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The Sending of the Spies

Rav Michael Hattin



Parashat Shelach, which describes the abortive mission of the Spies, constitutes one of the darkest chapters in the narratives of the Torah.  Dispatched by Moshe at God's behest, these twelve chosen men enthusiastically commence their mission.  After completing a lengthy and thorough survey of the land and its inhabitants, the Spies return forty days later with their findings.  The anxious people of Israel, having just earlier left the protective environment of Mount Sinai to begin their auspicious march towards the land of Canaan, are suddenly thrown into a panic by the negative and ominous report of the Spies.  The forward advance of the people is suddenly halted; instead of confidently and triumphantly entering the Land, they are instead condemned to aimlessly wander the wilderness until the generation that had left Egypt dies out.


The details of the narrative are straightforward enough: "God spoke to Moshe saying: 'send men on your behalf (shelach lekha) to search out the Land of Canaan that I am giving to Bnei Yisrael.  Send one man from each tribe, and each one of them a leader.'  Moshe sent them from Midbar Paran according to God's command. All of them were chieftains of the people.  These were their names…" (BeMidbar 13:1-3).  It is clear from these verses that the command to send the Spies was promulgated by God, and that it was by His will that each tribe dispatched a representative. 


"Moshe sent them to search out the land of Canaan.  He said to them: 'go up by the south and ascend into the hill country.  Search out the terrain; ascertain whether the inhabitants are weak or strong, few or numerous.  Determine if the land in which they dwell is good or not, and if their cities are unfortified or walled.  See if the land is fertile or arid, forested or barren; be courageous and take from the fruits of the land.'  During that time, the grapes were beginning to ripen." (Bemidbar 13:17-20).  Careful to provide precise and detailed guidelines for the reconnaissance mission, Moshe sends them off.  There can be no doubt from this account that Moshe, as the people's singular leader and God's appointed prophet, is the instrumental figure in executing the mandate to send the Spies.



The Account in Sefer Devarim


It is highly surprising that in the parallel account of the sending of the Spies narrated in the Book of Devarim, it is the people of Israel who are charged with culpability for the disaster.  It should be understood that the Book of Devarim is, on the whole, a restatement of the Torah's laws as well as a retelling of the most significant episodes in the history of the people since their Exodus.  Sefer Devarim is narrated by Moshe, primarily in the first person, from the perspective afforded by almost forty years of the wanderings.


Recalling the journey from Sinai, Moshe exclaims: "We traveled from Chorev and traversed that great and awesome wilderness that you saw, by way of the mountain of the Amorites, as God commanded us, and we came to Kadesh Barnea.  I said to you: 'you have arrived at the mountain of the Amorites that God our Lord is giving to us.  Behold God your Lord has given you the land; go up and possess it, as God the Lord of your ancestors spoke, be neither frightened nor afraid'" (Devarim 1: 19-21).  As Moshe recalls, the people journeyed from Mount Sinai and soon thereafter stood at Kadesh Barnea, at the southern approach to Canaan.  Flushed with anticipation and full of expectation, Moshe exhorted them to be confident and assured of God's support.


Moshe continues his recollection of those fateful days: "All of you drew near to me and said: 'let us send men before us to search out the land.  They will report back to us concerning the way by which we should attack, and concerning the cities that we will encounter.'  I viewed the matter positively and I took from among you twelve men, one for each tribe.  They turned and went up by way of the hill country and came to the brook of Eshkol, and spied it out.  They took from the fruit of the land and brought it back to us and reported: 'the land that God our Lord is giving us is good.'  You, however, did not want to go up and you rebelled against the words of God your Lord…" (Devarim 1:22-26). 



Two Different Accounts and Two Different Resolutions:  (1) Rashi


It is with respect to this above passage that the most glaring inconsistencies emerge.  According to Moshe's account, it is the people who initiate the Spies' mission by requesting of him to send men.  It is the people who set the agenda of that journey by seeking to establish the route of their entry.  Remarkably, Moshe endorses their plan wholeheartedly, and sanctions their selection of the twelve men.  How is it possible to settle the two accounts, the one of Parashat Shelach and the one of Parashat Devarim?  The facts concerning the launching of the tragic episode seem to be in irreconcilable dispute.  The commentaries adopt a number of different approaches, and we shall look at the explanations of two of them, Rashi (11th century, France) and the Ramban (13th century, Spain).


Rashi explains: 'Shelach lekha' literally means 'send for you' and implies 'sending for your own sake.'  "I (God) am not commanding you to send spies, but if you so desire you may send them."  This was because the people approached Moshe and said 'let us send men before us to search out the land.'  Moshe sought the counsel of God.  God responded: 'I have already told them that it is a goodly land,' as the verse states "I will take you out of the oppression of Egypt to the place of the Canaanite and the Chittite, the Amorite and the Perizzite, the Chivite and the Yevusite, to a land flowing with milk and honey." (Shemot 3:8).  By their lives, (said God), I will allow them to err through the report of the Spies, in order that they will not possess it!' (Rashi, 13:2).


Rashi, like the rest of the classical commentaries, accepts the basic integrity of the received text, and therefore understands that the two accounts are both correct; in fact it is the very same incident that is being described.  The dual versions are not the result of 'careless editing' but rather are a deliberate breakdown of the episode into its constituent parts.  As Moshe reports in the Book of Devarim, the people DID initiate the mission by approaching him with their request.  Moshe, after consulting God, acquiesced and the twelve men were sent.  But, according to Rashi, the sending of the Spies betrayed a lack of trust on the part of the people.  Had God not already informed them quite early on, on the eve of the Exodus, that the land was a good land and that He would cause them to enter it?  God senses the people's doubts and allows them the possibility of overcoming those doubts by sending the Spies if they so desire.  At the same time, this allowance necessarily introduces to the equation the potential of failure, for if the Spies return with an unsettling report, the consequences stand to be disastrous.



A Test of Trust


For Rashi, the sending of the Spies thus becomes an elaborate test of the people's trust in God, and it is their equivocation that precipitates the mission.  According to Rashi, "shelach lekha" - literally "send for you" - is not simply a Biblical idiom but rather an expression that captures the essence of their struggle for faith.  God's seeming command to send the Spies is actually to be read as a response and a reaction, for by approaching Moshe with their request, the people have laid bare their deep need for empirical confirmation of His longstanding assurances. 


Rashi's interpretation, though it provides a profound insight into the mechanics of trust and the human need for failure in order to effect spiritual maturation, seems to founder on textual grounds.  For Rashi, the initiative of the people is the critical element that drives the narrative, by constituting the essential justification for the mission in the first place.  Yet the Parasha in Shelach Lekha makes not even the slightest allusion to the people's pivotal role in the decision to dispatch the Spies.  Instead we have a divine imperative that is introduced 'ex nihilo,' with no implications that God's command is in fact in response to this critical introductory episode. 


Conversely, in Parashat Devarim where the people's role is highlighted, Moshe's unqualified endorsement of their plan is, if we are to accept Rashi's reading, incomprehensible.  After all, their request was indicative of a lack of trust in God's promise and yet the text indicates that Moshe found their plan to "be good in (his) eyes."  How could Moshe support their plan when he knew that it betrayed a faltering and failing faith?  Rashi was himself aware of this difficulty, for he recasts Moshe's seeming approval as a clever ploy of reverse psychology: "I (Moshe) favored your request for I had expected that as a result you would withdraw the plan.  By not opposing the sending of the Spies, I had hoped that you would realize the redundancy of such a mission, but you did not retract" (Rashi, Devarim 1:23).  Obviously, this explanation, though notable in its own right, constitutes a substantial departure from the plain meaning and inference of the text.



(2) Ramban


The Ramban's commentary on the episode of the Spies and the dual accounts of Parashat Shelach and Parashat Devarim is a lengthy masterpiece.  In his remarks he addresses the major textual and thematic difficulties of the passages and resolves most of them with aplomb.  Ramban in actuality offers a number of variations on his basic interpretation, and we shall confine our discussion to the most straightforward of these.


Ramban explains: "The solution to the matter is to posit that Bnei Yisrael indeed approached Moshe with their plan to send spies.  Such is the practice of any people that embarks on the conquest of foreign territory to send scouts ahead, to ascertain the route of attack and to uncover the weaknesses of the enemy cities.  These scouts would then serve as the guides for the attacking forces…Therefore the people explained 'let us send men before us to search out the land.  They will report back to us concerning the way by which we should attack, and concerning the cities that we will encounter' (Devarim 1:22), for such a plan is eminently reasonable…Did not Moshe do the same (38 years later as the people were preparing to enter the territory of the Amorites – see BeMidbar 21:32)?  Didn't Joshua later send spies to pave the way for the attack on Jericho (see Yehoshua 2:1)?  Moshe found their plan favorable, for the Torah does not expect us to rely on miraculous Divine intervention.  Those who must wage war are rather expected to prepare and to develop appropriate strategies to ensure victory…"



The Appropriateness of the People's Request


Unlike Rashi, who saw in the people's request a serious lapse of trust, Ramban argues that their desire to send spies was in fact the most appropriate of petitions.  Moshe, according to the narrative in Parashat Devarim, endorsed their plan without reservations because he felt that it was eminently correct.  This is because the Torah does not demand of us that we rely on Divine assurances of effortless success, for that is an otherworldly expression of faith and trust that denies the reality of this world.  Quite the contrary, the Torah obliges us to utilize all of our human capabilities and resources in order to triumph, all the while remaining cognizant that it is God alone Who determines the outcome. 


Although superficially this form of faith appears more shallow, for it tends to stress the contribution of the human element, it is in fact much more profound.  This is because such a trust introduces the possibility of recognizing God's intense engagement not only in the infrequent extraordinary occurrences, but more importantly in all of those more numerous aspects of living that we tend to associate with predictability and the natural course of events.  The God of Israel 'who in His goodness renews the Act of Creation daily and at every moment' is deeply involved in our daily lives, though those lives may appear to be unfolding according to a routine and conventional script.  A god of miraculous and supernatural interventions, on the other hand, tends to foster a relationship with the world that may inspire awe, but that does not nurture commitment.



The Divine Imperative


Why then is this critical introduction absent from our Parasha?  Why does the account in Parashat Shelach present the mission of the Spies as a Divine initiative rather than as a response to the people's scheme?  The Ramban continues: "The matter was that Bnei Yisrael requested the mission and Moshe approved.  Thereafter, the command from God came to Moshe after the manner of the other commands of the Torah, for God said simply: 'send thou men.'  God continued: 'let them search out the land that I give to Bnei Yisrael' for His command was presented as a new statement that did not relate to the previous events at all.  This was because His desire was that the mission should succeed, that it should be undertaken at His command and that it should involve the chieftains of the people and include all of the tribes, for this might tilt the outcome towards success…"


Ingeniously, the Ramban interprets the omission of the people's request from our Parasha as a deliberate move on God's part.  Aware of the people's request but also omniscient of the tragic outcome, God prefers to feign indifference to their plan.  Instead, His command is presented ex cathedra, for He pronounces the desire for the mission as a Divine imperative.  In so doing, God removes the grave onus for the mission from the people.  His decree will at least ensure that the process for selecting the Spies will yield the best possible candidates and will involve all of the tribes.  Otherwise, if the men for the mission are chosen by the people, some of the applicants will no doubt be appointed not as a function of their fitness for the task, but rather as a result of political maneuvering.  Additionally, if the appointments are left entirely in the people's hands, some tribes may be unrepresented; if the mission fails, the unity of the people will be severely compromised.


Thus, unlike Rashi who sees in God's command a grudging acquiescence and the presentation of a challenge, Ramban understands it as an expression of Divine compassion, as a benevolent attempt to create the most favorable conditions for the mission to succeed.  Both Rashi and Ramban grapple with the same textual difficulties, but choose to resolve these difficulties in very different ways.  Both interpretations, it should be stressed, introduce themes for discussion that are noteworthy in their own right.  The student, as always, is left to ponder the respective merits of both approaches, for important lessons emerge either way.  One stands in awe of the Biblical text itself, that even through its omissions, can communicate penetrating truths concerning the human condition and our relationship with God, as consequential now as when the events unfolded over three thousand years ago.


Shabbat Shalom  



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