“Where Did the Scouts Go Wrong?”

(updated and revised from Shelach 5764-2004)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, G-d tells Moses (Numbers 13:2): שְׁלַח לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים, וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, “Send forth for you men, and let them scout 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 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 scouts’ calumny, the Children of Israel are severely punished. A Divine decree is issued, requiring the people to wander in the wilderness for forty years, 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 scouts is rather perplexing. If G-d instructed Moses to send the men, why is He angry at the people when they come back with an evil report? After all, they only reported what they saw. So, why should they be punished?

Rashi citing the sages of the Talmud, (Sotah 34b), suggests that it was at the people’s (not G-d’s) initiative that the scouts 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 scouts, he actually hoped that his agreement to send them would dissuade the people from pressing their request.

The Midrash Aggadah (Deuteronomy 1:22) offers the following 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 the animal’s powers, the buyer decides that he has nothing to fear, and forgoes the test. He buys the donkey without testing the animal 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. However, he was mistaken. The people insisted on hearing about the land from their peers. So, he sent the spies.

The Malbim, 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 truly radical, yet 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 or scout the land of Canaan. In fact, the word in the Hebrew text is וְיָתֻרוּ–“v’yah’too’roo”–let them tour, not לְרַגֵל–“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. Only when the first set of scouts return and report that the land is favorable, then does the nation send 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. The tribe of Judah, which is involved in grape growing and wine production, 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 the Sheetim (Joshua 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 securely, in utmost secrecy. That’s why the text in Joshua 2:1 says: וַיִּשְׁלַח יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן מִן הַשִּׁטִּים שְׁנַיִם אֲנָשִׁים מְרַגְּלִים, חֶרֶשׁ לֵאמֹר, 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 operatives. 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 in Deutoronomy, scripture notes that the scouts turn and ascend the mountain and arrive in the Valley of Eshkol. Deuteronomy 1:24 reads: וַיִּפְנוּ וַיַּעֲלוּ הָהָרָה, וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד נַחַל אֶשְׁכֹּל, וַיְרַגְּלוּ אֹתָהּ. 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 נְּפִילִים–“Neh’fee’lim” and the sons of the giants, וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים, וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם, “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 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, a mission that is always Divinely directed. However, we often fail to understand the Divine message that directs the mission. 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 costly. We find ourselves wandering in the desert/wilderness for forty years or more, aimlessly and helplessly.

The Al-mighty has given His people precise instructions. We, His people, must heed them, and abide by them. We must study His instructions (the Torah) 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 do, is to open our eyes, ears, and 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.