The most devastating punishment meted out by God in the Torah is described in this week’s Torah portion, parashat Shelach.

God commands Moses to send 12 scouts – one representing each tribe – to explore and inspect the Promised Land that the Children of Israel were poised to enter. Rashi (Numbers 13:2) claims that God did not command Moses to dispatch the spies, but rather, Moses could send them at his own discretion, since members of the Children of Israel had approached him, asking for a scouting report of their future homeland. Rashi’s comments are based on Biblical sources later (Deuteronomy 1:21-23), where Moses recounts how the scouting mission began:

“Behold, the Lord your God has set the land before you; go up and possess it, as the Lord God of your fathers has said to you; fear not, nor be discouraged. And you came near me every one of you, and said, we will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us word again by which way we must go up, and to what cities we shall come. And the saying pleased me well; and I took twelve men of you, one from each tribe…”

The scouts returned with a report based on facts presented out of context, that were meant to intimidate and scare the people, and their plan worked. God told the Jewish people over the age of 20 that as a result of believing misleading information about the Land of Israel reported by ten of the twelve scouts, they would not enter the Land of Israel. Tradition states that since the women and the entire tribe of Levi refused to believe the report, they were not included in the punishment.

If Moses resented the request to send scouts, hoping the Children of Israel would trust God to bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey, why were the scouts ultimately allowed to be sent in the first place?

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explained, that although the Children of Israel should have trusted God completely, there is precedent for why the scouts should have seen the land prior to entering it.

Moses needed no military intelligence when the Jews left Egypt, and he needed none here. Moses knew very well that the entry to the Land of Israel would be accompanied by miracles, as was the Exodus. There was no need to send spies to collect intelligence data. Instead, Moses acted in accordance with the principle that one must not propose to, let alone wed, a woman he does not know, no matter how highly recommended she may be (Talmud Kiddushin 41a).

(Source: Chumash Mesoras Harav, Sefer Bamidbar, with commentary based upon the teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, pp. 99).

It was necessary for the scouts to actually see the land, before the “marriage” with the Land of Israel was consummated.

This Treat was originally posted on June 28, 2019.

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