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Chet ha-Meraglim and Other Sins

Rav David Silverberg
21.09.2014

 

     Parashat Shelach tells the disturbing story of "chet ha-meraglim," the sin of the scouts.  In anticipation of their entry into the Land of Canaan, Benei Yisrael dispatch twelve spies to survey the territory that the nation will soon occupy.  In response to their report of the formidable Canaanite armies and fortified cities, the nation is gripped with fear and express their refusal to proceed towards Canaan:

 

All the Israelites rallied against Moshe and Aharon… "If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we might die in this wilderness  Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword… It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!"  And they said to one another, "Let us appoint a head and return to Egypt!" (14:2-4). 

 

God responds by issuing a decree that the current generation will perish in the wilderness; only their children will earn the privilege of entering the land.

 

     From one angle, the sin of the spies simply continues the process of spiritual deterioration that began, in Parashat Beha'alotekha, as soon as the nation left Sinai.  No sooner had they embarked on their journey when they began voicing complaints concerning the conditions of travel, culminating with the disaster as Kivrot Ha-ta'ava (review chapter 11).  The sin of the spies, which occurred shortly after Kivrot ha-Ta'ava, is itself followed by the infamous rebellion of Korach and the ensuing plague (chapters 16-17).  In one sense we may view the spies' sin as simply one link within the unfortunate chain of events that began with Benei Yisrael's fateful journey from Sinai.  On the other hand, though, this event is singular and extraordinary both in terms of the gravity of the sin itself as well as the severity of the consequences.  To put this incident into its proper perspective, let us conduct a brief survey of Benei Yisrael's sins since the Exodus.  We may classify these sins into four categories:

 

I)      Complaints over the hardships of travel: The most frequent offense committed by Benei Yisrael as a nation is complaining about the harsh conditions of desert travel.  Several such incidents are recorded in Parashat Beshalach, after the splitting of the Sea of Reeds (Shemot 16-17), and we read more of the same here in Sefer Bemidbar (chapter 11, 24:4-9). 

II)   Chet ha-egel: After the Revelation at Sinai, Benei Yisrael create and worship the golden calf (Shemot 32).

III) Chet ha-meraglim.

IV) The rebellion of Korach (Bemidbar 16-17)

 

     The first group, Benei Yisrael's complaints of lack of provisions in the wilderness, we may attribute to the understandable concern over how two million people can survive the hot, arid desert.  In fact, throughout all their grumbling in Sefer Shemot, God never responds with anger; He rather instructs Moshe as to how to provide the food and water the people request.  Only in Bemidbar, when, as Chazal note, there was no real basis for complaining (see Rashi, Bemidbar 11:1), does God react with harsh punishment.  However, unlike in the other three incidents (the calf, the spies, and Korach), He does not initially decide to destroy the nation and create a new people from Moshe.  And the reason is clear.  Justified or not, these complaints resulted directly from - and related directly to - the temporary condition of desert travel.  Although the wailing may have reflected insufficient trust in God or disproportionate preoccupation with gastronomy (see, especially, Bemidbar 11:4-6), perhaps these spiritual ills could have been treated with education and a gradual maturation process.  These sins did not mark a breach in the fundamental tenets of faith or the very purpose of the Exodus. 

 

     We cannot say the same concerning the other three: the golden calf, the scouts or Korach.  These sins all threatened to undermine the entire foundation of Benei Yisrael's national identity.  As God clearly told Moshe back in Egypt (Shemot 6:2-8; beginning of Parashat Vaera), the Exodus occurred in order for the Israelites to become God's nation and inhabit the land promised to the Patriarchs.  God therefore responded to their pagan worship of the calf by threatening to annihilate them (Shemot 32:10); He had no need for yet another nation that prostrated before graven images.  Korach's insurrection was directed against the authority of Moshe, who transmitted God's law to the people.  A refusal to accept and submit to Moshe's authority amounted to the dissolution of the entire covenant, which Moshe had effectively brokered.  Without a central authority, no single, binding system of religious law can be sustained.  Here, too, God proposes destroying the nation until Moshe and Aharon's intervented on the people's behalf (see Bemidbar 16:21-22).

 

     The spies's sin, however, supersedes even these two incidents in severity.  Whereas Moshe's plea after the calf and Korach convinced God to limit His plague to a narrow sector, Moshe's appeal in our parasha was only partially successful.  Although God did not destroy Benei Yisrael, He did destroy that generation and did not permit them to reach their destination.  The sin of the calf, according to Chazal and several commentators, was rectified through the construction of the Mishkan.  The absence of a physical structure to which they could relate prompted the nation to resort to graven images to represent God; the solution, then, was a Tabernacle that would represent God's Presence among the people.  The people's participation in Korach's revolt was likewise forgiven in light of the fact that they were led astray by Korach himself: "They [Moshe and Aharon] fell on their faces and said, 'O God, God of the breath of all flesh!  When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?'" (Bemidbar 16:22).

 

     Moshe could advance no such plea in defense of the people at the sin of the spies.  Here the nation turn their backs on their destiny, the very basis for the Exodus: the fulfillment of God's promise to the patriarchs to bring their offspring to the Land. 

 

The Scouts' Mission

 

     At first glance, it appears that the spies were sent on a military scouting mission, to collect information relevant to Benei Yisrael's approach and conquest of the Land.  Indeed, this seems to emerge from Moshe's original charge: "See what kind of country it is.  Are the people who in it strong or weak, few or many… Are the towns they live in open or fortified?" (Bemidbar 13:18-19).  This assessment of the mission is implied even more clearly when Moshe recounts the events in Devarim: "Then all of you came to me and said, 'Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to'" (Devarim 1:22).

 

     Several things, however, compel us to explain otherwise.  For one thing, Moshe's charge to the scouts before their departure includes information entirely unrelated to warfare: "Is the soil rich or poor?  Is it wooded or not?  Take pains to bring back some of the fruits of the land… " (13:20).  If Moshe intended solely for the scouts to collect military information, why did he ask for fruit?  Why must the scouts study the quality of the land's soil or timber?

 

     The mission's composition also raises questions as to its goal.  For a military spy operation, a nation would select its best-trained strategists and military personnel.  Moshe, however, formed a delegation consisting of men described as "leaders of Benei Yisrael" (13:3).  Moreover, he ensured to include one - and only one - delegate from each tribe.  Clearly, this operation did not involve military preparation and strategy.  Rather, Moshe dispatches a formal, representative body to see the land before the nation begins its conquest.  Collecting basic military information was just one component of this mission, but did not define its purpose and function.

 

     Now that we have determined what the mission was not, we must now try to understand what it was.  To this end, we will employ a very simple method: we will compare the report of the ten scouts who fail in their mission with the conflicting conclusion of the two who loyally execute their task.  Once we can identify the difference between these two factions, we will understand the purpose this mission was to serve.

 

Flimsy Fortresses

 

     The spies began their report by praising the land's agricultural quality: "We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey" (13:27).  But then they add: "However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the giants there…"       At this point, Kalev, the heroic dissenter among the scouts, interjects: "Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it."  The debate continues with the rebuttal of Kalev's colleagues: "We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.  "As the nation accepts the claims of hopelessness posited by the spies, Yehoshua, another of the scouts, joins Kalev in arguing for the possibility of the land's conquest: "Have no fear of the people of the country, for they are our prey: their protection has departed from them, but the Lord is with us" (14:9). 

 

     Neither Kalev nor Yehoshua ever disputed the majority's report as it concerned the description of objective facts.  They conceded that the land's inhabitants live in seemingly impenetrable fortresses, and that they were well-trained and powerful warriors.  But, whereas the scouts saw this power as reason for despair, Kalev and Yehoshua viewed the Canaanite nations as having lost "their protection," and would fall easy prey to the untrained slave nation of Yisrael.  We, the readers, who clearly identify with the viewpoint of Yehoshua and Kalev, understand the basis for their conclusion, which they put quite plainly: "the Lord is with us."  But this raises the question, if, in their view, the towering fortresses posed no threat, and God's assistance guaranteed victory, then why did they scout the land?  Why did Moshe ask for information concerning the inhabitants' defenses if the enemy's strength was of no consequence?

 

     The answer is beautifully expressed through a Midrashic interpretation adopted by Rashi in his commentary to 13:18.  Recall that Moshe asked the scouts to report on the cities inhabited by the nations of Canaan, whether they lived in open towns or fortresses.  The Midrash, cited by Rashi, offers a counterintuitive interpretation of this request.  If the nations live in open cities, then they live safely and securely, confident in their military capabilities.  If, however, they dwell behind stone walls and barbed-wire fences, they do not trust their arsenals and must therefore take protective measures.  This Midrash foreshadows the scouts' report, by which they terrorize the nation with the descriptions of the towering fortresses they saw in Canaan.  This emphasis on the fortresses emerges more clearly from Moshe's account in Devarim of the people's response to the spies' report: "Our kinsmen have taken the heart out of us, saying, 'We saw there a people stronger and taller than we, large cities with walls sky-high… " (Devarim 1:28).  In Moshe's view, the Midrash claims, these walls signified the Canaanite nations' vulnerability; the spies, however, misconstrued them as a sign of strength. 

 

     This discrepancy between Moshe's frame of reference and that of the spies, though arising from a Midrashic passage, can assist us in our study of "peshat," as well.  The scouts should have returned with an enthusiastic report of the quality of the land and the ease with which they would conquer it.  To Moshe it was obvious that the "sky-high fortresses" were no match for the Almighty.  Recall Moshe's proclamation when Benei Yisrael embark on their journey from Sinai: "Advance, O Lord!  May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!" (Bemidbar 10:35).  The Israelites have God waging their war; the Canaanites must resort to human artillery and hide behind walls.  Moshe had anticipated that all the tribal leaders, like Yehoshua and Kalev, would assume without second thought that "we shall surely overcome it" and "the Lord is with us."  The sight of the Canaanites' artillery should have encouraged Benei Yisrael by contrasting the assailable, manmade weapons of Canaan with the infinite power of the divine promise of victory.  Yehoshua and Kalev saw mighty fortresses and conclude, "Let us by all means go up!"; the rest of the spies, however, determine, "we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them" (13:33). 

 

     The purpose of the scouting mission was to encourage and inspire Benei Yisrael; instead, ten of the spies used the very information that could have encouraged the nation to engender fear and despair.

 

A Flawed Perspective From the Outset

 

     As mentioned earlier, in recalling the incident of the spies in Devarim, Moshe tells how the people lobbied for a scouting mission to provide military information (Devarim 1:22).  As we have seen, however, this was not the case; the scouts were sent to inspire Benei Yisrael with an enthusiastic report.  We can understand Moshe's version of the story, however, in light of the context in which he addresses the nation in Devarim.  The incident of the spies is introduced at this point to contrast the people's perspective with Moshe's promise to them, which he cites in the previous verse: "I said to you… See, the Lord your God has placed the land at your disposal.  Go up, take possession… Fear not and be not dismayed" (Devarim 1:20-21).  But the people did not acknowledge that "God has placed the land" at their disposal.  Instead, they insisted on assessing the likelihood of victory through natural means; upon discovering the formidable challenges that lie ahead, they refused to proceed.  Moshe himself formed the delegation to bring an enthusiastic report back to the people.  The response to the mission, however, reveals that the people had, from the outset, viewed it differently, as an ordinary military reconnoiter operation meant to prepare the nation for battle.

 

     In this manner we may perhaps also explain a surprising comment by Rashi concerning the spies' intention upon embarking on their mission.  The Torah describes the scouts' return from Canaan with two seemingly contradictory verbs: "Va-yeilkhu va-yavo'u" - "They went and they came" (13:26).  Rashi resolves this problem by claiming that this verse alludes to a similarity between the scouts' departure from the camp and their return.  Just as they returned with the intention of discouraging Benei Yisrael from entering the land, so had they initially embarked on their mission with the same mindset.  Now, it is hard to imagine that the scouts actually planned their report before surveying the land and seeing the formidable armies of Canaan.  And, besides, why would they plan from the outset on misleading the nation? Had they come all this way only to declare, "Let us appoint a head and return to Egypt"?  Could they have really wished to return to Egypt all along? 

 

     It seems clear that the spies planed their report only after having themselves become terror-stricken at the sight of the Canaanite forces.  Rashi perhaps meant that the spies' account of their findings reveals an initially flawed perception.  They had not, as Moshe had, assumed that Benei Yisrael would have nothing to fear.  They set out from Kadesh Barnea with the intention to objectively survey Benei Yisrael's military chances from a purely pragmatic perspective, forgetting the promise of God's assistance.  In effect, then, their mission was doomed from the outset.  For the spies did not embark on the same excursion on which Moshe sent them; the questions they seek to answer were not those posed to them by Moshe; their goals were not his goals.

 

     This generation was denied the privilege of entering the land because they failed to recognize that it was God who gave it to them:  "How long with this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs I have performed in their midst?" (14:11).  The entire process Benei Yisrael had experienced until this point, from the plagues in Egypt through the manna in the wilderness, the Revelation of Sinai and God's Presence in the Mishkan, should have impressed upon Benei Yisrael that God Himself was bringing them to the land.  They should have marched through the wilderness not as a newly-freed nation of slaves searching for a permanent home, but rather as the Almighty's entourage, accompanying Him to His eternal abode.  That they misconceived their mission precluded the possibility of their entry into the land, into His land.  Only their children, born and raised under God's protective clouds and sustained from childhood by heavenly bread, would fully acknowledge God's role in determining their fate and bequeathing to them a country.  Only they would enter the land and begin the next chapter of Jewish destiny.

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