For I am the Lord that Heals You (Shemot 15:26): Of Spy Stories and Heroic Measures
Yeshivat Har Etzion
This parasha series is dedicated
in memory of Michael Jotkowitz, z"l.
The Virtual Beit
Midrash wishes a warm mazal tov to Rabbi Moshe and Atara Taragin upon the brit
of their son Yosef Nechemia. May they and the entire Taragin/Fass family be
zocheh to raise him le-Torah, le-chuppa u-le-maasim tovim!
For I am the Lord that Heals You (Shemot 15:26):
Of Spy Stories and Heroic Measures
Rav Chanoch Waxman
The sending of the spies seemed like a good idea. At the beginning of Parashat Shelach, God commands Moshe to:
for yourselves men, that they may spy out (ve-yaturu) the
God then further instructs Moshe to select one man per tribe, and that each of those chosen to be sent must be a nasi, a ruler or chieftain, of his tribe (13:2). Apparently, spying out the chosen land is a privilege reserved for the elite.
Ever the faithful servant, Moshe carries out God's command to the letter. Following the command verse (13:2), the Torah records its accomplishment in advance. In a clear echo of the language and content of the command, the Torah informs us that Moshe "sent" (va-yishlach), and that the men he sent were all heads of the Children of Israel (13:3). As if to strengthen the theme of divine command and accomplishment, the Torah also notes in this verse that Moshe performed the action of sending the spies "in accord with God's command" (13:2).
This point is further emphasized by the repeat appearance of the term "send," the root sh.l.ch. in the continuation of the narrative. The term has already appeared twice in the command verse (13:2), both at the opening and closing of God's command to Moshe. Likewise, as just pointed out, it has appeared for a third time in the accomplishment verse (13:3). But as the narrative unfolds, the term returns, echoing the command and its accomplishment.
After listing the names of the chieftains chosen for the mission (13:4-14), the Torah caps off the list with a summary verse informing us that these are the names of those "Moshe sent (shalach) to spy out the land" (13:16). Likewise, in the very next verse, the preface to Moshe's instructions to the spies (13:17-20), the text states yet again that "Moshe sent them (va-yishlach otam) to spy out the land. This literary device, the fivefold repetition of the term "send," creates a constant echo of the original command throughout the narrative. It should have the effect of forcing us to remember how things began, to remind us that everything that happens, and is fated to happen, originates in God's command to "send."
In point of fact, the other key term in the parasha, "spy," functions in a similar fashion. This term also appears five times in the early part of the spy narrative (13:1-24). It appears for the first time in the opening verse of God's instructions to Moshe (13:2). It appears again at the end of the chieftain summation segment (13:4-16) and a third time at the beginning of Moshe's instructions to the spies (13:17-20). Finally, it describes the opening of the spies' actual mission (13:21), and in its fifth appearance, closes out the segment describing their actual mission (13:21-24). Once again, the repetition serves to remind us that everything that has happened, and is fated to happen, from the choosing of the chieftains, through Moshe's instructing of the spies, through the actual mission, stems from that original divine command, the divine imperative to "Send men that they may spy out the Land of Canaan" (13:2).
As we should remember, the sending of spies turned out not to be a particularly good idea. Or more precisely, it did not work out very well. It ended in disaster, forty years wandering in the desert and the death of an entire generation (14:21-22, 28-34). While this of course is a consequence of human free will and results from the malicious report of the spies and the complaints of the Children of Israel (13:31-14:4, 26-29), we may well wonder as to the original purpose of sending spies. After all, as we have just noted, it is the divine command and its accomplishment that the text chooses to emphasize throughout the opening of the spies narrative. What was God's original agenda? Why did God command Moshe to send those men? To return to the terminology we opened with, what was the original "good idea"?
Puzzling out the original purpose of the divinely ordained mission is but part of the problem. A cursory glance at Moshe's recap of the incident of the spies in Sefer Devarim should make us realize that the very notion of an "original" divine command for sending the spies is fraught with difficulty. At Arvot Moav, almost forty years later, Moshe recounts his instructions to the Children of Israel upon reaching the Mountain of the Emori to "go and possess the land" (Devarim 1:20-21). At that point, Moshe teaches the following:
And you came near to me everyone of you and said, Let us send men before us and they shall spy out (ve-yachperu) the land and bring us back word by what way we must go up and into what cities shall we come. And this was good in my eyes. And I took twelve men of you, one for each tribe. And they turned and went up (1:22-24).
The omission is striking. In Moshe's version of the story there is no mention of the divine command, and certainly no emphasis of the divine origin of the mission. Rather, the spy mission stems from the initiative of the Children of Israel themselves. On some plane, the stories contradict each other. While the version in Sefer Bemidbar portrays the sending of the spies as a product of divine initiative, Sefer Devarim portrays the sending of spies as a product of human initiative. If so, speaking of a divine initiative and purpose becomes fraught with difficulty. Before doing so, we must first decide how we wish to deal with the conflicting texts.
But this of course is not the only difference between the two texts. Even without attempting to be comprehensive we can note certain other clear differences between the opening of the spies story found in Bamidbar 13:1-24 and the recap found in Devarim 1:20-24. For example, in addition to the difference in origin of the mission, we can also note a difference in context. While Devarim 1:20:21, prefaces the story of the spies with Moshe's recounting of his command to "go and possess the land" upon arriving at the mountain of the Emori, no such context is mentioned in Bamidbar. Rather, the Torah makes due with a pithy reference to the Wilderness of Paran as the setting for the incident (13:3).
Furthermore, the personnel of the mission varies between the two stories. Devarim confers no particular distinction upon the mission's agents. They are simply men, neither chieftains nor rulers, or princes (1:22-23). But as mentioned above, Bamidbar repeatedly refers to the men chosen for the mission as either having the status of nasi, ruler or chieftain, of their respective tribes (13:2), or being "leaders of the Children of Israel" (13:3). Moreover, the text of Bamidbar even includes a list of the spies' names (13:4-16). As remarked above, in Bamidbar, spying out the chosen land is a privilege reserved for the elite.
Finally, the stories vary in the verbs used to describe the mission and in their instructions or mission statements. While Devarim utilizes the term ve-yachperu (1:22), based on the stem ch.p.r meaning dig, uncover or search out, or the term va-yeraglu (1:24) based on the stem r.g.l and meaning spy, to name the mission, Bamidbar utilizes a completely different terminology. As pointed out previously, the term tor, in various conjugations constitutes one of the markers of Bamidbar 13:1-24. While translated previously as spying, it is in fact a different term than either lachpor, or leragel, the standard terms for spying. Similarly, while Devarim describes the mission as designed to "bring back word" regarding the "way to go up" and the "cities we will encounter" (1:22), Bamidbar fails to describe the mission in this fashion. In place, we find Moshe's instructions to "see the land," the people and the cities (13:18-20). The following chart should help summarize these four differences.
Midbar Paran (13:3)
Har Emori command to conquer (1:20-21)
Origin of Idea
Divine Command (13:2)
Leaders/Rulers of tribes (nesi'im) (13:2-16)
Men no mention of special requirements (1:22-23)
Latur, Moshe's instructions, see land, people (13:2, 17-20)
Lachpor, leragel, bring back word of way, cities
The standard strategy for dealing with these kinds of problems in the Torah might be termed reconciliation. In this approach the conflicting accounts are harmonized with each other by positing that in point of fact, both accounts are correct. All the events recounted in both accounts occurred. In what constitutes a classic example of this type of approach, Rashi, the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban (13:2) all claim that God's command comes in response to the initiative of the Children of Israel. After the people had informed Moshe of their desire for a spy mission, then, and only then, did God command the sending of spies. There is in fact no contradiction. Both Sefer Bamidbar and Sefer Devarim can be understood as presenting accurate and correct accounts.
While this claim is undoubtedly necessary, it may leave us somewhat unsatisfied. Quite simply, the particular chronological claim of the commentaries does not resolve all of the problems. While the "sequencing" approach may work for the problem of the origin of the mission it says little regarding the other issues raised, the differences in context, personnel and description mentioned above.
But of course this is not a serious objection to the approach of reconciliation. The remaining differences are even easier to harmonize away. They are at most differences in terminology or omissions of particulars. They fail to constitute full blown contradictions. Slight variations in terminology are not necessarily significant, and omission of details can always be explained on a case by case basis. For example, on the basis of comments made by Rashi and the Ramban, we could claim that only before their sin can the spies be referred to as leaders or chieftains. It would simply be inappropriate to confer a title of distinction on the spies after their sin. Consequently, Sefer Bamidbar refers to them as chieftains, while Sefer Devarim omits the title.
While this kind of approach is
undoubtedly valid, and the commentaries chronological claim reconciling the
contradiction of who initiated the mission is undoubtedly necessary, in my
opinion the overall approach runs the risk of begging the question. In the final analysis, Sefer Bamidbar
omits the request of the people to send spies.
As argued above, it creates the deliberate impression that the idea
constitutes a divine initiative and builds a command-response model around this
divine command. Quite clearly, Parashat
Shelach is interested in emphasizing the centrality of the divine
command. Likewise, the text dedicates
fifteen verses to the status and names of the spies, terming them both
"chieftains" and "heads" of
With this in mind, let us set aside the question of contradiction between Bamidbar and Devarim. In its place let us turn our attention to the particular context of the story of the spies in Bamidbar, its placement at this particular point in space and time in Sefer Bemidbar.
Parashat Shelach and its story of the spies opens with the Children of Israel located in the Wilderness of Paran. The spies are sent "from the Wilderness of Paran" (13:3), and as pointed out above, this constitutes the sole setting of the events. But in fact, the Wilderness of Paran has been mentioned previously. In the verses immediately preceding Parashat Shelach, the tail-end of the narrative of Miryam's speaking against Moshe and her affliction with tzara'at (12:1-16), the Torah informs us that Miryam was isolated outside of the camp for seven days (12:15). Upon her return to the camp, the journey resumed, and the people traveled from Chatzerot arriving in the Wilderness of Paran (12:16).
In deliberately naming the Wilderness of Paran as the context of the spies story, the Torah forges a crucial link between the story of the spies and the preceding story, the Miryam-tzara'at narrative. Besides being juxtaposed in the text (12:1-13:24), the spies story follows on the heels of the Miryam narrative geographically. It takes place in the next place the Children of Israel encamp. But in addition, besides being conjoined in text and space, the narratives are most probably also conjoined in time. Without any reason to think otherwise, it seems logical to posit that the events depicted occurred within a short time-frame, with the sending of the spies occurring shortly after the events of the preceding Miryam narrative.
However this is not the only linkage created by the setting of the story in Midbar Paran. In fact, the Wilderness of Paran has cropped up even earlier in Bamidbar. Further back in Parashat Beha'alotekha, quite aways before the Miryam narrative, the Torah detailed the first journey of the Children of Israel in the wilderness (10:11-28). The Torah states that "the Children of Israel journeyed out of the Wilderness of Sinai" and that "the cloud rested in the Wilderness of Paran" (10:12). But this seems strange. The Wilderness of Paran is a place the Children of Israel will not arrive in until after the end of the Miryam narrative (12:1-16), shortly before the sending of the spies (13:1-3). They will first pass through the complaints of the mit'onanim (11:1-3), the laments of the asafsuf, the people and Moshe (11:4-15), the aftermath of Moshe's and the people's laments (11:16-35) and of course the speech of Miryam and Aharon regarding Moshe (12:1-16). Along the way we will find them in Taveira (11:3), Kivrot Ha-ta'ava and Chatzerot (11:34-35, 12:16). But if so, how can they already have arrived in the Wilderness of Paran after their very first journey?
In response to this difficulty, the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban (12:16) maintain that "the Wilderness of Paran" is a general term covering a large area and the two contradictory usages of "Midbar Paran" (10:12, 12:16) refer to different locales within "Midbar Paran." Along the way, the Children of Israel pass through various places, Taveira, Kivrot Ha-ta'ava and Chatzerot, all located in the larger Midbar Paran.
Nevertheless, or perhaps alternatively, on the literary plane the Torah seems to be following a traditional kelal u-prat, heading and details, structure. First, (10:11-12) we are told the heading, that the first journey was to "Midbar Paran." Everything that follows, (10:13-12:16), and the eventual arrival in "Midbar Paran," are the details of that "first journey." The "first journey" of the Children of Israel is in fact comprised of all of the events reported in the latter half of Parashat Beha'alotekha.
If so, the context of the story of the spies consists of far more than just the textually, geographically and chronologically conjoined Miryam narrative. In naming Midbar Paran as the setting of the spies story, Parashat Shelach teaches us that the context of the spies story consists of the entire latter part of Parashat Beha'alotekha, the entire story of Midbar Paran. With this in mind, let us turn our attention to this larger context.
The narratives found in the latter part of Parashat Beha'alotekha (11:1-12:16) are in fact linked by far more than just textual continuity and geography. But first, we must set the details in order. The flow of the narrative can be charted as follows.
Complaint and punishment of mit'onanim
Lament of asafsuf and
people for meat and
Lament of Moshe and its aftermath, elders and meat
Speech of Miryam and Aharon against Moshe and its aftermath
Thinking about the
narrative in this fashion should help us discern a developmental link between
the various events. In what we termed
section one, things begin to go wrong with the complaint and punishment of the mit'onanim
(11:1-4). Whether one reads like the
Ramban, "And the people murmured of their suffering and pain," or
Rashi, "And the people sought to complain...," the sin involves some
sort of speech. Whether actual bitter
murmurings or just the desire to complain, the sin involves the inchoate, or
not fully verbalized level of speech.
But the second sin, the desire for meat, the rejection of the man,
and the lament for the delicacies of
What about sections three and four? Undoubtedly, the sin of Miryam and Aharon, section four, constitutes the conclusion of the progression. Their sin is of course lashon hara, slanderous speech, "And Miryam and Aharon spoke"(12:1). Here the speech-sin/complaint is fully verbal. It is full-fledged dibur, the speech of a prophet against another. But what about section three, the lament of Moshe (11:15), can this too be viewed as part of a progression of speech-sin/complaint?
As mentioned in our analysis of Parashat Beha'alotekha, the answer may quite possibly be yes. After all, from amidst his despair, Moshe twice accuses God of having done him bad (11:11, 16). According to Rabbi Akiva (Rashi 11:22, Sifri), Moshe explicitly questions God's ability to deliver on his promise to provide meat for a multitude of 600,000 plus (11:22). Rabbi Akiva goes so far as to claim that this sin is in fact more severe than Moshe's statement of "Hear you rebels" upon hitting the rock at Mei Meriva (20:10-11).
If so, Moshe's lament, section three, certainly comprises part of the speech-sin/complaint progression. It is full blown speech, the despairing accusation and questioning of God by his chief prophet. Yet it is still just despair, devoid of direction, malice and malevolent intent. These elements raise their ugly heads only in section four. To repeat, the speech of Miryam and Aharon is lashon hara, the slanderous speech of one prophet against another.
speech-act level progression helps reveal another developmental element, the
element of place. The sin begins at the
"the edges of the encampment," the place where God's wrath burns
(11:1). It continues with the "asafsuf
asher be-kirbo," the outsiders amidst them (11:4), and progresses
quickly to "the entire nation organized as families crying at their
tents" (11:10). The contagion moves
to the camp itself. But it appears now
that the contagion of speech-sin/complaint spreads even further than from the
edge/outsiders to the encampment/individual families of
depicting the spread of the speech sin contagion, the corpus of the "First
Masa," the story of Midbar Paran immediately preceding the
narrative of the spies, also paints the picture of a profound crisis afflicting
the people on numerous levels. The
speech-sin/complaint development begins with the story of the mit'onanim
(11:1-4), defined earlier as a pre-verbal complaint, a kind of murmuring or
groaning about nothing in particular. In
fact, as the narrative progresses we realize that the Children of Israel are
afflicted by an even deeper spiritual malaise.
In a short matter of time, the vague sense of bad blossoms into a full
throated wail of lustful desire for meat and
Noting this additional, political dimension of the people's crisis should make us realize that stages three and four of the Midbar Paran narrative, the crises of Moshe, Aharon and Miryam, also possess spiritual, existential and political dimensions. Moshe views his fate as "evil," confronts and questions God, and by the end of his lament requests his own death (11:11-16). Here alone we can discern all three elements. Moshe states that he doesn't have the ability, what we may think of as spiritual resources, to continue, and casts the shadow of death upon himself. But Moshe is the paramount political leader, and his ability or inability to continue is also a political issue.
Similarly, Miryam and Aharon descend into the sin of lashon hara. They speak against God's prophet, After all, God has spoken to them as well (12:2). In response, Miryam is afflicted with tzara'at, a kind of shadow of death. Upon seeing Miryam, Aharon turns to Moshe and pleads with him to pray for her. He beseeches Moshe to not "let her be as one dead" (12:12). Apparently, the grisly appearance of tzara'at resembles the appearance of a still-born baby. The partially consumed flesh is a kind of death of the body, and some of the leadership also faces the shadow of death. But once again all of this possesses a political dimension. Infighting, controversy over prophecy and the possible death of one of the leaders of the people is another type of political crisis.
this all together, the story of Midbar Paran (11:1-12:16) is more than just the
story of the spread of the development and spread of speech-sin/complaint. It is also the story of a profound spiritual
and political crisis that to various degrees afflicts both the people and the
leadership. The journey is breaking
down, and the shadow of death hangs over all.
The story of Midbar Paran is in fact the development of a theme
developed in our analysis of Parashat Beha'alotekha. While Moshe had proclaimed to Chovav upon the
people's embarking into Midbar Paran that "we are traveling to the
place" (10:29), such was not to be.
While Moshe has spoken five times of the "good" (10:29, 32)
that was to be the fate of
return to the story of the spies. In the
shadow cast by the Midbar Paran narrative, the story of the spies takes on a
new dimension. It in fact represents but
another level in the development of speech-sin complaint. That development reaches its apex with the
slanderous speech, the dibat ha-aretz spoken by the spies. The claim that the land "consumes its
inhabitants" (13:32) is a deliberate and malevolent lie. But the spies are not just members of
the story of the spies constitutes the culmination of the crisis motif of the
Midbar Paran narrative. In a bizarre
statement, bordering on self-negation, the people claim that they would have
been better off already having died in the
Noting this relationship between the Midbar Paran narrative (10:11-12:16) and the ensuing story of the spies (13:1-14:45) forces us to confront a critical question. The picture painted above, with its references to development and culmination, as well as its motifs of disease and contagion, could generate the impression that the fate of the people and their eventual death in the desert was inevitable. The story of the spies seems to constitute nothing more than the culmination of an unstoppable process. Once begun, the spread of speech-sin and the collapse of the journey could not be halted. Whether the spies had sinned or not, this generation would never have entered the land. The contagion would spread, the crisis would deepen and the journey would collapse. Perhaps the people's fate of death in the desert was already determined from the very outset of their journey.
A careful look at Moshe's instructions to the spies, one of the key features of the account found in Sefer Bamidbar, should be of help in analyzing this issue and allow us to return full circle to God's command to send spies found at the beginning of Parashat Shelach.
sending the spies to "spy out" (latur) the
Go up and see the land (ha-aretz), what it is, and the people who dwell in it, are they strong or weak, few or many. And what is the land (ha-aretz) they dwell in, is it good (tova) or bad (ra'a), and what are the cities they dwell in...And what is the land (ha-aretz), fat or lean... (13:17-20).
In the main body of his relatively short instructions to the spies, Moshe mentions "the land" (ha-aretz) three times. Similarly, in the Torah's division into verses, the term "the land" appears at the beginning of each of the three verses that comprise the instructions. (13:18,19,20). In a further emphasis of the centrality of "the land" in the passage, Moshe's instructions begin with the requirement to "see the land" (13:18) and also end with the term and topic of the land (13:20). Moreover, he orders the spies not only to investigate the fertility of the land, but "to be strong," and in a fourth mention of the term, to bring back a sample "of the fruit of the land" (13:20).
But perhaps most significantly, the term and concept of "the land" lies at the heart of the main body of Moshe's instructions. Leaving out the addendum to bring back fruit of the land allows us to discern a structure that follows an alternating A-B-A-C-A pattern. While Moshe, does instruct the spies to investigate the people, their strength, numbers and the types of cities they inhabit in the second and fourth stages of his instructions (13:17, 19), the stages connoted by 'B' and 'C,' Moshe places "the land" at the fulcrum of his instructions, the middle 'A' of the pattern. The exact term is critical. Moshe instructs the spies to investigate the land, and find out whether "it is good or bad" (13:19). But does Moshe expect the spies to report that the land is "bad"?
The answer should be self evident. Moshe fully expects, or at the very least hopes, that the spies will report that the land is good. God has explicitly told Moshe that the land is good. In first speaking to Moshe at the burning bush and informing Moshe of his intention to redeem the people, God tells Moshe that he will bring them up from Egypt to "a good land" (Shemot 3:5).
goodness of the land constitutes the linchpin of the dissenting opinion of
Calev and Yehoshua, the only spies who faithfully fulfill their mission. In response to the slander of the spies and
the people's planning to return to
The point should be clear. Moshe's instructions carry an agenda, a relatively explicit expectation. The spies are meant to return from the land bearing the fruit of the land and declaring how good the land that God has promised them really is.
This "good land" implicit
in Moshe's instructions and the good report expected from the spies bring us
back to the beginnings of the Midbar Paran narrative and the deterioration of
the journey. As emphasized previously,
in his invitation to Chovav upon the journey's commencing, Moshe uses the term
"tov" numerous times (10:29-32). The journey is good and the destination is
good, for God has spoken "tov" for
In this light, the command of the
spy mission, or perhaps more accurately, the scouting mission, should be seen
as an emergency intervention, an attempt to give the corporate leadership of
Does the sin of the spies constitute
the inevitable conclusion of Midbar Paran narrative? Was the fate of the
generation that left
God's command to send spies, his
requirement to choose chieftains and rulers of
In conclusion, let us briefly return to the differences between the accounts of the spies story found in Sefer Bamidbar and Sefer Devarim, the methodology of "reconciliation" outlined earlier, and the hesitations regarding "mode of presentation" raised earlier. To put this in more concrete terms, while we may well be willing to claim that there are in fact no contradictions between the accounts, we still need to explain the form of the story in a particular location. In even more concrete terms, while it may indeed be true that the Children of Israel requested a spy mission and God commanded one, why does Sefer Bamidbar emphasize God's command and its execution while omitting the request of the Children of Israel? For that matter why does Sefer Devarim mention only the request of the people and omit the divine command?
While the problem of Sefer Devarim and an analysis of its version of the spies narrative will have to wait for another occasion, our analysis has hopefully resolved the first of these questions, that regarding Bamidbar. Sefer Bamidbar presents the failure of the spies' mission and the tragic events that occur as the final stage of a process begun in Midbar Paran. But before this terminal stage, we find God's attempt at intervention, a last ditch attempt at heroic measures, a divinely ordained scouting mission by the people's very own leaders, designed to resuscitate the good journey. To return to the terminology we began with, this was the original "good idea." The people's request, and the description of personnel, mission definition and context presented in Sefer Devarim are just not part of that story. In sum, Sefer Bamidbar has its own unique message to convey, its own internal reasons for telling the story as it does.
1) Although not mentioned in the shiur, the shiur above owes much to the Ramban's comment to Bamidbar 13:2. In the latter part of his comment, the Ramban describes the mission of Bamidbar as "a scouting mission designed to bring back a good report and gladden the heart of the newly freed slaves." Read the Ramban's entire comment. Try to pinpoint two different interpretations of Bamidbar 13:1-24 he presents. How does the shiur above expand on the Ramban's ideas? Read Rashi 13:1 (second comment). How does Rashi deal with the problem raised in the shiur above regarding the motivation of God's command? Contrast this with the approach taken in the shiur. See Rashi 13:1 (first comment). Relate this comment to a central idea of the shiur.
2) See Shemot 3:5, 16-17. Now read 13:25-29 and 14:6-8. Where do the spies go wrong? Reread
13:17-19. Now see 13:22-29. What does the Torah tell us regarding the
spies time in the
3) See 14:24. Now see 27:16-18. Reread 11:16-17. See Ibn Ezra 27:18. Try to list a few different sense of "ru'ach." Explain why it is a prerequisite for leadership. See 13:20 and Yehoshua 1:10. Consider again the meaning of "ru'ach" and the failure of the spies.