Skip to main content
Rav Michael Hattin




Parashat Shelach, always read at the onset of summer time as the grapes begin to ripen and the green fields turn inexorably to burnt brown, constitutes the historic turning point for the generation that had left the land of Egypt.  Only some fifteen short months had elapsed since their Exodus, a scarce few weeks since Israel had journeyed forth from Mount Sinai in the direction of the Promised Land, when the twelve tribal leaders were sent forth with much fanfare to spy out fertile Canaan.  It was from the southern oasis of Kadesh Barne'a that the spies advanced, bearing with them not only the solemn burden of Moshe's charge, but also the buoyant expectations of the people of Israel.  Searching out the land for a period of forty days, traversing its hills and valleys from south to north and then southwards again, the Spies indeed discovered that it was a land full of verdant promise.  There was plentitude in Canaan, trees and fruits in abundance, sources of fresh water and grasslands for grazing sheep.  But the countryside was also dotted with towns and villages, small but fortified bastions of Canaanite settlement as well as large and strongly defended cities.


Upon their return, the spies displayed the large and redolent fruits that they had gathered, informed the people of their findings, and then unexpectedly concluded their report with the almost unanimous assessment that conquering the land would be impossible.  Two of them, Yehoshua and Calev, vehemently and courageously disagreed, but their impassioned and faith-filled words were soon drowned out by the remaining spies' sinister tales and then by the people's uncontrolled sobs.  God's anger was kindled against Israel, and in a burning outburst of Divine displeasure, He threatened to destroy the people entirely.  Stepping into the breach, Moshe deflected His wrath (14:11-20), but he was unable to avert the subsequent sentence that condemned them to perish in the wilderness:  


…all of the men that saw My glory and the wonders that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet still tested Me these ten times and did not hearken to My voice, will surely not see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors.  All those that incensed Me will not see it! (14:22-23).





Most remarkably, Moshe made no further attempts to soften the decree, in glaring contrast to his heroic conduct in the aftermath of the other great wilderness debacle, the sin of the Golden Calf that had occurred about one year earlier.  At that time, not only did Moshe, as here, successfully cancel the initial threat of destruction (see Shemot 32:7-14), but he went on, unlike here, to tearfully plead the people's case for eighty consecutive days and nights (see Shemot 32:31).  In the end, he succeeded in restoring almost entirely God's confidence and promise, and in the process secured the Second Tablets of stone.  But here, Moshe fell uncharacteristically silent, his initial prayer less than efficacious, a subsequent prayer on his part entirely non-existent, thus leaving himself open to the charge that his own love for the people had perhaps dissipated in the interim. 


The matter is forcefully highlighted in Moshe's own recounting of both pivotal events, as he recorded them in Sefer Devarim some forty years after the narratives of our Parasha.  Note how in the following lengthy passage, Moshe clearly mentions both episodes, but assigns a disproportionately meager amount of text (a single fleeting verse!) to the sin of the Spies, and in that connection neglects to mention undertaking any efforts whatsoever to annul the Divine pronouncement:


I fell down before God like at the outset, for forty days and for forty nights.  I ate no bread nor drank no water, because of the sin that you had transgressed to do evil in the sight of God, to anger Him.  This was because I was terrified by the anger and rage that God showed concerning you to destroy you, but God listened to me at that time also.  God was also very angry at Aharon and sought to destroy him, and I prayed on Aharon's behalf at that time.  As for your transgression that you had fashioned, that calf, I took it and burned it in the fire and beat it into fine dust, casting its dust into the stream that descended from the mountain.  At Tav'era, Masa and Kivrot HaTaavah you also angered God. 


When God sent you from Kadesh Barne'a saying: "Arise and possess the land that I have given you!", you rebelled against the word of God your Lord and did not trust in Him nor hearken to His voice.  You have been rebellious with God from the day that I have known you. 


I fell before God for the forty days and the forty nights that I fell down, for God had spoken of destroying you.  I prayed to God and I said: "Almighty God, do not destroy Your people and possession that You have liberated by Your greatness, that You took out of Egypt with a strong hand.  Remember the merit of Your servants Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'acov and do not turn to this people's stubbornness, nor to their wickedness nor to their transgression.  Lest the inhabitants of the land from whence You brought them forth exclaim that it is beyond God's powers to bring them into the land that He spoke of to them, and in His hatred of them He brought them forth to exterminate them in the wilderness.  But they are Your people and Your inheritance, that You have brought forth with Your great power and with Your outstretched arm!" (Devarim 9:18-29).





These final lines of Moshe's reminiscence are extremely telling, for in them he describes how he was able to placate God's wrath concerning the Golden Calf by appealing to the glory of His reputation.  What would the nations say, argued Moshe, if You were to destroy the people in the wilderness?  Would they not then erroneously conclude that You were too weak to bring them into Canaan, and therefore chose instead to annihilate them in the wilderness?!  How striking it is that while Moshe does initially employ a similar argument here in order to forestall the people's immediate and utter destruction (see BeMidbar 14:11-16), he fails to press on with that argument after God issues His decree to deny the generation of the wilderness entry into the land.  Were Moshe's assertions rendered any less cogent by the fact that Israel's entry would now be delayed by some forty years rather than revoked entirely?  Would the said nations not begin to similarly question God's supposed omnipotence in the face of a four decade postponement?


As the Ramban (13th century, Spain) perceptively notes in his commentary to BeMidbar 16:1, the people's disappointment in Moshe's performance at this juncture may very well have provided the initial spark that ignited the first serious bout of discontent with his leadership since the Exodus.  That despair was later to be skillfully stoked by Moshe's megalomaniacal cousin Korach into a burning insurrection:


As long as Israel were in the wilderness of Sinai, nothing bad befell them.  Even in the matter of the Golden Calf, admittedly a grievous and public sin, the number of those who perished was small while the rest were saved by Moshe's prayer, for he fell down on their behalf for forty days and forty nights…But then they entered the wilderness of Paran and some were burned by the fires of Tav'era and many perished at Kivrot HaTaavah.  When they sinned concerning the Spies, Moshe did not pray on their behalf and the decree was not averted.  Rather, the tribal leaders fell by plague before God, while concerning the rest of the people it was decreed that they would perish in the wilderness and there die out.  Then the soul of the people became bitter and they said in their hearts that only failures befell them as a result of Moshe…


How are we to understand Moshe's reticence at the sin of the Spies, his utter lack of enthusiasm in undertaking any serious effort to avert the disastrous decree of decimation?  Why didn't the lawgiver throw himself down in supplication, even offering to forfeit his own future if only the people of Israel could be saved (as in fact he did at the sin of the Golden Calf – see Shemot 32:22-33)?  In short, why is Moshe's conduct here so glaringly different than his own comportment at the sin of the Golden Calf?  Where is Moshe's missing prayer?





The answer, it seems, depends upon dispelling a serious misconception that informs the account of the Spies for many of us.  The fact is that we tend to view the episode of the Spies as another typical Biblical paradigm for the matter of crime and punishment.  As the passage is so often superficially understood, the people of Israel sinned grievously by displaying too little faith in His power, and God responded in kind by punishing them harshly.  In accordance with this reading, we search for a rough correspondence between the crime and the punishment, a smug and satisfying "measure for measure" that could explain the destructive dynamic, and thus we fall upon the following verse in which God expresses His disappointment: "According to the number of days that you spied out the land, namely forty days, you shall bear your iniquity for forty years, one day per year, one day per year, and you shall thus know My fury!" (BeMidbar 14:34). 


Of course, we fail to realize that such a facile interpretation of the episode casts God as a terribly vengeful and vindictive Being, for there is no other way to account for a symmetry that is so lopsided in the extreme.  Do forty days of traversing the land justify forty years of wandering in the wilderness?  Do the indiscretions of the Spies, representatives of the people though they may be, justify the wholesale punishment of the entire generation?  Additionally, as we stated earlier, such an interpretation also raises serious and irresolvable questions concerning Moshe's conduct, for why wouldn't he pray to God to mitigate His decree?  Why would he stand idly by as his people are condemned to perish by a slow and pernicious process that has no purpose but to punish?


But what if we are not dealing with a punishment at all, and not even with a "crime" in its most narrow sense?  What if the episode of the Spies was calculated instead to provide Israel with an indicator of their own spiritual condition, a Divinely-orchestrated means of measuring their national state of readiness to confront the challenges of conquering and settling the land of Canaan?  In other words, God commands the sending of the Spies not to test Israel (only to award them a dismally failing grade and then to expel them altogether), but rather in order to bring to light FOR THEIR OWN SAKE the people's state of mind.  Canaan beckons, but entering it will require resilience, fortitude, and no small amount of courage, notwithstanding God's recurring promises of assistance.  If Israel is truly up for the challenge, then they will be heartened by the reports of the land's fertility while not becoming discouraged and paralyzed by the associated reports of what should be obvious in any case: the Canaanites will defend their land.  But if in the Spies' assessment conquest is utterly impossible, then better to spend additional time nurturing the necessary resolve to one day confront their destiny and to triumph.  The impassioned entreaties of Yehoshua and Calev therefore had to be voiced only to be rejected, for in their own minds the people of Israel were simultaneously rejecting the still, small voice that had held out the receding possibility of feeling sufficiently confident to enter the land.





Viewed in this way, the forty years of wandering are not an abusive form of punishment but rather a opportunity (painful though it may be) for development and growth.  Israel will spend a generation of time, fostered in the wilderness environment of deprivation where they are sustained exclusively by God's concern, maturing into a nation not of formerly oppressed slaves but of truly free men.  The liberated slave may externally embrace comfort and tranquility and thus resemble those who are free, but he but rarely overcomes the gnawing self-doubt and deep-seated existential fear that together preclude truly great accomplishment. 


Thus, Israel was condemned, condemned to grow and to mature.  As Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra so eloquently puts it in his insightful comments concerning the people's inability to confront the Egyptian host at the Sea of Reeds, a situation of palpable panic not unlike their reaction to the Spies' report,


…God who alone does wonders and who alone reckons the deeds of mortals, brought it about that all of the males who came out of Egypt perished, for they did not possess the strength of spirit necessary to fight and to prevail against the Canaanites.  A new generation had to arise after that of the generation of the wilderness, who had not experienced exile and thus possessed a confident spirit…(commentary to Shemot 14:13).


As for Moshe's missing prayer, it is now just as obvious why it is not here.  For what should Moshe have prayed, after the people demonstrated not simply a lack of trust but more significantly an essential deficiency of spirit?  Should he have prayed that God relent, only so that the people should quickly march to Canaan's borders, there to crumble and to take flight back into the wilderness at the first sign of setback?  Since the decree of forty years was not punitive but rather pedagogical, any prayer to relieve the decree would have constituted a destructive distraction from the task at hand: the building of Israel's self-worth that is the prerequisite for any true spiritual development.  How can I believe and trust in God before I can believe and trust in myself?


The sin of the Golden Calf, on the other hand, constituted a fundamentally different infraction.  It was a transgression of doctrine, a brazen attempt to preserve an entrenched attachment to idolatry in the more benign trappings of intermediation.  The people fashioned it and sinned in its worship, God was upset at their infidelity and sought to punish them.  Moshe averted disaster and restored equilibrium by appealing to His compassion.  Thus God's hand was stayed and their conduct was soon corrected.  But at the episode of the Spies, the people betrayed their deepest self-doubts.  Concerning these there could be neither punishment nor immediate correction, but only the firm and arduous process of Divinely mandated restoration over the course of a lifetime of work.


In the end, of course, the people of Israel were ready, and under Yehoshua's leadership they traversed the Yarden and entered the land.  Conquering and settling it took many, many years and though there were serious setbacks and defeats along the way, the people persevered and eventually fashioned their state.  Some four hundred and forty years after their entry into Canaan, they built the Temple at Jerusalem and thereby inaugurated a brief but glorious period of nationhood.  Searching for the antecedents to their eventual triumph, it is very easy to look elsewhere than to our Parasha.  But that would be an error, for it was precisely within the formative crucible of the wilderness wanderings, ostensibly precipitated by the episode of the Spies but actually demanded by more fundamental needs, that Israel's resolve was forged.


Shabbat Shalom             







This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!