Shlach (Israel): The beginning of the end

Part of the suffering that we as a nation have to undergo in order to inherit and acquire the Land of Israel is to understand and to learn the meaning of freedom and its corollary, responsibility.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

A first reading of the text of the Torah suggests that the idea of sending forth twelve spies to check the Land of Israel before conquering it came from G-d: “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Send for yourself men, that they will spy out the Land of Canaan which I give to the Children of Israel” (Numbers 13:1).

But this understanding is superficial and mistaken.

Some 39 years later, when Moshe recalled these events, he reminded the nation of certain details which the Torah did not mention in Parashat Shelach Lecha: “...We came to Kadesh Barnea, and I said to you: You have come to Amorite mountain, which Hashem our G-d gives us. Behold – Hashem your G-d has given the Land before you! Go up, inherit it... Then you approached me – all of you! – and you said: Let’s send men ahead of us, and let them spy out the Land... The idea seemed good to me, so I selected from you twelve men, one man per Tribe” (Deuteronomy 1:19-23).

According to what Moshe said, then, the idea of despatching the twelve spies on their mission came not from G-d, not from Moshe, but from the masses of the Children of Israel.

Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish), one of the greatest of the first-generation (3rd century) Amoraim in Israel, expounded on the seemingly superfluous word לְךָ (for yourself) in the phrase שְׁלַח לְךָ (which we have translated above as “Send for yourself...”). “לְךָ – for yourself – on your own initiative” (Sotah 34b).

Or, as Eliyahu Rabbah 27 expands upon this, “G-d said to Moshe: Moshe! Send for yourself men. Send for yourself – on your own initiative and not on My initiative. Send for yourself – you need this mission, I do not need it. You need to spy out, I do not need to spy out”.

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 16:1) offers some rather harsh insights into Moshe’s decision to send the spies, as well as into the spies’ characters. They were wicked, in contrast with the two spies whom Joshua despatched to Jericho prior to conquering that city 39-and-a-half years later (which is the subject of the Haftarah, Joshua 2:1-24).

The Midrash (ibid. 16:2) continues by citing the verse, “the stout-hearted were without sense, they slept their sleep” (Psalms 76:6), and expounds: “‘Without sense’ – these are Moshe and Aaron who sent the spies, and they came and slandered the Land. They [Moshe and Aaron] didn’t know what to do – even Moshe and Aaron were left helpless... Why was [their situation] so bad? – Because they sent forth fools. As King Solomon said, ‘One who sends a message by the hand of a fool cuts off his own feet and drinks violence’ (Proverbs 26:6)”.

And the Midrash (ibid. 16:4) further continues by admonishing that Moshe should have realised from the start that these spies were unworthy of this mission, that they would lead the nation into disaster. The Midrash offers a parable: “This is like a rich man who owned a vineyard. When he would see that the wine was good he would say, ‘Bring the wine into my house’. And when he would see that he wine was sour he would say, ‘Bring the wine into your houses’. This is exactly what G-d did: when he saw that the Elders’ deeds were worthy He called them by His own Name, as it says ‘Gather to Me seventy men’ (Numbers 11:16); and when He saw the spies who were later going to sin, He called them by Moshe’s name, saying ‘Send for yourself men’”.

And yet again: The Midrash (ibid. 16:6) notes that the episode of the spies follows immediately after the episode in which Miriam was stricken with tzara’at (frequently mistranslated as “leprosy”) for slandering her brother Moshe (Numbers 12, with which Parashat Beha’alot’cha concluded last week). Expounds the Midrash: “Why did the Torah see fit to write ‘Send for yourself men’ immediately after the episode of Miriam? – Because G-d already foresaw that they would slander the Land. G-d said: They will not be able to say ‘We couldn’t have known the punishment for slander... G-d placed these two incidents the one immediately after the other – because Miriam spoke against her brother she was stricken with tzara’at, so that everyone would know the punishment for slander... Nevertheless the spies did not want to learn”.

And even more: “When they said to Moshe, ‘Let’s send men ahead of us’, Moshe began to have doubts. He said: Am I able to do anything without permission from G-d? He went and asked for permission, saying to Him: Your children are asking for such-and-such. G-d said to him: This is not their first time! Even while they were still in Egypt they mocked Me, as it says ‘This was their mocking in the land of Egypt’ (Hosea 7:16). They are already in the habit of doing this, which is why I have no need to test them... G-d said to Moshe: I know what they are – but since you ask, send for yourself men – for yourself. How do we know this? – Because it is written, ‘...these are the names of the men whom Moshe [Moshe, not G-d] sent to spy’ (Numbers 13:16)” (Bamidbar Rabbah 16:8).

I add here another observation, based on a somewhat abstruse grammatical anomaly. When G-d permitted Moshe to send the twelve spies, He used the words, “one man from each of his father’s Tribe you shall send” (Numbers 13:2). The word G-d uses here is תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ, “you shall send”. However, the verb should be vowellised תִּשְׁלְחוּ, with a shva under the lammed.

Why the change in vowel, from a shva to a kamatz?

– The form תִּשְׁלָחוּ (with a kamatz) is the form which grammatically appears at the end of a sentence or a phrase – that is to say, if it is the final word of a verse, or if its cantillation-mark is either an etnachta (אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א) or a zakef-gadol (זָקֵף-גָּד֕וֹל). But it is written here with a zakef-katon (זָקֵף-קָטֹ֔ן), which grammatically should not shift the vowel from a shva to a kamatz.

It is as though G-d was hinting to Moshe: If you want to send forth spies, then indeed תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ, “you shall send” – but know that for you, this will be the equivalent to the end of the sentence. Though this תִּשְׁלָחוּ is in the middle of the sentence, for you it is the end of the sentence. A period. A full-stop. Because of this terrible error of judgement, this entire generation will die in the desert. You, Moshe, will never merit to enter the Land of Israel.

With all this, we can be justified in asking: How in the world did Moshe commit this horrendous error, this fatal and fateful error? And how did G-d allow Moshe to go ahead and commit it?

A year and ten weeks earlier, G-d had taken the Children of Israel out of Egypt, delivering them from slavery “to eternal freedom” (as the Siddur expresses it in the Evening Service). And freedom, by its very definition, means the freedom to choose between bad and good, the freedom to choose between foolishness and wisdom, the freedom to make mistakes.

As some of our greatest philosophers have posited, reward and punishment are only appropriate and relevant for people who have free will (see for example the Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed Part 3 Chapter 17, and Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi in the Kuzari, Fifth Essay, 38-53). Without freedom, without free will, humans are merely automatons, incapable of choosing between bad and good, incapable of feeling remorse and subsequently repenting.

And G-d never intended us to be automatons, following a pre-programmed course without free will: for that, He has angels, inanimate objects, and the blind forces of nature. The very definition of human, created in the image of G-d, is having free will.

When Nitai the Arbelite admonished, “Distance yourself from an evil neighbour, and don’t join with evil, and don’t despair because of punishment” (Pirkei Avot 1:7), he made this point succinctly and powerfully. As an autonomous human, with the power of understanding good and bad, you have the freedom to choose whom to join with.

And if you make the wrong decision and are punished for it – don’t despair! The very fact of being punished simply proves that you have free will!

So now, a year and ten weeks after leaving Egypt, G-d gave us a tremendous lesson in free will. You are no longer a nation of slaves: you are now responsible for your own decisions – both for good and for bad.

Education can be painful – but it is the only way to progress, both for the individual and for the nation. Of course every parent has gone through the wrenching experience of watching a loved son or daughter make bad choices and potentially harmful mistakes – and of course every parent has to know when to intervene and when to allow the child to make his own mistakes, to suffer the consequences, and to learn from them.

As our Sages have told us in several different places in several different contexts (Berachot 5a; Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Yitro, Massechta de-Bachodesh 10; Sifrei Deuteronomy, Va’et’chanan 32, among others), the three most precious things can be acquired only through suffering for them – the Torah, the World to Come, and the Land of Israel.

And no doubt, part of the suffering that we as a nation have to undergo in order to inherit and acquire the Land of Israel is to understand and to learn the meaning of freedom and its corollary, responsibility. For after all, without a sense of responsibility, how can a nation be worthy of freedom?

So maybe the sin of the spies and its consequences were our Father’s way of telling Moshe and the nation as a whole: You have left slavery, you are now a free and mature and responsible nation. You must make your own decisions, you are free to make your own mistakes – just as you are free to achieve the greatness that I have intended for you.

And our generations, the generations of the final redemption, the generations which are currently making Jewish history by rebuilding Jewish national life in our ancestral homeland – ours are the generations of freedom, the generations which, for the first time in 2,000 years, are taking national responsibility for our actions.

We are the generation which has this blessed freedom and responsibility.

So will we live up to G-d’s expectations? Or will we disappoint, as our ancestors did in the desert 3,327 years ago?

– The choice is ours to make. But at least we have one insuperable advantage over the generation of the spies: we have an extra 3,327 years of experience to draw on. We know what our ancestors on that day did not know: how their story ended.