Spies and Lies

How could the spies have delivered such a demoralizing report?

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Daniel Pinner,


As every year, Parashat Shlach Lecha presents us with difficult challenges. How could the nation which had so recently witnessed the greatest and the most inspiring miracles in history be so demoralized by the report of the spies? How could the spies have delivered such a demoralizing report? Did G-d overreact when He punished the generation by preventing them from entering the good Land that He had promised them?

Let us strengthen these questions by putting them into historical context.

Of all the Jews in Egypt, only the best of the best left alive. Then, as today, there was no shortage of Jews who rejected the redemption. Then, as today, there were two categories of Jews who opposed the return to the Land of Israel.

In one category were the assimilationists, the “sinners among the Israelites who had Egyptian patrons, who because they had wealth and honour did not want to leave” (Sh’mot Rabbah 14:3; Tanhuma, Va-eira 14).

In the other category were the “Neturei Karta” of the time – the most religious of Jews who knew that that the exile had to last for 400 years (Genesis 15:13), and who argued that since they had only been in Egypt for 210 years, they were forbidden to leave exile ahead of G-d’s schedule (Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 2:1 [8]).

Between them, these two categories accounted for four-fifths of the Jews in Egypt. And because each for their own very different reasons did not want to leave, they perished in the ninth Plague, the Plague of Darkness (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el ibid.; Sh’mot Rabbah 14:3; Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 2:1 [13]; Tanhuma, Beshallach 1; Yalkut Shimoni, Bo 208 et. al.).

So the one-fifth of Jews who did leave Egypt alive, and who, a year and four months later, heard the spies’ evil report and were demoralized by it, were not the faint-hearted. They were the best and bravest of Jews.

And the spies who delivered the report? – They were the elite of the elite. “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Send forth, on your own volition, men who will spy out the Land of Canaan… You shall send one man each from his father’s tribe, each of them a leader” (Numbers 13:1-2).

These leaders of the Tribes were chosen for their sterling qualities. The Midrash recounts their praise: “Whenever it says ‘anashim’ (‘men’), it means tzaddikim (righteous men)… And can you call them fools? – They were called fools, but only because they spread the evil report about the Land… Nevertheless they were great people who made themselves into fools… They had been chosen out of all Israel by G-d and by Moshe…which shows that they were considered tzaddikim by Israel and by Moshe” (Bamidbar Rabbah 16:5; Tanhuma, Sh’lach Lecha 4).

The Targum Yonatan renders, “Send forth, on your own volition, sharp-witted men…”. And the Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes that the final letters of “sh’lach lecha anashim” in Hebrew (“Send forth, on your own volition, men”) spell “chacham” (“wise man”) – “they were wise and righteous men”.

They seemed to have everything in their favour, and reading their initial report it is hard to find anything overtly wrong. Had the consequences not been so disastrous, we would not have found anything to criticize in their words. But given the consequences – disaster after disaster, year after year, century after century, on the ninth of Av, the day that they demoralized the nation – there was clearly something desperately wrong with their debriefing report.

The Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743) posits that there are two kinds of spying missions: tactical and strategic. Moshe had sent them on a tactical reconnaissance mission to determine technicalities – the weak points of the country’s defences, the easiest ways into the cities, and so forth. The spies changed their brief into a mission to decide on overall strategy – whether or not they had the military strength to conquer the Land, whether or not to embark on this conflict at all.

But they had no right to question this. G-d Himself had ordained that they conquer the Land, so all that was left to them was to decide how.

Their betrayal of their mission became clear as the arguments developed. Initially they gave a seemingly factual and favourable report: “We came to the Land to which you sent us and it indeed flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit” (Numbers 13:27).

So far so good. But they continued: “However – but the nation that dwells in the Land is powerful, and the cities are mightily fortified, and we also saw the children of the giant there. Amalek dwells in the south-land, and the Hittite and the Jebusite and the Amorite dwell on the mountain, and the Canaanite dwells by the sea and by the Jordan” (verses 28-29).

This clearly undermines the confidence of the spies’ audience. The enemy – they report – outnumber them, they control the flat Negev Desert, the coastal plain, the Jordan Valley, and the north-south mountain range between them.

This might conceivably still be a purely factual report. But at this juncture, Joshua and Caleb tried to infuse them with faith and hope and courage: “We can certainly ascend and inherit it! Because we can certainly overcome!” (verse 30).

And at that, the ten spies betray their real intentions: “We cannot go up against the nation because they are stronger than us” (verse 31).

Now they have unequivocally betrayed their brief and overstepped their authority.

Let us return to their earlier phrase, “However – but the nation that dwells in the Land is powerful…”. The word they use for “however” is “efes”, which literally means “zero, nothing”, as of to say: Nothing will help us, this is all worth nothing. The cantillation mark under the word “efes” is a “yetiv”, which indicates a break in the syntax (which we have tried to represent in English with the dash).

According to the great grammarian and lexicographer Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235) in his Sefer ha-Shorashim, “efes” connotes coming to an end, being eliminated, being destroyed (see how the word is used in Genesis 47:15, Isaiah 16:4, Psalms 77:9, et. al.). The spies were infusing the nation with the idea that attempting to conquer the Land would eliminate them all.

And then the spies compounded their message of doom and devastation: “The Land through which we passed to spy out is a Land that devours its inhabitants, and the entire nation that we saw in it are people of stature. And there we saw the Nephilim, the children of the giant from the Nephilim; we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and thus we were in their eyes” (Numbers 13:32-33).

They have abandoned all pretence. They saw themselves as insignificant insects, and the Canaanites therefore saw them as such as well. Their own self-image as worthless made them so timid that no one else could respect them; and so of course they had no spirit to fight.

But it didn’t stop there. As wise and righteous leaders of the nation, they had been infused with the understanding and belief that the Jewish nation represents G-d in this world. So if they were weak, then they extrapolated from this that G-d is weak; if they were unable to lead the nation to victory, then G-d is unable to lead the nation to victory.

Hence the intriguing rendering of verse 31. The standard understanding and simple meaning is “We cannot go up against the nation because they are stronger than us”. However the Talmud (Sotah 35a, Menachot 53b, Arachin 15a, Yerushalmi Ta’anit 4:5) and the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 16:11; Tanchuma, Sh’lach Lecha 7) give an alternative meaning: “mimenu” means not “than us” but “than Him”, hence: “We cannot go up against the nation because they are stronger than Him”.

(The Hebrew word “mimenu” is ambiguous, and can mean either.)

They began by spurning the Land of Israel, but very quickly degenerated into total heresy.

There is a crucial, if frightening, moral. As we have seen, these ten spies were not bad people or unbelieving Jews to start with. They were the elite of the elite, leaders among the one-fifth of Jews who had kept the faith in Egypt and had made it out alive. They were tzaddikim and they were wise. Yet they failed the test of the Land of Israel – utterly, miserably failed. And they dragged the entire nation down with them.

Had Chazal not said all this, we would not dare to say the words.

We look at our own generation – and we see great tzaddikim, talmidei chachamim, leaders of Torah who reject the Land of Israel. We see some of the greatest rabbis of the generation, geniuses who write such beautiful words of Torah, words dripping with precious wisdom…who remain in Britain, in the USA, in other lands of exile. Rabbis who in countless written pages, sermons, books, halakhic responsa, shiurim – have never once exhorted Jews to make aliyah, and certainly have never expressed even the slightest intention ever to make aliyah themselves.

Just as heinous: we have witnessed rabbis – far too many rabbis, both in Israel and in the exile, those who should be leaders of the generation, respected figures in Israel and in exile, rabbis who have the ear of Israeli leaders and of world leaders, rabbis who carry impressive titles and whose words carry great influence – who have publicly called on Israel to withdraw from our heartland.

The irony is glaring. The Torah records that the spies “ascended in the Negev, and he came to Hebron” (Numbers 13:22). Many translations render “…they came to Hevron”, but here the Hevrew is unequivocal: only one of them came to Hevron. That one was Caleb, who went to the Machpelah Cave, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, to pray for the moral strength to resist the influence of the other spies (Sotah 34b).

And today we see rabbis, ostensibly responsible men, leaders of the generation, tzaddikim, who deny that Israel has any right to Hevron, who yearn to see Hebron restored to its previous status of an Arab-occupied city, barred to all Jews.

As with the spies, so today. Of course the spies were tzaddikim, great men, wise men – but they made fools of themselves – worse, they made heretics of themselves – by rejecting the Land of Israel and dragging the rest of the nation into their rejection.

The original heresy of the Reform movement was not rejecting Torah; rather it was rejecting the notion of a Jewish nation. The inevitable result of that was rejecting the Land of Israel. The Reform movement expressed this directly in the Pittsburgh Platform (1885): “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state”.

The original heresy of Neturei Karta was rejecting the redemption, and the inevitable result of that has been the same heresy as the Reform movement. Consider these words from the supposedly “ultra-Orthodox rabbi” Dovid Feldman of Neturei Karta International at the International Al-Quds Day Rally, August 17, 2012, in Los Angeles, California: “Judaism is a religion, not nationalism, nothing to do with political inspirations or interests. We have practiced our religion for thousands of years without a country and without military power”.

The Neturei Karta website  asserts unequivocally that “Judaism is totally opposed to nationalism”. As if Joshua who led us into the Land and fought for Jewish sovereignty, the Maccabees who fought the Hellenists to restore Jewish independence and sovereignty, Rabbi Akiva who fought the Roman Empire to restore Jewish national sovereignty, the Rambam who includes establishing a Jewish kingdom as a mitzvah (Laws of Kings 1:1), and the Ramban who sees the Torah commandment to “inherit the Land and to settle in it” (Numbers 33:53) as a positive mitzvah (Commentary ad. loc.), a command to conquer the Land, were all opposed to Judaism!

As with the spies, so today. Those who begin by rejecting the Land of Israel swiftly regress into outright heresy.

The spies’ legacy is still alive and sick and infecting parts of the Jewish nation, desperately trying to prevent our national return to our homeland. The great Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal Hy”d, born in Hungary in 1885, was educated in the virulently anti-Zionist milieu of pre-Shoah European hareidi society. The Shoah showed him the terrible error of the Haredi establishment, and while in hiding from the Nazis he wrote Eim HaBanim Semeichah (“A Joyous Mother of Children”, from Psalms 113:9), arguing passionately in favour of the return to Zion.

(A book well worth reading, translated into English by Moshe Lichtman, it is particularly impressive that Rabbi Teichtal wrote almost entirely from memory while on the run; he clearly had an encyclopaedic knowledge of our sources, from Talmud and Midrashim to some totally obscure works. Rabbi Teichtal was murdered by the Nazis on a train on his way to the Mauthausen concentration camp on 10th Shevat 5705/January 24, 1945.)

In Chapter 4, Rabbi Teichtal writes: “Our tzaddikim are certainly no more righteous or learned than the spies were… Therefore, my friends and brothers, do not pay any attention to those who slander the Land, even if they are truly righteous. For…the brilliant mentor of the Land of Israel, Rabbi Chayim Sonnenfeld z”l, derived…that even tzaddikim can be spies. Realise that all those who oppose aliyah and the building and resettlement of the Land belong to the camp of the spies. But all those who choose aliyah belong to Joshua and Caleb’s camp”.

This then is the litmus test, the check whose results cannot be faked. Any Jew who opposes Jewish return to the Land of Israel, or who yearns for the Land of Israel to be given over to the enemies of Israel – even though he be the most religious, the most devout, and the wisest of Jews – is of the camp of the spies.

For close on 2,000 years the issue of the Land of Israel was theoretical. But we live in a generation of return to the Land of Israel. And this gives us the awesome privilege of being able to decide to reject the gloomy defeatism of the spies, to reject the heresy that our enemies in Israel are stronger than G-d, and to join the camp of Joshua and Caleb and to connect with the Land of Israel and with G-d’s redemption.