The Sin of the Scouts and the Events that Followed

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
I. The Difference Between the Story of the “Scouts” and the Story of the “Spies”
In our parasha, there is no mention of spies (meraglim) or spying (rigul). The root resh-gimmel-lamed does not appear even once. Moshe sent tayarim, "scouts" – "that they may scout out (la-tur) the land of Canaan" (Bemidbar 13:17). "So they went up and scouted out (va-yaturu) the land" (ibid. 13:21), "And they returned from scouting out (mi-tur) the land" (ibid. 13:25), and they reported about "the land which we passed through to scout it out (la-tur)" (ibid. 13:32). Spying is mentioned only in the parallel account in Parashat Devarim (1:24): "And they spied (va-yeraglu) it out."
How did Parashat Shelach become transformed in Jewish consciousness from a story about "scouts" to a story about "spies"? Why is the story presented in this manner in shiurim and in discussions throughout the Torah world? Is there a significant difference between these two terms? And furthermore, why were the "scouts" sent, and who asked to send them?
There are profound differences – to the point of outright disagreement – between the account in the book of Bemidbar and the account in Devarim.[1] In Parashat Shelach, God commands Moshe to send "scouts," twelve representatives of the tribes, "the heads of the children of Israel" (Bemidbar 13:3); in the account in the book of Devarim, Moshe speaks of the idea of sending the spies as the people's initiative:
And you came near unto me every one of you, and said: “Let us send men before us, that they may search the land for us and bring us back word of the way by which we must go up and the cities to which we shall come.” (Devarim 1:22)
            According to the book of Devarim, twelve representatives of the tribes were sent – but not to scout, but rather to search the land and spy it out. We must therefore ask:
  1. "Send you" or "Let us send"?
  2. Did God command, or did the people request?
  3. "Scouts" or "spies"?
One who is prepared to delve more deeply and see in these two different accounts in the Torah not two versions, but two aspects or perspectives of the same story, is invited to consider the following proposal.[2]
II. The People’s Goal: Scouting the Land and Remaining in Kadesh Barnea
The crises described in the previous shiur (the ark going out to war, the murmurers, the meat cravers, and Miryam) created anxiety and mistrust among the people regarding the plan to continue on to the Land of Israel. The doubts crystallized into a request to first check "the way" that they were ultimately to take.
It should be noted that sending spies to ascertain the best route to take and the most strategic place from which to start the war is both correct and legitimate. But it cannot be the subject of public discussion, nor of public protest. For the purpose of espionage, a small number of professional spies should have been sent out in secret – not an official and well-known delegation. This is indeed what was done in the following examples:
And Moshe sent to spy out Yazer, and they took the towns thereof. (Bemidbar 21:32)
And Yehoshua the son of Nun sent out of Shitim two spies secretly. (Yehoshua 2:1)
Thus, the public request for a spy mission conducted by representatives of "all of you" was merely a cover for the real question that troubled them:
And what is the land… whether it is good or bad? And what cities… whether in camps, or in strongholds? (Bemidbar 13:19)
God's command to Moshe exposed what was hidden in the people's hearts and put them to the test. At the same time, it completely ignored their clever request. They did not really want to send "spies" in order to obtain vital military information, but rather "scouts" in order to check whether the land was indeed good and appropriate for them or not. Moshe (in Devarim) mentions the initial request of the people in order to emphasize the responsibility of the communal leaders for the crisis and for the decree to remain forty years in the wilderness. The account in our parasha opens with the truth that was exposed by God's words to Moshe. 
The people's request, however, had another, narrower, short-term goal – to rest in Kadesh-Barnea from the hardships of the difficult journey in the wilderness and the difficult crises that they experienced. Forty days of rest!
Many years ago (Chanuka 5742), on a visit to the eastern portion of the Sinai Peninsula, I reached this conclusion that Kadesh-Barnea was an ideal place to rest. We set out from Eilat to Kontila and to the great desert oasis in Wadi Kodiraat,[3] which is identified with Kadesh-Barnea.[4] This is the site of one of the most abundant springs in the Sinai (about 40 cubic meters of water per hour), which flows into the oasis along kilometers of plants and trees and alongside irrigated orchards.
The moment I saw this amazing landscape, I remembered the gaping difference in the Torah between "the wilderness of Tzin, which is Kadesh" (Bemidbar 33:36 and elsewhere) and Kadesh-Barnea in the wilderness of Paran (Bemidbar 12:16 and elsewhere). In the wilderness of Tzin, there was no "water for the congregation," and the scarcity of water gave rise to the events of Mei Meriva, whereas regarding Kadesh-Barnea, no mention is ever made of a water shortage; it was possible to remain there "many days, according to the days that you abode there."
I took out a Tanakh from my knapsack and reread the verses to verify that no water problem had ever arisen in Kadesh-Barnea, and I immediately understood the people's desire to rest in the shade of the trees with the running water and to send scouts to check whether it was at all worthwhile to leave this wonderful desert oasis. Anyone who has not seen this place with his own two eyes will indeed have difficulty understanding this.
III. The Ma’apilim – “The Generation, Even the Men of War”
The only way to enter the land from the south was by way of a great surprise, just as the exodus from Egypt could only have happened all at once, over one night and one day. However, thirty days at Kivrot Ha-Ta'ava and another forty days for the scouts' mission greatly reduced the chances of success, because "the Amalekites and the Canaanites" had in the meantime organized themselves to block the entry of the Israelites by way of the central highlands. The fall of morale and the weeping put an end to any chance of entering the Land of Israel from the south. Even at the end of their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites would not have succeeded in penetrating from the south. What was needed was a difficult journey and a surprise outflanking from the south to the east, to the eastern bank of the Jordan (Bemidbar 21:1-20).
There were, however, many among the people who did not accept this decree, and they tried to resist it:
We have sinned against the Lord; we will go up and fight, according to all that the Lord our God commanded us. (Devarim 1:41)
But they presumed to go up to the top of the mountain. (Bemidbar 14:44)
They failed and suffered defeat: "And they smote them and beat them down, even unto Chorma." God did not save them, and "the ark of the covenant and Moshe departed not out of the camp" (Bemidbar 14:44-45).
In my opinion, the fighters of the generation of the wilderness did not give up, but rather attempted to go up time and time again. It was about them that Moshe said:
And the days in which we came from Kadesh-Barnea until we were come over the brook Zered were thirty and eight years; until all the generation, even the men of war, were consumed from the midst of the camp… Moreover, the hand of the Lord was against them, to discomfit them from the midst of the camp, until they were consumed. (Devarim 2:14-16).
It is clear to me that "the men of war" died in their desperate attempts to penetrate the land from the south. 
The Torah only alludes to the wars fought by the Ma'apilim. The journey southward "into the wilderness by way of the Sea of Suf" (Bemidbar 14:25; Devarim 2:1, 8) was meant to distance the people from the front opened by the Ma'apilim, in order to get them to stop "banging their heads against the wall." When they returned at the beginning of the fortieth year on their journey northward, the great desert oasis was already in the hands of the Amalekites, and it was impossible to return there. It was as if God said to the people of Israel that He will not test them again with this indulgence regarding which they had already failed.
In Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin, another water crisis erupted and they could not stay there. In that same tour of East Sinai years ago, I also saw Ein Al-Kadis, which is located very close to the Israeli border (on the slopes of "the mountain of the south," which is called in the Torah "the wilderness of Tzin"). There I saw a small spring dripping into a pool. I immediately understood the precision in the Torah's account and the enormous gap between "Kadesh-Barnea," with its abundant water in "the wilderness of Paran," and "the wilderness of Tzin, which is Kadesh," which has little water. This is despite the fact that the distance between the two is no more than 12 kilometers as the crow flies.
After the death of Aharon and after the destruction carried out against "the Canaanite, the king of Arad," the people of Israel were forced "to compass the land of Edom" (Bemidbar 21:1-4) in order to enter the land from the east.
IV. The Ma'apilim and Zionism
In my opinion, much of the Charedi opposition to Zionism, including the Israeli army, is based on the story of the Ma'apilim. Even though they spoke the language of believers, the Ma'apilim were not led by the ark of God.
Many Zionists also thought of "ha'apala" because they wanted to sever themselves from rabbinic leadership and take the land by force, even if this appeared dangerous or impossible. This is a song that they sang:
To the top of the mountain, to the top of the mountain – who will block the road to those redeemed from captivity?...
Go up, go up, go up to the top of the mountain.[5]
Only one figure in the entire Torah world, R. Tzadok Ha-Kohen of Lublin, suggests that the Ma'apilim, despite their chutzpa, were right in their refusal to give up on going up to the Land of Israel. It was only that the time was not right for this, and therefore Moshe said: "It shall not succeed" (Bemidbar 14:41). R. Tzadok writes:
But at a different time it will succeed… This is in our time, when we are on the heels of the Mashiach [when chutzpa will actually increase and succeed, as Chazal say in Sota 48b]. (Tzidkat Ha-Tzadik 46)
The Zionist ha'apala has indeed succeeded with God's help, and the prophecy of R. Tzadok Ha-Kohen has been proven true!
V. The Chapter Dealing with Eretz Yisrael that Follows the Sin of the “Scouts”
The chapter of mitzvot that immediately follows – mitzvot that depend upon entry into Eretz Yisrael, the sin-offering of a congregation that sins inadvertently, and the prohibition not to go about after one's own heart and one's own eyes – is connected to the story of the sin of the "scouts." Therefore, it begins with mitzvot that depend on entering the Land of Israel (libations that accompany offerings, challa), and it concludes with the prohibition connected to tzitzit:
And that you go not (taturu) about after your own heart and your own eyes. (Bemidbar 15:39).
In other words, you shall not ask about the land, "whether it is good [for me] or bad." This question, the question of those sent to "scout ("ha-tarim") the land" (Bemidbar 14:6) and of those who sent them, is what brought about the crisis in the generation of the wilderness. 
Opening the chapter with mitzvot that depend on entry into the Land of Israel has far-reaching significance. Immediately after it was finally decided that the Land of Israel is blocked, that there was no longer any chance that the generation of those who left Egypt would go there, and that anyone who insists on trying nonetheless would be beaten "until destruction," the verse opens with the announcement:
When you are come into the land of your habitations, which I give to you… (Bemidbar 15:2)
It is clearly promised that the people of Israel will indeed come to the Land of Israel – if not in this generation, then in the next.
In order to understand the deeper meaning, consider for a moment the opposite approach of the Jews living in the exile after the destruction of the First and Second Temples. These Jews invested all their efforts in adapting to the new reality, in building Jewish life in the exile, and even in establishing a "wall" against those wishing to "stir up love, until it please" (Shir Ha-Shirim 3:5).[6]
In contrast, the Torah here immediately prevents any attempt to build a "wilderness" ideology. In the midst of deep despair, it reestablishes the one and only goal: the land of the forefathers as "the land of your habitations"!
It is also interesting to note that the section dealing with the meal-offerings and libations turns the entire sacrificial service into mitzvot that depend on the land, because the meal-offering and libations must come from the wheat, grapes, and olives growing in "the land of your habitations."
Even more interesting is the mitzva of challa:
Of the bread of the land… of the first of your dough you shall give to the Lord a portion for a gift. (Bemidbar 15:17-21)
The Torah declares this mitzva as obligatory already "when you come into ("be-vo'achem") the land where I bring you" – that is, immediately, without waiting for "when you are come into ("ki tavo'u")," which requires time and the process of settlement.[7] Why does the mitzva of challa apply immediately?
The mitzvot that "depend on the land" are mitzvot relating to the produce of the fields of the Land of Israel, and they will be in the hands of the people of Israel only after the process of settlement. But challah is set aside from the dough that is kneaded in the house, and so immediately, "when you come into the land," you can knead dough "of the bread of the land" in your tents.
The end of the chapter is the most shocking part. Who among all those who wear tzitzit (and wrap themselves in a tallit) thinks and has in mind that it is a garment of faith in the Land of Israel, that this is a garment that expresses faith in the Land of Israel as a promise of God to the people of Israel?
Those who observe the mitzva understand its purpose – "and that you not go about astray after you own heart and your own eyes, after which you use to go astray" – as a warning against following the lusting of one's heart and eyes, against attraction to sins in general.[8] Only Rashi alludes to the clear connection to those who returned from "scouting out the land" and caused an entire generation to die in the wilderness.[9]
VI. The Section Dealing With a Sin Offering
In the middle of the chapter, there is a section dealing with a sin-offering, a section that ostensibly belongs to the book of Vayikra. The Ramban in his commentary explains the connection to our parasha: We are dealing with a general removal of the yoke of "all that the Lord has commanded you" (Bemidbar 15:22-23), as the wailers wished to do when they said: "Let us make a captain [a different leader], and let us return to Egypt" (Bemidbar 14:4).
According to the Ramban, if, God forbid, a large faction in Israel decides to forsake the Torah, it is "a congregation that has sinned inadvertently."[10] Only an individual can be considered as having acted "with a high hand" (Bemidbar 15:30). The Torah recognizes among those who have left the Torah in its entirety "a congregation that has sinned inadvertently," "an individual who has sinned inadvertently," and an individual who has sinned "with a high hand" – but there is no such thing as a congregation that has sinned deliberately!
It is clear from the context that the threat to strike the entire nation with plague on account of the sin of the scouts is a threat directed to a congregation that has sinned deliberately, but Moshe's prayer removed this threat for all generations.
In this way, the verses of forgiveness in the story of the scouts connect with the verses of forgiveness in the section of the mitzvot, and together they stand at the foundation of our Yom Kippur prayers. We find this in Moshe’s prayer and in God’s words of pardon:
Pardon, I pray You, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness, and according as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now. (Bemidbar 14:19)
I have pardoned according to your word. (ibid. 14:20)
This is similarly true of the passage dealing with inadvertent sinning in future generations:
And all the congregation of the children of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger that sojourns among them; for in respect of all the people it was done in error. (Bemidbar 15:26).
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] One of the most important differences relates to the name of the land. In our parasha, the people are sent "to scout out the land of Canaan," whereas in the words of Moshe in the book of Devarim there is no mention at all of the "land of Canaan." See my article, "'Ha-Aretz ve-Eretz Canaan Ba-Torah," in my book, Pirkei Ha-Avot Be-Sefer Bereishit (Alon Shevut, 2003) and on my website.
[2] A clear example of this phenomenon is found in the section describing the flood in the book of Bereishit (chapters 6-8), even more so than in the section dealing with the creation. See Shitat Ha-Bechinot shel Ha-Rav Mordechai Breuer (Alon Shevut, 2005), and see my article, "Al Kefel Ha-Mashma'ut shel Ha-Meraglim," in Sefer Zakhor Ve-ShamorTeva Ve-Historiya Nifgashim Be-Shabbat U-Be-Lu'ach Ha-Chagim (Alon Shevut, 2015) and on my website
[3] In my opinion, the name Kodiraat preserves the name Chatzerot/Chatzar Adar, the station before the Paran wilderness/Kadesh-Barnea in the book of Bemidbar (12:16). The oasis extends west until another great spring named Katzima, which has been identified with Atzmon on the southern border of "the land of Canaan": "Southward of Kadesh-Barnea; and it shall go forth to Chatzar-Adar, and pass along to Atzmon" (Bemidbar 34:4-5).
[4] The Ramban in his commentary (Bemidbar 20:1) similarly distinguishes between Kadesh-Barnea in the wilderness of Paran (in the second year) and "the wilderness of Tzin, which is Kadesh" (in the fortieth year). Most scholars do not make this distinction (see, for example, Y. Aharoni, Encyclopedia Mikra'it), and they maintain that the name of Kadesh was preserved in the small, southern spring. But the two Israelite citadels from the days of the kingdom – the large citadel at the large oasis of Kodiraat (see Rudolf Cohen, Ha-Encyclopedia He-Chadasha Le-Chafirot Be-Eretz Yisrael) and the second and smaller citadel over Ein-al-Kadis – prove that the Ramban was correct. These are two separate places.
[5] Composed by Levin Kipnis.
[6] Like R. Yehuda, Ketubot 110b-111a; for an extended discussion, see Responsa Avnei Nezer, Yoreh De'ah 454.
[7]  So explained Chazal; see Sifrei 110; Rashi.
[8] See Sifrei 115 and the commentaries of Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Seforno, Chizkuni, and others.
[9] In fact, there was an important Torah scholar in recent generations who understood "ve-lo taturu" in the context of returning to the Land of Israel and rebuilding it, but astonishingly, he interpreted it in precisely the opposite sense: One who goes to the Land of Israel in the framework of the Zionist movement violates an explicit Torah prohibition. I am referring to the Admor of Munkacs, R. Chayim Elazar Shapira (author of Minchat Elazar), who led the opponents of Zionism. My father-in-law, Tzadok Raab, was a rescue activist in Hungary during the years of the Holocaust (as a Bnei Akiva counselor). He reported to me as follows (and so I heard also from many others):
When I visited Munkacs, I was told in the name of the Rav: "And you shall not go about after you own heart" – this is Herzl! "And after your own eyes” – this is [Rav] Kook. They were unwilling to hear about rescue efforts.
This ruling invalidated not only the political Zionism advocated by Herzl, but also the vision of the rebirth of R. Kook. Is it possible that a great Torah authority like the Minchat Elazar did not consider a Torah prohibition directed against the "scouts" and against rejecting the Land of Israel because of questions and concerns? I have no doubt that the Rebbe of Munkacs read the Torah correctly; rather, he understood Zionism as a movement of "ha'apala" without the Ark of the Covenant of God and without Moshe, and he was convinced that this is forbidden "ha'apala." In his opinion, the prohibition to go after one's heart and one's eyes included also the "ma'apilim" after the decree was issued not to go up.
The Rebbe died on the night of 2 Sivan 5697 (1937). Exactly seven years later, the community of Munkacs was led to extermination on the night of 2 Sivan 5704 (1944)!
[10] See my article, "Kahal Shogeg," on my website.