Friday, June 20, 2008


Parashas Shelach

Shelach lecha anashim veyasuru es eretz k’naan asher ani nosen l’vnei yisrael, ish echad, ish echad l’mateh avosav tishlachu, kol nasi bahem … send out men for yourself and they will explore the land of k’naan that I am giving to the children of Israel, one man for each tribe, each of them a person of high rank (Bamidbar 13:1)

The tragedy of the spies is well known; their malicious report resulted in an entire generation being denied entry into the Land of Israel. Many of the commentaries go to great length in examining the precise sin for which the spies were guilty. The Torah only tells us that they were motzi dibas ha-aretz – they spoke badly about the land. The Torah does not specify what that evil speech embodied. Some suggest that they were guilty of exaggeration; they described the country as eretz ochelet yoshveha – a nation that devours its residents. Others maintain that they needlessly frightened the people – telling them that the inhabitants of the land are anshei midos – people of giant proportions.

Both of these approaches seem to be somewhat deficient and it would be hard to categorize either description of the land as being malicious lashon hara, for their report was essentially true. The land did devour its inhabitants. The seven nations dwelling there were being uprooted by the Jews who were to replace them as masters of this land. Why? Because their decadence made them unworthy of inhabiting the land. Hashem had destroyed Sodom and Amorah for having lived liscentiously in the platrin shel melech – the palace of the king – and the Emorites and their fellow tribes had continued this kind of immoral behavior and were also being punished with banishment.

Moreover, it was true that the land was inhabited by anshei midos. The spies did not lie when they reported seeing the giants of Chevron. When they returned to the encampment, they brought with them a cluster of grapes so large that it took two people to carry it – another sign of the grotesque proportions that were common in the land.

The punishment also seems to be somewhat out of character. The spies, in convincing the people that it would be dangerous to try and capture the land, were guilty of leading an insurrection against G-d. Hashem had promised that the nation would go up to the land and they claimed that it would be impossible, efes ki az ha’am – the nation [dwelling there] is too strong and cunning! The ten spies are struck down for their blasphemy. They are devoured by a Divine plague, but not because they challenged G-d’s ability or His intention to keep His promise? Vayamusu ha-anashim motzei dibas ha-aretz ra’ah b’magefah … and the men who had given an evil report about the land died in a plague (ibid. :37) – the plague was a result of their having spoken lashon hara about the land. Not the sin of convincing the nation to deny its manifest destiny, nor the sin of fomenting a revolution against G-d.

And the people, who are guilty of joining with the spies and demanding to go back to Egypt and free themselves of their Divine mission accepted at Sinai, how are they punished? A plague, a fire from Heaven? No! They die a natural death over the next forty years and are not permitted to enter the land. True it is a punishment – tantamount to forbidding a child who has misbehaved from participating in some event. It appears to be no more than a slap on the wrist for a people who declared that they had no desire to go up to the land.

Perhaps we might offer another suggestion. The message of the spies report was not that it was beyond God’s ability to conquer the mighty nations of Canaan. They were the leaders of the generation, do you really think that they denied that God could do it if He so willed? Remember, we are dealing here with the dor de’ah – the generation that had witnessed the revelation at Sinai. But they also knew that the Divine will was inextricably linked to the spiritual level of the people which was anything but attractive at this juncture.

The spies honestly believed that the people were not on a level that would bring the requisite Divine intervention. They needed to go back to Egypt, to begin the entire Exodus process again, for they were still influenced by their years of slavery and had not yet become truly free of Egypt. And what was wrong with the spies’ analysis? They underestimated the ability of the Land of Israel to change the nature of the people. They did not realize what an effect entering the land would have, how it could transform a group of chronic complainers into a nation untied in seeking kirvat Elokim. Woe to the leaders who underestimate the ability of their people.

1 comment:

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