’ murmuring took place on the 9th day of the month of Av, a day that was to become a national day of mourning for all future generations. It is a day set aside as a day of mourning for the destructions of the two Temples in Jerusalem, and many other calamities that occurred on the 9th of Av.

The commentators struggle to understand how the people, who had witnessed so many great miracles, could go wrong. The Malbim famously suggests that the twelve tribal leaders began as scouts, looking for the best lands for their own individual tribes, but lost their courage when they beheld the fearsome inhabitants of Canaan. (See Shelach 5764-2004)

The Baal HaTanya in the Likkutei Torah, gives a radically different interpretation of the event. The founder of Chabad Chasidut suggests that the ten spies made a serious theological error, failing to appreciate the proper relationship between G-d and His people.

From the time that the People of Israel left Egypt until this very moment, the peoples’ care was entrusted into the hands of the Al-mighty. They drank water from a well that followed the Israelites through the wilderness in the merit of Miriam, and were given manna to eat that came down from heaven every day but Shabbat. The Midrash even states that the Children of Israel were surrounded by seven clouds that transported the people, washed their clothes and enabled their garments to expand as their bodies grew. The people were constantly and completely enveloped by the loving embrace of G-d.

When the scouts reached the land of Canaan and saw a land truly flowing with milk and honey, they knew that their previously coddled lifestyle would change radically in this new land, and understood that their food and water would no longer come easily. They would now have to plow the fields and sow seeds for the wheat to grow, tend to their flocks and bake their own bread. Their idyllic spiritual existence would come to a dramatic end. They would now have to earn bread by the sweat of their brow. They would no longer be a purely spiritual people, in fact, much of their lives would be defined by their need to earn a material livelihood.

Although the idyllic life in the embrace of the Al-mighty sounds utopian, it is hardly a real life. Real life requires working diligently to earn a living, supporting a family, nurturing children, teaching family members a trade and skills that are necessary for life. Real life involves performing the mitzvot of the Torah, and through the mitzvot, completing the work of creation started by the Al-mighty, and in this manner, perfecting the world under the Al-mighty’s rule.

A Jew is not meant to live a parasitic or robotic existence. A Jew is meant to be an active and thoroughly contributing participant in the world, engaged in creative work, healing the sick, and providing for those who are in need.

The compelling interpretation of the Baal HaTanya, however, raises a serious question: If the only reason the People of Israel were reluctant to enter Canaan was because they wanted a more spiritual life, why were they punished so harshly?

A story is told of a man who had amassed a great fortune and decided to devote the rest of his life to the study of Torah. He set himself up in a separate room of his house where he would not be disturbed, and began to study day and night. When the room grew dark, he would light a candle, so that he would not miss a moment of study. He left little time for anything else, not his children, nor his wife, nor did he respond to the pleas of the poor and to others in need.

When he realized that he would die soon, he called his children and told them that they will inherit all his wealth. All he asked of them was, that when he passes on, to please place a paraffin candle in his coffin so that when he arrives in the World to Come, he could immediately light the candle and resume the study of Torah.

When he passed on and arrived in the World to Come, he immediately took out his candle to enable him to study the Torah, but realized that he had forgotten matches.

He ran from place to place, but there was no one who could give him a match. Soon he encountered people with candles, the same poor people whom he had chased away from his door and others in need, but they could not help. Instead they explained to him that candles in the World to Come are lit with matches from the real world. Matches are the good deeds and the acts of compassion that one performs in the real world.

Despite the great value that Judaism places on Torah learning and spirituality, Torah study is meant to be a means to achieve perfection, and a way of teaching people what is right and wrong, and to influence others to do good deeds.

The ancient Israelite scouts had to learn that Utopia is achieved through one’s own efforts and not given on a silver platter by the Al-mighty. The scouts’ philosophical error was not only a mistake, it was an error that resulted from a dangerous, self-centered, attitude.

It is the farmer who plants the seeds that yield the wheat and the baker who bakes the bread, and the shepherd who prepares the flocks, who make it possible for the students to study, enabling the Torah to be disseminated, and allowing human beings to become partners with G-d in the perfection of creation and the betterment of humankind.

May you be blessed.