Torah scroll
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Do you know who the ten spies were? Do you know how they made such a terrible mistake? Yo you think maybe they were fools, or that they lacked faith in G-d? That they didn’t know that G-d Himself protects Israel, so the physical power and size of the Canaanites was less relevant to Israel’s destiny than last year’s rainfall in Spain? That they didn’t know enough Torah?

Think again.

“They were all men – they were leaders of the Children of Israel” (Numbers 13:3). “They were all sharp-witted men” (Targum Yonatan ad loc.), and “whenever the Tanach uses the word אֲנָשִׁים (men) it indicates important men, and at the time they were all worthy” (Rashi).

“They were mighty men” (S’forno), otherwise Moshe wouldn’t have chosen them. The Ba’al ha-Turim notes that the three words שְׁלַח לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים (“send for yourself men”), with which G-d’s charge to Moshe begins, end with the letters חכם (“wise”): “Ensure that they are wise and righteous”.

All these commentators base their comments on the Midrash. “Whenever it says אֲנָשִׁים (men), they are righteous men… You call these men fools? – They were called fools solely because they slandered the Land of Israel… They were righteous both according to Israel and according to Moshe” (Bamidbar Rabbah 16:5).

Many of our commentators have grappled with the puzzle of what caused the spies to go so directly against G-d even despite their righteousness and wisdom, and how they managed to plunge the nation into such heresy and sin.

Maybe they believed that the generation was not on a sufficiently high spiritual level to merit Divine intervention.

Maybe because in the desert they were national leaders, their fear of losing that status in the Land of Israel caused them [subconsciously] to sabotage the entry into the Land.

Maybe they reasoned that entering and possessing the Land would inevitably involve warfare, that people would therefore die, and that pikuach nefesh (saving lives) over-rides all the mitzvot – including the mitzvah of living in Israel.

Maybe they saw the incredibly high spiritual level which the Nation of Israel lived on in the desert, nestled in the Clouds of Glory, with no responsibilities other than Torah, and they feared that all the mundane responsibilities which inevitably come with national sovereign independence would bring the people down. After all, a farmer who has to work the land, a smith who has to work his bellows and forge, a soldier who has to guard the country, cannot devote his entire time to Torah.

And these arguments may well have sounded convincing…at least, to themselves.

They even answered Moshe’s questions precisely. He had dispatched them on their reconnaissance mission along a specific route:

“Ascend by way of the Negev, then ascend into the mountain-region” (Numbers 13:17).

This is a sensible reconnaissance route: begin through the lowlands of the Negev Desert – the natural route into Israel from the south, which invading armies have followed from Biblical times up to the Six Day War of 1967, the flat coastal plain and desert-land in Israel’s south, leading to Beer Sheva.

Then check out the mountain range which runs south-north along more than half the length of Israel, from Beer Sheva in the Negev Desert up to the Galilee in the north (with Jerusalem half-way along) – the easiest route to traverse the Land.

And then Moshe briefs them on the intelligence information he wants:

“See the Land – what is it? And the nation which dwells on it – is it strong, is it weak? Is it few or numerous? And what is the Land like in which it dwells – is it good or bad? And what are cities like within which it dwells – are they open or walled? And what is the Land like – is it lush or sparse? Does it have trees or not? Strengthen yourselves, and take of the fruit of the Land” (Numbers 13:17-20).

Note the seven questions that Moshe asks:

What kind of a Land is it? Implying – is it the sort of country whose climate and geography produce strong or weak inhabitants, few or numerous population? (Rashi, Ohr ha-Chayim); or what is its general topography? (Rashbam, Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, Ohr ha-Chayim).

The nation which we will have to conquer – is it strong or weak?

Is this nation few or numerous?

Is the Land itself for which we will fight good or bad?

Are the cities open or walled?

Is the Land lush or sparse?

Does it have trees or not?

And the spies’ report seems to answer Moshe’s questions:

We came to the Land to which you sent us, and it is indeed a Land flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However – the nation that dwells in the Land is mighty, and the cities are very greatly fortified; and we also saw the children of the giants there. Amalek dwells in the Negev-land, the Hittites and Jebusites and the Amorites dwell in the mountain-region, and the Canaanites dwell by the sea and along the River Jordan” (vs. 27-29).

So what exactly was their sin? Didn’t they do exactly as Moshe had briefed them? They went to Canaan, they traversed the Land exactly on the route he had told them, they returned with samples of its fruits, and they reported on what they saw. Facts, no more.

Yet the Torah is unequivocal that “they slandered the Land” (v. 32).

Many of our commentators note the word they used: “אֶפֶס, however – the nation that dwells in the Land is mighty…”; and then comes their litany of fear-inducing reports.

The word אֶפֶס literally means “nothing”, as though they are saying: Yes, the Land is wonderful, with magnificent fruits – but that’s worth nothing, because we’re not strong enough to conquer it. We’ll die trying!

The Ramban analyses: “They spoke the truth in everything, and answered all that they were ordered… But their evil was in the word אֶפֶס (nothing), which connotes negation, something which man cannot achieve, which is impossible under any circumstances… See, they said to him: The Land is lush, it indeed flows with milk and honey, and its fruits are good – but it is impossible to reach them because the [enemy] nation is mighty, and the cities are very greatly fortified, and we also saw the children of the giants there” (commentary to v. 27).

Rabbi Yitzchak Arama (15th century Spain) offers the example of a cloth-merchant who sent his agent to examine stock, to check its quality, appearance, colour, and price, and report back.

If the agent returns and reports that the wool is pure, it is of such-and-such dimensions long and wide, red-green in colour, and costs 100 gold dinars, then he has faithfully fulfilled his employer’s mission.

But if he returns and reports that the wool is pure, it is of such-and-such dimensions long and wide, red-green in colour, but it is very expensively priced at 100 gold dinars, then he has not fulfilled his mission faithfully: he hasn’t reported objectively, he has infused his own subjective interpretation into his report and manipulated his hearer’s perception.

This is what the ten spies did. That one little word אֶפֶס, “nothing”, betrayed their motives.

The Talmud quotes Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, who said: “The spies’ sole intention was to disgrace the Land. They are described as men ‘who will וְיַחְפְּרוּ (spy out) the Land for us’ (Deuteronomy 1:22), and elsewhere it is written, ‘Then the moon will be וְחָפְרָה (disgraced) and the sun will be ashamed’ (Isaiah 24:23)” (Sotah 34b).

Now the ten spies might have genuinely believed that what they were doing was for the good of the Jewish people; that they loved this Land, which they had described as “indeed flowing with milk and honey”; that they believed in G-d and that they were doing His will.

Such is the power of human self-deception; what in modern psychology calls cognitive dissonance.

The spies knew perfectly well that G-d Himself had quite recently told the entire nations that “I am Hashem your G-d, Who took you out from the land of Egypt to give you the Land of Canaan, to be your G-d” (Leviticus 25:38). The obvious inference being that, since G-d gave us the Land of Israel to be our G-d, He is not the G-d of any Jew who rejects the Land of Israel.

They knew that Jewish history had begun with G-d commanding our father Abraham to leave his homeland and family’s house and to come to Israel, and that only in Israel would G-d make him “a great nation”, only in Israel would G-d bless him and make his name great (Genesis 12:1-2).

They were fully aware that G-d had promised the Patriarchs that the Jews would be exiled, and that after the exile He would return them to the Land of Israel to live as a free nation, sovereign in its homeland (Genesis 15:13-20, 46:3-4 et al.).

They knew that Moshe’s mission to rescue the Jews from Egyptian slavery had begun with G-d telling him at the Burning Bush, “I will come down to save [the Jewish nation] from the hand of Egypt, and to bring it up from that land to a good and spacious Land, to a Land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivvite and the Jebusite” (Exodus 3:8).

They had heard G-d’s promises and warnings just a couple of months earlier, that the major component of His reward for obeying His Torah would be dwelling peacefully and securely in the Land of Israel, and His punishment for rejecting His Torah would be foreign occupation of the Land of Israel, followed by exile form the Land, and that the Land itself would be devastated and fall into ruin (Leviticus 26).

When they warned the nation that “Amalek dwells in the Negev-land, the Hittites and Jebusites and the Amorites dwell in the mountain-region, and the Canaanites dwell by the sea and along the River Jordan” – whom did they think they were threatening?

After all, Amalek had already encountered and attacked in Rephidim more than a year previously, and they had roundly defeated Amalek (Exodus 17:8-13). Amalek should have held no particular terrors.

And G-d had long-since told the entire nation that He would bequeath them the Land of the Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites (Genesis 15:18-21, Exodus 3:8, 13:5, 23:23, 34:11, et al.).

Yet the ten spies threatened the Children of Israel with Amalek, the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Amorites, and the Canaanites if they dared enter their Land to possess it.

It becomes obvious to any objective observer that these ten spies were deeply dishonest. Even if (and it’s a big “if”) they successfully deceived themselves, their [subconscious?] intention, right from the start, was to disgrace the Land (as Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba had said).

Is this fanciful?

– Ask any Rabbi, or any other Jewish leader, who today lives in the USA, in Britain, in France, in any other country of our exile, and who actively discourages Aliyah. To be sure, there are Jews in exile who have valid reasons for not making Aliyah (at least at the present time). But having said this, excuses are legion.

But actually, the [subconscious?] motivation is the same as that of the spies’. Rabbis in exile have large and wealthy congregations to minister to, they have important roles to fulfil; in Israel, they would suddenly become far less significant.

But G-d Himself told us, over and over again, that He is our G-d when we live in Israel. That “a Jew must always live in the Land of Israel, even in a city whose majority are idolaters, and not live outside of the Land, even in a city whose majority are Jews; because anyone who resides in the Land of Israel is akin to one who has a G-d, and anyone who lives outside of the Land is akin to one who has no G-d… Anyone who lives outside of the Land is as if he worships idolatry” (Ketuvot 110b, cited as actual halakhah in practice by the Rambam, Laws of Kings 5:12).

For a Jew to reject the Land of Israel is equivalent to rejecting the entire Torah and even rejecting G-d Himself.

When Caleb saw how his colleagues were slandering the good Land and betraying their mission, indeed betraying the trust that Moshe had placed in them, he immediately attempted to silence them:

“Caleb silenced the nation towards Moshe, saying: We can assuredly ascend and inherit it, because we can certainly overcome it” (Numbers 13:30).

The word וַיַּהַס (“silenced”) is unusual: indeed this is the sole time that it appears in this form in the entire Tanach. And there is a peculiarity in the way that it is written: the ס (samech) is written larger than the other letters (in Masoretic nomenclature, samech rabbati): וַיַּהַס.


– I have not found any of our commentators who address this. But I would suggest looking for the answer in the only other samech rabbati in the Tanach:

סוֹף דָּבָר הַכֹּל נִשְׁמָע: אֶת הָאֱלֹקִים יְרָא וְאֶת מִצְוֹתָיו שְׁמוֹר, כִּי זֶה כָּל הָאָדָם:

“The end of the matter, everything having been heard: Fear G-d and keep His commandments, because that is all there is to man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

So too with the whole sorry episode of the spies. The end of the matter, everything having been heard: Fear G-d, keep His commandments, and make Aliyah and live in Israel, because that is the whole Torah.