A ‘Bissel’ of Torah: SHELACH (NUMBERS 13:1-15:41)

By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant


In last week’s Torah parsha, Behaalotecha, we read about the Israelites 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 of 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 and the people who inhabit it, the design 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 both 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 this chain of events, threatened to annihilate each and every Israelite and offered to create for 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 horrifying condition: of all the people over the age of twenty, only Joshua and Caleb shall survive to enter the Promised Land. All the other Israelites were destined to die out in the desert, within forty years. When this ‘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.

The early rabbinical scholars tended to assume that the spies were guilty of a failure of courage, faith or both. It is difficult to read the text otherwise, however, the rabbinical literature of the 16th and 17th centuries offers a more compelling theory: the spies were well-intentioned. They did not doubt that their people could overcome the inhabitants of the land; they did not fear failure, they feared success(8). Now, God was a palpable presence ‘within their midst.’ If they stayed in the desert, under God’s sheltering canopy, they would not need to have the burden to defend a nation, manage commerce, justice and an economy. They were fully aware of their lack of knowledge and experience of self-governing. 



(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 Emat,” Maimonides “Laws of Torah Study”