Jordan River
Jordan River Flash 90

It is just the tiniest, subtlest hint that something was going to go terribly wrong. A hint so gentle that Moshe could be forgiven for missing it:

“Send forth for yourself men who will spy out the Land of Canaan which I give to the Children of Israel; one man, one man of each father’s Tribe you shall send, each one a leader of them” (Numbers 13:2).

And the verb which G-d used for “you shall send” is תִּשְׁלָחוּ, which is unexpected for two reasons.

First, G-d was talking to Moshe alone (according to the simple reading of the text); hence He should have used the singular form תִּשְׁלַח, “you [singular] shall send”; instead He uses the plural תִּשְׁלָחוּ, “you [plural] shall send”.

So who exactly was G-d addressing with the plural תִּשְׁלָחוּ?

– We will find this out thirty-eight-and-a-half years later, in another 6 parashot, Parashat D’varim, when Moshe Rabbeinu (our Master) will recall those events to a generation later:

You approached me – all of you – and you said: Let’s send men ahead of us, who will spy out the Land for us… It seemed like a good idea to me, so I took twelve men, one man per Tribe” (Deuteronomy 1:22-23).

Since the initiative to send the twelve spies originated with the masses of the nation, it would appear that G-d’s command תִּשְׁלָחוּ, “you [plural] shall send” was addressed to the nation as a whole, not just to Moshe alone.

Nevertheless, this grammatical form is out of place: The imperative should be תִּשְׁלְחוּ, with a sh’va under the lammèd, not תִּשְׁלָחוּ with a kamatz under the lammèd.

A tiny and subtle difference indeed; but this is, after all, the Torah, and every word, every letter, every vowel, has infinite meaning. What, then, is the difference between תִּשְׁלְחוּ and תִּשְׁלָחוּ?

The usual form is indeed תִּשְׁלְחוּ. But Hebrew has a grammatical rule called צוּרוֹת מִשְׁתַּנּוֹת, literally “changing forms”, according to which the final stressed vowel of a phrase or sentence is lengthened; just as the name פֶּרֶץ (Peretz) becomes פָּרֶץ at the end of a sentence (cf. Genesis 38:29 & 46:12); just as מִצְרַיִם becomes מִצְרָיִם at the end of a sentence (cf. Genesis 15:18 & 21:21). In the same way, changes from תִּשְׁלְחוּ to תִּשְׁלָחוּ at the end of a sentence.

This rule applies in three cases:

A סוֹף-פָּסֽוּק (end-of-a-sentence), equivalent to the full-stop in English;

An אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א, indicating the end of a phrase, approximately equivalent to the semi-colon in English;

A זָקֵף-גָּד֕וֹל, a pause slightly less than the semi-colon, also the end of a phrase.

But in our verse, the verb תִּשְׁלָחוּ appears with a זָקֵף-קָטֹ֔ן, which is less of a break than either the אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א or a זָקֵף-גָּד֕וֹל. It is approximately equivalent to the comma in English:

אִ֣ישׁ אֶחָד֩ אִ֨ישׁ אֶחָ֜ד לְמַטֵּ֤ה אֲבֹתָיו֙ תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ כֹּ֖ל נָשִׂ֥יא בָהֶֽם׃

“...one man, one man of each Tribe you shall send, each one a leader of them”.

So why did G-d command Moshe to send forth the spies with the verb-form תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ, connoting the end of a phrase or the end of a sentence, instead of the grammatically-correct תִּשְׁלְחוּ?

I have not found any of our commentators who address this. And so, I suggest: –

Even though this imperative תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ appears in the middle of a phrase, G-d was ever-so-subtly hinting to Moshe and the Children of Israel that the consequences were to be a סוֹף-פָּסֽוּק, an end-of-a-sentence, for all the men aged twenty to sixty, who were to die in the desert; and – in the best case – an אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א, a pause, a break, for the others, who would have a thirty-eight-and-a-half year delay on their journey to Israel.

If there was to be any hope, it came from the only two of the spies who remained faithful to Moshe, to G-d, and to their mission: Calev son of Yeffuneh, the emissary of the Judah, and Hoshea bin Nun, emissary of the Tribe of Ephraim.

When the other ten spies incited the nation and demoralised them, it was these two who attempted to encourage the nation. They failed – but they tried, they even risked their lives in their attempt.

In recording the spies’ names, it hints – again with exquisite subtlety – to Hoshea bin Nun’s unique character:

Most of the twelve names it records in the same way:

לְמַטֵּ֣ה רְאוּבֵ֔ן שַׁמּ֖וּעַ בֶּן־זַכּֽוּר׃

“From the Tribe of Judah – Shamua son of Zakkur”: the זָקֵף-קָטֹ֔ן above the name רְאוּבֵ֔ן indicates a break, which I attempt to convey with the dash.

The same with almost all the names:

לְמַטֵּ֣ה שִׁמְע֔וֹן שָׁפָ֖ט בֶּן־חוֹרִֽי׃

“From the Tribe of Simeon – Shafat son of Huri” – again, the זָקֵף-קָטֹ֔ן above the name שִׁמְע֔וֹן.

Ephraim is the sole exception:

לְמַטֵּ֥ה אֶפְרָ֖יִם הוֹשֵׁ֥עַ בִּן־נֽוּן׃

“For the Tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea bin Nun”. The notes are different, and indicate a closer connexion between Ephraim and his Tribe than there was between the other spies and their respective Tribes.

What was special about the Tribe of Ephraim was their exceptionally close devotion to the Land of Israel.

Thirty years before the Exodus, a vast contingent of Ephraimites left Egypt ahead of schedule, because they had miscalculated the end-time for Egyptian exile.

They knew that G-d had long-since told Abraham that his descendants would be in exile for 400 years (Genesis 15:13), and they mistakenly thought that the 400-year countdown began on the day that G-d told this to Abraham. Actually it began 30 years later, with the birth of Isaac.

And so, when they mistakenly thought the time for redemption had come, they left Egypt and travelled to Israel (Sanhedrin 92b, Targum Psalms 78:9, et al.). Different sources give different numbers for this contingent of Ephraimites, ranging from 200,000 (Targum Yonatan to Exodus 13:17, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 48) to 300,000 (Shemot Rabbah 20:11).

As the Tribe of Royalty, descended from Joseph, Viceroy of Egypt, they had national pride. Armed with spears and shields, they defiantly left Egypt and traversed the Sinai Desert. But when they reached Gaza, the Philistines slaughtered them all.

Though this was their punishment for leaving Egypt ahead of G-d’s schedule, G-d nevertheless determined to avenge their blood:

“He took the blood of the sons of Ephraim and steeped His garments in it, so to speak, as it says ‘Why are your garments red?’ (Isaiah 63:2). G-d said: I will not be comforted until I will have avenged the vengeance of the sons of Ephraim, as it says ‘And G-d was not comforted’ (Exodus 13:17)” (Shemot Rabbah 20:11).

This last quote from Exodus is somewhat cryptic: The text reads, “And G-d did not lead them [the Children of Israel] by way of the Philistines” (Exodus 13:17). The Midrash offers an allegorical meaning to the word נָחָם:

The plain meaning of נָחָם is “He led them”, hence the standard translation “G-d did not lead them by way of the Philistines”.

However, by understanding the word נָחָם to mean “be comforted”, the Midrash renders this verse: “G-d was not comforted along the way of the Philistines”.

Such was the Tribe of Ephraim: they were the most determined of all the Tribes to return home to Israel, even when it meant defying all the other Tribes in their interpretation of G-d’s Covenant.

This was the Tribe from which Hoshea bin Nun sprouted, this was the Tribe with which he had an exceptionally close connexion.

So it is little wonder that some thirty-eight-and-a-half years later, when the next generation finally reached the threshold of the Land of Israel, it was Hoshea bin Nun, long-since renamed Yehoshua (Joshua), who led the Children of Israel across the River Jordan and into their Land.