Shelach Lecha 5762

Posted on March 23, 2011

by Dov Friedman

One of the most interesting stories in Parashat Shelach Lecha is the story of the 12 spies Moses sent to the land of Israel to survey the land. By the second verse there are already problems with sending the spies. Rashi, the famous 11th century commentator, says that when God “commands” Moses to send spies, he is not commanding Moses but rather telling him that it is permissible to do so if the nation feels like they need human observations. This is a problem because the nation was not able to rely on the word of God who said that Israel was “a land flowing with milk and honey.” This problem is a recurring one for the children of Israel because they often did not trust God’s word: they needed visual evidence.

Moses then gives clear instructions for what the spies are supposed to do. He tells them to look at three areas. They should observe the topography of Israel, the strength of the people who dwell in the land, and the strength of the cities. According to Nehama Leibowitz, a contemporary commentator, their answer to Moses’ instructions can be broken down into three parts. At first when they return to Moses, they speak favorably, albeit critically, about the land. They say, “it indeed does flow with milk and honey…nevertheless, the people within the land are fierce, and the cities are very strong and fortified…moreover we saw giants in the land…” They reported critically but gave no reason why the children of Israel could not conquer it. When Caleb, one of two spies who spoke only positively, said, “we shall surely go up to the land for we are surely able to conquer it,” the spies became even more pessimistic saying, “we cannot ascend to the land for the other nations are stronger than us.” But the spies were not satisfied to stop there. They took their complaint to the people saying, “[this is] a land which consumes its inhabitants!…” This incident is what forced the children of Israel to wander in the desert for 40 years. The 10 spies save Joshua and Caleb could not put their trust in God, and neither could Israel. It is very clear that they did not revere God based on one Midrashic explanation of the verse “we cannot ascend, for the other nations are strong than us.” The hebrew mimenu can mean “than us” or “than him.” If we substitute, we get “we cannot ascend for the other nations are stronger than him!” – than God. The spies scare the people by telling them that the nations that dwell in Israel are stronger than God himself. This is the cardinal sin of the spies and the children of Israel, and the main reason why they were forced to traverse the desert before entering the land of Israel which they had slandered so unnecessarily.