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The Sin of the Spies and the Ninth of Av

Rav Michael Hattin




Last week, we read in Parashat BeHa'alotekha concerning the commencement of the people's journey from Mount Sinai towards the land:  "On the twentieth day of the second month of the second year (after the Exodus) the cloud lifted off of the Mishkan.  The people of Israel traveled from the wilderness of Sinai, and the cloud came to rest in the wilderness of Paran.  This was their first journey, by God's command and by Moshe's deed" (BeMidbar 10:11-13).  We noted last time that although the migration was undertaken with great promise and potential, a number of serious and disastrous setbacks occurred almost immediately.  The people began to inexplicably protest, they then denounced the manna and demanded meat, and by the sorry conclusion of the episode at Kivrot HaTa'ava, Moshe's leadership had been badly shaken and many people lay dead – stricken by God's vengeance for their insufferable effrontery.  The Parasha concluded with the account of Miriam's indignant words concerning her brother Moshe, for which she was Divinely stricken with tzara'at (an unnatural skin disorder that renders the victim unfit to dwell with others) and then temporarily expelled from the camp of Israel.


This week, the downward spiral continues unabated with the debacle of the Spies.  As the people approach the land, God bids Moshe to dispatch twelve illustrious men, "all of them leaders among Israel" (13:3).  They travel to Canaan with the express purpose of both reporting on the land's natural abundance as well as ascertaining the strength of its inhabitants' defenses.  After forty days of discovery, they return to the expectant masses, bearing fruits attesting to Canaan's fertility coupled with fearful reports of "great and fortified cities (defended by) the offspring of giants."  As the resolve of the people of Israel begins to crumble, ten of the Spies conclude with damning words of discouragement: "We will not be able to engage them in battle, for they are stronger than us!" (13:31).


The rest, as they say, is history.  The Spies go on to sate their citizens with further tales of terror, the people of Israel cry out that night to God in desperate dejection, and they then utter the ineffable: "let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!" (14:4).  In the end, the generation is condemned to perish in the inhospitable wilderness, to suffer the inevitable consequence of their rejection of the land.  And that day of infamy is etched in Jewish consciousness forevermore:


"All of the congregation lifted up their voices, and the people cried that night" – Said Rabba in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: that very night was the night of the ninth of Av.  God said to them: You have cried out for no reason, but I will designate it for you to cry out for generations! (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Ta'anit 29a).






On the Jewish calendar, the Ninth of Av is the most bitter of days, a day of mourning and sadness, travail and death.  Throughout our long history, it has been associated with national setbacks and tragedies, and to this day it is still observed by the faithful with arduous fasting, rites of mourning and the recitation of dirges.  According to our earliest traditions, some of which are explicated or at least echoed by the Biblical texts, multiple disasters befell Israel on the Ninth of Av, as the Mishna in Tractate Ta'anit enumerates:


Five things happened to our ancestors…on the Ninth of Av: 1) it was decreed concerning our ancestors that they would not enter the land, 2) the First Temple was destroyed (by the Babylonians – c. 6th century, BCE), 3) the Second Temple was destroyed (by the Romans – c. 1st century, CE), 4) the fortress of Beitar was captured, 5) the city of Jerusalem was plowed over (4:6).


This week, we will consider the textual basis of the tradition that links the Ninth of Av with the sin of the Spies, and then consider the significance of that linkage.  The Torah itself is silent concerning the exact date of that "night of crying," but there are a number of indications from last week's Parasha that may be helpful. 





Recall that according to the verse in 10:11, the people commenced to journey on the "twentieth day of the second month," namely the 20th of Iyar, since the Biblical calendar (in contrast to the natural agricultural cycle that governs our current reckoning of the months) counts from the month of Nissan, this being the anniversary of the Exodus and the reference point that defines the beginnings of Jewish nationhood.  That initial journey lasted for "three days" (10:33), bringing them from Mount Sinai near the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula to the wilderness of Paran to the northeast. 


At that point, the Torah introduced the episode of the "complaints" or "Mitonanim," in consequence of which the people were told that they would eat the meat that they so craved "not for one day or two, not for five or ten or twenty, but rather for a month of days…" (11:19-20).  Since a Biblical month is lunar and consists of whole days, it must be either twenty-nine or thirty days, this being the AVERAGE length of time that elapses in a complete revolution of the moon around the earth (29 days, 12 hours, 2.78 seconds, or approximately 29 ½ days).  Thus, if our starting point is the 20th of Iyar, these thirty days conclude on the 23rd of Sivan (3 day march + 30 days of eating meat = 33 days, namely the 10 remaining days of Iyar + 23 additional days of Sivan). 


Next, we read of the incident of Miriam that takes place as the people are encamped at Chatzerot.  In consequence of her hurtful words, she is quarantined for a period of "seven days" (12:14-15), thus marking the day of her release as the 29th day of Sivan (23rd of Sivan + 7 days inclusive = 29th of Sivan).  At that point, the Spies are sent, they journey to Canaan, and return "after forty days" (13:25), namely on the 8th of Av (2 remaining days of Sivan, 30 days of Tammuz, and 8 days of Av).  On that day, they offer their startling report and on that night, the night of the Ninth of Av, the people bewail their fate and resolve to return to Egypt. 





The above chronology, preserved in Tractate Ta'anit 29a, rests on a number of assumptions.  Most importantly, it assumes that the incidents described in Chapters 10-13 of Sefer BeMidbar – the journey from Sinai, Kivrot HaTa'ava, Miriam's outburst, and the sending of the Spies – occur one after the other with no temporal interludes whatsoever.  Although this is certainly plausible, it is by no means incontrovertible.  The episode of the "Mitonanim," understood by the sources to have been triggered by the people's trepidation at leaving Mount Sinai's warm embrace in order to journey to the frontier of Canaan's unknowns, is indeed best understood as occurring in the immediate aftermath of the three day march.  Similarly, Miriam's unwarranted charges against her humble brother also serve as an appropriate thematic introduction to the Spies' unfounded diatribe against the land of Canaan.  Or, as Rashi (11th century, France) puts it, "why was the section of Spies appended to the passage concerning Miriam?  Because although she was stricken for having spoken ill of her brother, these wicked ones saw but failed to take the matter to heart" (commentary to 13:2).  At the same time, however, a thematic connection need not imply a chronological immediacy.  If anything, by relating after the episode of Kivrot HaTa'ava that the people "traveled from Kivrot HaTa'ava and encamped at Chatzerot" (11:35), the verses seem to imply that some time elapsed during the course of the journey. 


More tellingly, the Torah relates that in between the episode of Miriam and the sending of the Spies, "the people then traveled from Chatzerot and encamped in the wilderness of Paran" (12:16).  According to the "journeys list" presented in Parashat Mas'ei, BeMidbar Chapter 33, this march may well have involved a number of stops, with place names such as Ritma, Rimon Peretz, Livna, Risa, Kehelata, Har Shefer, Charada, Makhelot, Tachat, Tarach, Mitka, and Chashmona (BeMidbar 33:18-29).  All that is known with certainty is that the Spies were sent from "Kadesh Barne'a" (see BeMidbar 13:26 and Devarim 1:19-23), the one place name curiously absent from the list of Parashat Mas'ei.  Accordingly, the Ramban (13th century, Spain) remarks:


They journeyed from Chatzerot that is located in the wilderness of Paran and encamped in another part of that very wilderness, namely at Kadesh Barne'a. The Spies were dispatched from there as related elsewhere.  But the text did not state that "they journeyed from Chatzerot and encamped at Kadesh Barne'a" because THERE MAY HAVE BEEN MANY ENCAMPMENTS IN BETWEEN, but now is not the time to relate them.  The verse states "the wilderness of Paran" to indicate that this Kadesh is in fact identical to the Kadesh Barne'a that is in the wilderness of Paran, and not to be confused with the other Kadesh located in Midbar Tzin, the place at which Moshe struck the rock in the fortieth year of the wanderings (commentary to 12:16).





While the chronological argument may therefore be somewhat inconclusive, there are a number of other lines of evidence that tend, however, to corroborate its broad outlines.  We know, after all, the season of the Spies' mission.  In his final instructions, Moshe tells them to "be courageous and bring back from the fruits of the land" (BeMidbar 13:20), while the verse, now narrating, concludes that "those days were the season in which the first grapes begin to ripen."  The first ripening of the grapes takes place (depending on location) sometime in the early summer.  In the terraced hill country of the south where the Spies commenced their journey, the grapes begin to fill out in late June or the Hebrew month of Tammuz. 


But the Spies were in Canaan for a period of forty days.  It is of course reasonable to assume that the fruits that they eventually do bring back from their mission – "the cluster of grapes borne on a pole by two of them, the pomegranates and the figs" (BeMidbar 13:13) – were picked not at the mission's outset but rather towards its conclusion.  After all, bearing the fabulous fruits of Canaan for the forty-day duration of their journey would have been not only burdensome and inconvenient, but also over-conspicuous.  If the fruits were harvested towards the end of the forty days, then that would correspond to the late summer when the grapes are completely ripe and some of the pomegranates and figs are full on the tree.  This would be especially true in the hot valleys such as "Nachal Eshkol," or the wadi of Eshkol, so-called because at that location the Spies picked their cluster of grapes ("eshkol anavim").  The conclusion of these forty days would therefore be consistent with the onset of the month of Av.





There is another aspect to the discussion and it concerns not the veracity of the linkage but rather its significance.  In the final analysis, we may have to rely upon the authenticity of the Oral Tradition for the connection between the people's outcry at the Spies' report and the exact date of the Ninth of Av, though admittedly the textual evidence does support it in general terms.  But recall that the Mishna in Tractate Ta'anit speaks of no less than five tragic events connected with this day:


Five things happened to our ancestors…on the Ninth of Av: 1) it was decreed concerning our ancestors that they would not enter the land, 2) the First Temple was destroyed (by the Babylonians – c. 6th century, BCE), 3) the Second Temple was destroyed (by the Romans – c. 1st century, CE), 4) the fortress of Beitar was captured, 5) the city of Jerusalem was plowed over (4:6).


The first three of these catastrophes are well known and need not be elaborated upon.  Concerning Beitar, on its ramparts was fought the final battle of the Bar Kochva revolt that broke out in Judea in 132 CE, some sixty years after the destruction of the Second Temple.  While the Jewish defenders fought valiantly and restored a measure of independence for a period of over three years, they were in the end overwhelmed by the Roman legions.  With the defeat at Beitar, Jewish national life came to an end in the land of Israel for almost nineteen centuries.  In the aftermath of that catastrophe, the Roman Emperor Hadrian later plowed over the charred remains of Jerusalem, declaring the city off limits to Jews and raising upon its ruins a pagan temple to the god Jupiter.


It is obvious that the common denominator that underlies these five events is that all of them are related to the national dimension.  They do not describe personal failures or even communal disasters but rather overarching national tragedies that redefined the trajectory of subsequent Jewish history.  In their aftermath, the collective fortunes of the people of Israel were inevitably transformed for the worse.  Additionally, all of these five events relate to the land, to Jerusalem, to the Temple, and therefore to the very foundations of our national life and to the essence of what is meant by the "people of Israel."  With the Temple in ruins, Jerusalem destroyed, and Israel exiled far from their land, national life can be no more than a dim shadow of itself.





It is only natural that tradition should see in the sin of the Spies the prototype for those other later destructions.  At its core, the failure of the people at that time was not due to lack of belief but rather to lack of trust.  The people of Israel did not question God's existence and absoluteness at that pivotal moment, but only His concern:


Why does God bring us to this land to fall by the sword, our wives and children will become spoils!  Is it not better for us to return to Egypt!? (14:3).


In great contrast to the other monumental failure of that generation, the sin of the Golden Calf, the people did not now succumb to idolatry nor entertain incorrect dogmas concerning God's transcendence.  Their failure was a failure of confidence and conviction in God's assistance, a betrayal of His ability to preserve and to save.  In other words, while the sin of the Golden Calf denied God the Creator as they "substituted their Glory with an image of a grass-eating ox!" (Tehillim 106:20), the sin of the Spies questioned God the Liberator and Redeemer, and cast doubt upon the God who constantly cared and who was always involved.  Confronted by the giant stature of the Canaanites and by the awesome sight of their fortified cities, the Spies were stricken with fear, but it was a fear of their own making.  Could anything be more telling than their own final frightful words that "we were as grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so were we in theirs!" (BeMidbar 13:33)?  These words, typically understood as highlighting the glaring inequality between the diminutive, defenseless Spies and the colossal Canaanites, are more properly understood as a subconscious statement of cause and effect.  What the Spies were in actuality saying was: BECAUSE we perceived OURSELVES as weak and incapable, THEREFORE the Canaanites accordingly regarded us with disdain.  What the Spies lacked was the unshakable conviction that with God's help, expressly offered to them on numerous occasions since their liberation from slavery, they could prevail even against the Canaanite's towering battlements.  Is it any wonder that in the aftermath of the Spies' evil report, the people clamored to return to Egypt, to undo the Exodus, to deny the loving involvement of God in their lives and to return to the status of impotent and oppressed objects?





Significantly, the same Mishna in Tractate Ta'anit also links the sin of the Golden Calf to later tragic events, just as it did for the sin of the Spies:


Five things befell our ancestors on the seventeenth day of Tammuz: 1) the Tablets were smashed, 2) the Daily Sacrifice was suspended, 3) the city walls were breached, 4) Apostomus burned the Scroll of the Torah, and 5) an idolatrous image was erected in the sanctuary.


Moshe's smashing of the Tablets took place upon his descent from Mount Sinai as he saw the people reveling before the molten image of the calf (see Shemot 32:15-19).  Concerning the other four events that the Mishna enumerates as being linked with the seventeenth day of Tammuz, there is much confusion in the sources with respect to the exact historical references, and we need not concern ourselves here with the details.  This much, however, is clear.  The Oral Tradition recognizes in hindsight that the noxious seeds of all of the later national downfalls were planted and nurtured by the ungrateful generation that had been taken out of Egypt but was then never capable of overcoming Egypt's stifling spiritual hold on their being. 


These "days designated for wailing" should not, however, be understood as some inevitable and deterministic Divine decree.  Rather, they contain a profound meditation on the sources of our national failures and downfalls.  The twin demons of the Golden Calf on the one hand and the Spies on the other – the peoples' two defining wilderness episodes – indicate that betrayal of God apparently comes in two discrete forms.  There is the denial of His transcendence and then there is the more serious denial of His care.  While the former can be overcome by the mind, the latter must be confronted by the heart; while the notion of God's absoluteness need be learned but once, the unshakable trust in His deliverance must be lived all of the time.


Shabbat Shalom




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