By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant

In last week’s Torah Parsha (BEHALOTECHA), we read about the Israelite’s turbulent saga of disillusionment, with their way of life in the desert. This week’s  Parsha (SHELACH) takes a new and momentarily promising turn, with a look towards the future. The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Send out men, who will scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Children of Israel. You shall send one man each for his father’s tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst” (1).

These twelve’ spies’ were instructed to report on the nature of the land; the people who inhabit it; the lay-out of the cities; whether the people reside in camps or fortresses; the quality of the soil; and the size and taste of the fruit, as it ripens.

“After forty days, the men returned from their journey with a cluster of grapes so immense, it required two men to carry it; the spies reported that, as promised, the land flowed with milk and honey” (2). However, ten of the men also brought word of fortified cities, populated by giants. “We cannot attack these people because we are like ‘grasshoppers’ in comparison to their size and strength; and they devour any foreign settlers” (3).

According to the ‘Midrash’ this comment about the strength of the people of Canaan is blatantly false. In fact the inhabitants were actually terrified of the Israelites (4). The predictable event of these falsehoods was demoralization, which spread throughout the desert. The entire community broke into loud cries and weeping; and, turned against Moses and Aaron: “Why is the Eternal taking us to that land to fall by the sword?…Let us head back to Egypt” (5).

Joshua and Caleb, alone among the twelve, exhorted the people to trust the Lord; but, to no avail. God, exasperated by the chain of events, threatened to annihilate each and every Israelite, and offered to make Moses “a different nation, more numerous than them” (6). Moses, to his credit, rejected this devastating proposal, and appealed to God’s self-interest: “If you destroy the Israelites, the Egyptians will conclude that You, God, are unable to fulfill your promises. Forgive this people, as is your nature” (7).

God acceded to this appeal, but on one horrific condition: Of all the people over the age of twenty, only Joshua and Caleb shall survive to enter the Promised Land. All of the other Israelites were destined to die out in the desert within forty years. When the ‘Divine Decree’ became known, the people were overcome with grief. A group of remorseful Jews stormed the mountain on the border of the Land, and were instantly killed.

For centuries, there have been dozens of commentaries and debates as to how and why the ‘spies’ erred so egregiously. According to the interpretations of 16th and 17th century rabbinical scholars (8), the ‘spies’ were actually well-intentioned. They did not doubt that Israel could win its battles with the inhabitants of the land. They did not fear failure; they feared success.

Now, they were close to God, closer than any generation before, or since. He was a palpable presence in the Sanctuary ‘within their midst’. Here His people ate manna from heaven; drank water from a rock; and, experienced miracles, almost on a daily basis. As long as they stayed in the desert under God’s sheltering canopy, they did not need to plough the earth; plant seeds; defend a country; manage commerce and an economy; or, shoulder any of the other burdens of a true nation.

In Judaism, our task is not to fear the real world; but, to enter it and to try to transform it for the better….this  is what the ‘spies’ failed to understand.



(1) NUMBERS (13:1-2)

(2) NUMBERS (13:26-27)

(3) NUMBERS (13:31-33)


(5) NUMBERS (14:3-4)

(6) NUMBERS (14:10)

(7) NUMBERS (14:11-19)

(8) Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Alter (Sefat Emet)