Parashat Sh'lach - The Spies' Failure
מרן רה"י הרב שבתי סבתו | כד סיון התשעט | 27.06.2019
פרשת שלח לך
הרב שבתי סבתו
Rabbi Shabtai Sabato
The Spies' Failure
A Divine Process, or a Human Initiative?
The sad fate of the Jewish people in the desert is sealed shut in Parashat Shlach. The generation that left Egypt amid great miracles and amazing wonders is told that it will not enter the Promised Land, and even though they protest and weep, they come to realize that the decree is final.
The reason? The Sin of the Spies. Of the twelve leading members of the nation who were sent to scout out the Land, ten of them returned with a negative and discouraging report. The nation not only believed them, but began to complain and protest against being brought to Eretz Yisrael.
What led to this shameful failure? How could the idea to send great leaders of Israel, commanded directly by G-d, end so catastrophically? And even if the scouts sinned, why was Moshe punished on their account? What did he do wrong? In his parting speech to the Nation, Moshe states:
גַּם בִּי הִתְאַנַּף ה' בִּגְלַלְכֶם לֵאמֹר, גַּם אַתָּה לֹא תָבֹא שָׁם.
יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן הָעֹמֵד לְפָנֶיךָ הוּא יָבֹא שָׁמָּה
Hashem also became angered at me [at that time] because of you,
saying, 'You too will not enter [the Land];
Yehoshua bin Nun, standing before you, he will enter the Land.' (Dvarim 1,37-38)
In attempting to answer these questions, we also encounter what seems to be a blatant contradiction in the Torah concerning whose idea it was to send the scouts. Parashat Shlach seems to make it clear that it was Hashem's idea:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר, שְׁלַח לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן
G-d said to Moshe: Send men for you
and they will scout out the land of Canaan. (Bamidbar 13,1)
And to dispel any doubt on this score, we read two verses later that "Moshe sent them from Paran Wilderness, in accordance with G-d's dictum." This last phrase is a clear indication of G-d's command, as we read many times in Parashat B'haalot'cha (for instance, 19,8).
Yet in Moshe's parting speech at the beginning of Dvarim, he declares that sending the scouts was the nation's initiative:
וַתִּקְרְבוּן אֵלַי כֻּלְּכֶם וַתֹּאמְרוּ נִשְׁלְחָה אֲנָשִׁים לְפָנֵינוּ
וְיַחְפְּרוּ לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְיָשִׁבוּ אֹתָנוּ דָּבָר אֶת הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר נַעֲלֶה בָּהּ
And you all approached me and you said:
Let us send men before us, they will survey the land and bring us a report
as to the way we should go up to the Land. (Dvarim 1,22)
Moshe Rabbeinu then adds that he agreed to the idea, seeing in it no sign of lack of faith in G-d: "And the idea found favor in my eyes."
So which was it: the people's idea, or a Divine command? If the former, then the failure of the mission is easier to grasp, but in any event, how do we explain the contradiction in the two accounts? It is true that Rashi explains consistently that G-d merely "agreed" to have a delegation of scouts, but did not actually command it; but this is hard to reconcile with the plain meaning of the text.
Moshe, "Trusted in All of G-d's House"
When we approach this question, we must posit the following axiom: Moshe Rabbeinu was chosen by G-d to bring His word and His message to Israel, and to ensure that the nation carries out G-d's commands in both spirit and letter.
The Torah attests to Moshe's utter loyalty to Hashem: "He is trusted throughout My house" (Bamidbar 12,7). Hashem thus grants Moshe the authority to choose the timing and manner in which to bring the Divine word to Bnei Yisrael.
One of the clearest examples of this is that of the Sabbath and the manna. Though Hashem commanded both at the same time, Moshe chose to issue the command regarding the manna without mentioning the Sabbath day. Only after the sixth day came around, when Bnei Yisrael were surprised to find a double portion of manna, did Moshe ceremoniously explain: "This is that which G-d spoke: Tomorrow will be a Sabbath of Sabbaths to G-d." (Shmot 16,23) That is to say, "Hashem told me this beforehand, but I waited until you, Bnei Yisrael, were able to experience the special Sabbath flavor before informing you of the laws concerning that day." In this manner, Moshe understood, the commandments would not just be a set of restrictions, but would rather be sweet and pleasant for them.
Many years earlier, Moshe had learned the hard way the importance of ensuring beforehand that Israel was ready to hear the entirety of G-d's message. When he first came to them and related the Divine message he had received – that they were to be freed from Egyptian bondage and become G-d's nation – the people did not accept it:
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל משֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה
Moshe told the Children of Israel the message, but they did not pay him heed
because of their broken spirit and hard work. (Shmot 6,9)
Israel's apathetic rebuff taught Moshe that, among his other functions, he must find the proper approach by which to relate G-d's word, so that it will actually be accepted. As we read at the end of the Torah:
וְזֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂם מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
This is the Torah that Moshe placed before the Children of Israel. (Dvarim 4,44)
It does not say he "taught" the Torah, but rather that he knew how to "place" the Torah before Israel, in a way that would guarantee that the nation would accept and carry out G-d's command.
In light of this, we can now understand what happened with the sending of the spies.
Before You, or With You?
The verses show us a very basic difference between the manner in which Hashem led Israel during the time of the Exodus, and the way He led them decades later during the conquest of the Land of Israel.
Leaving Egypt, the Israelites were totally passive; standing scared at the Red Sea, they were told by Moshe: "Hashem will fight for you; you remain silent" (Shmot 14,14). But when they entered the Land, 40 years later, they proactively fought wars against the occupants of the Land, at G-d's direct command and with His help from outside: "Watch, I have given Sichon, Emorite King of Heshbon and his land into your hands. Begin inheriting! Provoke him into war!" (Dvarim 2,24)
We also see this distinction when we look at the story of the Holy Ark. Throughout Israel's four decades in the wilderness, the Ark traveled in front of them. Its function was to remove all obstacles in their path, and to choose the easiest and safest route for Israel to travel:
וַאֲרוֹן בְּרִית ה' נֹסֵעַ לִפְנֵיהֶם דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לָתוּר לָהֶם מְנוּחָה
The Ark of G-d's Covenant traveled three days ahead of them
to scout out a place for them to settle. (Bamidbar 10,33)
The Ark traveled before them to "scout out" the land; why, then, did Hashem command Moshe to send scouts to do the same job? In fact, the same word is used:
וַיִּשְׁלַח אֹתָם מֹשֶׁה לָתוּר אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן
Moshe send them to scout out the land of Canaan (Bamidbar 13,1)
Was the Ark about to stop its work, no longer to travel before the people, that it needed men to replace it?
A one-word change between what happened in the desert and that which was to occur in the Land of Israel provides the answer. In his parting words of rebuke, Moshe told Bnei Yisrael that Hashem walked לפניכם, "before you" (Dvarim 1,30 and 32.) Hashem fought for us in the desert; we were passive. But later on, we read that when Bnei Yisrael are to go to war in Eretz Yisrael, the High Priest will encourage them with different words: "For Hashem your G-d Who walks with you to fight for you,
against your enemies, to save you…" (Dvarim 20,4)
In the desert, G-d walked before us – and in the Land of Israel, He walks with us! It is as we said: After the Exodus, Hashem walked before the camp of Israel, waging their wars and clearing their way. But in Eretz Yisrael, the people themselves wage the war, and Hashem is with them, helping out only from the side.
This is precisely what Moshe told his student and successor, Yehoshua bin Nun, when he passed him the reins of leadership:
וַה' הוּא הַהֹלֵךְ לְפָנֶיךָ הוּא יִהְיֶה עִמָּךְ לֹא יַרְפְּךָ וְלֹא יַעַזְבֶךָּ
Hashem Who walks before you, He will be with you;
He will not fail you and will not leave you. (Dvarim 31,8)
-- meaning that Hashem Who walks before you today in the desert, will be with you in your wars in the Land of Israel. This difference does not stem from the geographical location – inside or outside the Land – but rather from the nature of Israel's transformation from a people of slaves to a free and independent nation. Just like parents intervene progressively less in their child's life as he grows more mature and independent, so too did Hashem first them grant great miracles, and later encouraged them from the side as they became independent and waged their own wars.
Of course, when Israel is unable to succeed on its own, such as against the impenetrable walls of Jericho, Hashem helps out with miracles (as recounted in Joshua 6). This is what Moshe means when he says:
ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם הַהֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיכֶם הוּא יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אִתְּכֶם בְּמִצְרַיִם לְעֵינֵיכֶם
Hashem your G-d Who walks before you, He will fight for you,
as he did in Egypt before your eyes. (Dvarim 1,30)
That is, when Israel does not have the necessary tools with which to fight the enemy, the outstretched Divine arm will appear and do the work for them.
To return to the central topic: Hashem commanded Moshe Rabbeinu to send spies to scout out the Land, as stated in the beginning of Parashat Shlach. Moshe understands that the time has come for Israel to inherit the Land via war – and that it is up to him to find the best way to do so. He first seeks to imbue the nation with a new, proactive attitude, encouraging them to turn the Divine command into their own desire and initiative. He hopes to have Israel think and plan war tactics on their own, so that they will fight successfully and inherit the Promised Land.
Moshe tells Israel, in the beginning of his parting speech, what happened behind the scenes before the Spies were dispatched:
וַנִּסַּע מֵחֹרֵב... וַנָּבֹא עַד קָדֵשׁ בַּרְנֵעַ. וָאֹמַר אֲלֵכֶם בָּאתֶם עַד הַר הָאֱמֹרִי
We traveled from Horev… and arrived in Kadesh Barne'a. I said to you there, "you have arrived to the Emorite Mountain that Hashem has given us." (Dvarim 1,19-20)
That is, upon their quick arrival at the Emorite border, the time has come to conquer Eretz Yisrael from the Seven Nations, as Moshe continues:
רְאֵה נָתַן ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לְפָנֶיךָ אֶת הָאָרֶץ, עֲלֵה רֵשׁ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה' אֱ-לֹהֵי אֲבֹתֶיךָ לָךְ,
אַל תִּירָא וְאַל תֵּחָת
See, Hashem has given you the land; go up and inherit it,
as Hashem the Lord of your fathers told you; do not fear.
Why does Moshe say "as Hashem told you"? Where do we find that G-d gave such a command? The answer is the verse we quoted above from the beginning of Shlach: "G-d said to Moshe: Send men for you and they will scout out the land of Canaan." (Bamidbar 13,1) By saying "go up and inherit it," Moshe is encouraging Israel to actively prepare to fight and win Eretz Yisrael. And in fact, the nation internalized the message and realized it was time to "change gears" and take an active role – such as by sending out scouts. Moshe thus succeeded in leading the Nation along the process that Hashem commanded.
וַתִּקְרְבוּן אֵלַי כֻּלְּכֶם וַתֹּאמְרוּ: נִשְׁלְחָה אֲנָשִׁים לְפָנֵינוּ וְיַחְפְּרוּ לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְיָשִׁבוּ אֹתָנוּ דָּבָר, אֶת הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר נַעֲלֶה בָּהּ וְאֵת הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר נָבֹא אֲלֵיהֶן.
And you all gathered to me and said:
"Let us send men before us and they will scout out the land and bring us a report
– the path we should take and the cities we should conquer."
וַיִּיטַב בְּעֵינַי הַדָּבָר
And it was good in my eyes… (Dvarim 1,21-23)
The Add-On that Led to Failure
As mentioned above, the same root, taturu/latur, meaning "to scout out," is used both in reference to the Holy Ark "scouting out" the desert for Israel, and to the spies sent to "scout out" the Promised Land. Both refer to the search for effective paths for advancement and attack. Just like the Ark did not perform an undercover espionage mission, so too, the twelve scouts were not assigned to check out the land or the people living there; their mission was to find the right ways to approach the Land.
Proof of this is the fact that the scouts chosen for this mission were famous leaders of their tribes, and not anonymous people of the type usually sent for secret missions. Hashem wanted them to do the work of the Ark: each one was to find and choose the most appropriate way for his tribe to go up to the Land of Israel, whether by mountain, valley, plain, or desert. This is precisely the information that Bnei Yisrael asked them to ascertain: "the path we should take and the cities we should conquer" (Dvarim 1,21).
When Moshe saw that the people agreed to the mission, he thought that this would also be a good opportunity to enthuse them about the greatness of the land that they were about to enter. His idea was to bring live evidence of the great abundance and the large size of the crops growing there. Moshe also knew that there were giants in the Land of Israel, and he even told Israel about them himself:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל אַתָּה עֹבֵר הַיּוֹם אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן לָבֹא לָרֶשֶׁת גּוֹיִם גְּדֹלִים וַעֲצֻמִים...
עַם גָּדוֹל וָרָם בְּנֵי עֲנָקִים
Hear O Israel, you are crossing over the Jordan today, coming to inherit strong and powerful nations… a large and strong nation, sons of giants… (Dvarim 9,2)
Moshe saw no reason to hide this from Israel; on the contrary, he saw it as a great opportunity to show them the value and potential of the Land of Israel, and that they, too, could expect to develop into a strong nation there. In this vein, Moshe added other assignments to the scouts' mandate:
וּרְאִיתֶם אֶת הָאָרֶץ מַה הִוא וְאֶת הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב עָלֶיהָ, הֶחָזָק הוּא הֲרָפֶה הַמְעַט הוּא אִם רָב
And you shall see what kind of land it is, and the people living upon it,
whether they are strong or weak, few or many… (Bamidbar 13,18)
Moshe thus expanded G-d's original command beyond what the People of Israel asked, in order to enhance their motivation to arise and inherit the Land of Israel. He thought that this could be included in G-d's command to have the spies "scout out the land."
But he was mistaken: The People of Israel were not on as high a level of bitachon, trust in Hashem, as he thought.
What happened as a result of the extra assignment that Moshe gave the scouts? They returned and confirmed that the Land was not only "flowing with milk and honey" (13,27), but also – unfortunately, in their opinion – was occupied by a strong nation, with fortified cities and sons of giants. This report was well within the mandate given them by Moshe, but their very fateful and grave conclusion was not:
לֹא נוּכַל לַעֲלוֹת אֶל הָעָם כִּי חָזָק הוּא מִמֶּנּוּ
We will not be able to overtake the nation there,
for they are stronger than we are. (Bamidbar 13,31)
This, of course, set the stage for the "weeping for generations" in which the people lost heart and refused to enter the Land. And this bitter failure stemmed indirectly from the fact that Moshe gave extra assignments to the scouts - tasks that were not in their original mandate. We now see why Moshe shared in the punishment for this sad incident, as we saw above in Dvarim 1,37-38. He mistakenly thought the people were on a higher level of faith than they actually were, and discovered only afterwards what they were missing:
וּבַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אֵינְכֶם מַאֲמִינִם בַּה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם, הַהֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיכֶם בַּדֶּרֶךְ לָתוּר לָכֶם מָקוֹם לַחֲנֹתְכֶם... לַרְאֹתְכֶם בַּדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכוּ בָהּ
And in this thing you do not have faith in Hashem your G-d:
He Who walks before you on the way, to scout out a place for you to camp…
to show you the path on which you should walk. (verses 32-33)
Moshe couldn't understand: "How could you think that Hashem, Who has cared for you so deeply all this time, would suddenly abandon you?" With great pain, Moshe precisely points out the missing link: national faith.
But there was yet another problematic aspect to Moshe's behavior during this incident. When the Children of Israel heard the Spies' report and cried, "Let us return to Egypt," Moshe and Aharon responded by "fall[ing] on their faces [in despair] before the entire congregation of the Children of Israel." (Bamidbar 14,4-5)
Only Yehoshua and Calev dared to stand up to the masses of people with boldness and faith: "G-d is with us, do not fear them" (verse 9). The response of Moshe and Aharon, compared with that of Yehoshua and Calev, gave the impression of helplessness. For this, they were punished and not allowed to enter the Land of Israel.
However, G-d wished to give Moshe and Aharon another chance before finalizing the decree. The opportunity arose 38 years later, when the nation again complained ungratefully, demanding water. Unfortunately, once again Moshe and Aharon did not respond with strength: "Moshe and Aharon came before the congregation … and they fell on their faces." (Bamidbar 20,6) They again retreated, instead of standing courageously and reminding them how G-d had stood by their side for four decades.
This failure to respond bravely for a second time explains Hashem's severe reaction at the end of the Book of Dvarim:
ומֻת בָּהָר... עַל אֲשֶׁר מְעַלְתֶּם בִּי ... עַל אֲשֶׁר לֹא קִדַּשְׁתֶּם אוֹתִי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
And die here upon this mountain… for having broken faith with Me…
for not having sanctified Me among the Children of Israel (Dvarim 32,50-51)
Why does G-d use such strong language and make such sharp accusations against them? The answer is that what Moshe and Aharon did here, for a second time, arouses the memory of the first time – the Sin of the Spies. This is now the second time that they did not stand up with pride to sanctify G-d's Name. The punishment that had been suspended 38 years ago will now be activated:
לָכֵן לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לָהֶם
You will therefore not bring this congregation to the Land (Bamidbar 20,12)
Calev and Yehoshua
When Hashem informs Moshe of the heavy punishment decreed upon the generation of the desert – that they would die there and only their children would be allowed to enter the Land – He tells him of one exception:
וְעַבְדִּי כָלֵב, עֵקֶב הָיְתָה רוּחַ אַחֶרֶת עִמּוֹ וַיְמַלֵּא אַחֲרָי,
וַהֲבִיאֹתִיו אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר בָּא שָׁמָּה וְזַרְעוֹ יוֹרִשֶׁנָּה
My servant Calev, for having a different spirit and for having followed Me, I will bring him into the Land to which he went, and his descendants will inherit it. (14,24)
But why only Calev? Yehoshua bin Nun also stood up bravely to the other ten spies! Yehoshua, too, demanded that Israel show loyalty and faith and agree to enter the Land of Israel. Why, then, did G-d not say that he would also be allowed to enter?
Interestingly, in the next prophecy, Yehoshua's name is mentioned:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר. אִם אַתֶּם תָּבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ ...
כִּי אִם כָּלֵב בֶּן יְפֻנֶּה וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן
G-d spoke to Moshe and Aharon, saying: You will not come to the Land…
only Calev ben Yefuneh and Yehoshua bin Nun. (verse 30)
Why did G-d mention only Calev at first, and then afterwards mention Yehoshua together with Calev?
Later on, in the first chapter of Dvarim, when Moshe repeats the story over to Bnei Yisrael before his death, the same difference appears. In verse 36, Moshe says that Hashem was angered at the sin and that only Calev would be privileged to enter the Land. But in verse 38, Moshe says that G-d was angered at him [Moshe] as well, and that he could not enter, and that Yehoshua would be permitted to enter.
Comparing these verses tells us that Yehoshua is mentioned only in the context of Moshe's not entering. This is the key.
By mentioning only Calev at first, even though we know that he is not the only one who will enter the Land, Hashem is hinting that this is not the final decree: Others will also be allowed to enter, such as Yehoshua – and possibly even Moshe and Aharon, if they take advantage of the opportunity to correct their error!
But when Hashem then says that only Calev and Yehoshua will be allowed to enter, He is saying that the list of those permitted to enter is now final! Moshe and Aharon have not rectified their mistake, and they will not be included on the final list. Only Calev and Yehoshua can enter the Land, and no one else.
This teaches us much about Hashem's ways: He often gives us more than one chance, and sometimes issues a punishment that appears to us to be overly severe. We see that a punishment might be "suspended" at first, giving us another chance to rectify our mistake. However, if this opportunity is not utilized, the punishment will be activated – not only for the second sin, but for the first one as well.
Looking backwards, it could be that if Moshe Rabbeinu had acted differently, we would have merited that he himself would have entered Eretz Yisrael:
- If he would have made it clear to Bnei Yisrael that it was G-d's command to send scouts.
- If he would have limited the scouts' mandate to simply looking for the best routes for entry into the Land.
- If we would have not fallen silently on his face, but rather stood up boldly and waved the flag of faith in G-d.
Despite these possible mistakes of Moshe, the Torah still describes him with praises from G-d that no other mortal ever received:
וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ ה' פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים
No prophet ever arose in Israel like Moshe, whom G-d knew face to face. (Dvarim 34,10)