The mid-summer sun was beating down mercilessly on the Negev Desert. Even the lizards and scorpions sought the shade of rocks. It was even hotter that it had been forty days earlier, when the same twelve men had traversed this path on their northwards into Canaan.
How they longed for the shade and protection of the Clouds of Glory where the day was always pleasantly cool, instead of this fierce furnace-like scorching heat!
Forty days since Moshe had dispatched them on their mission – their sacred trust to reconnoitre the Land of their Fathers, and then return to the Camp of Israel and report their findings to Moshe, and to prepare the nation for its future.
Shammua son of Zaccur, representative of the Tribe of Reuben, had taken the lead from the start. He had argued (perhaps reasonably) that as firstborn of the Tribes, he was their natural leader. He had, indeed, done a good job of leading them as Moshe had instructed them.
From the Paran Desert they had entered the Land of Israel into the Negev Desert, then travelled northwards towards Beer Sheva. They had thrilled at seeing those places which they had all heard about since birth, in the stories of their family history which had been passed down from generation to generation:
How their great-great-great-great-grandparents Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had all pitched their tents in Beer Sheva, watered their flocks there, preached the Word of G-d to an idolatrous Canaanite population.
From Beer Sheva they had continued northwards, along the mountain-range in the centre of the Land, reaching Shechem.
The founders of their family had dwelt in Shechem pastured their flocks there, defended their family honour there. Indeed that was the reason that the flag of the Tribe of Shimon was green, with a picture of Shechem on it.
They had, as instructed by Moshe, taken careful note of the lie of the Land, the kinds of people who lived on it, how their cities were built, what the fruits were like, even how the trees grew.
They had all been inspired beyond belief to walk the holy soil of the Land of Israel, to drink of its waters, to eat of its fruits. But now…
…but now they had completed their 40-day reconnoitre, and they were heading back to the Israelite Camp in the Paran Desert.
At midday the desert was once again unbearably hot. They found some sparse shelter from the fierce glowing sun under some overhanging rocks, under which a small rivulet of water flowed: one of the very few in this barren landscape.
“Let’s get back to our Camp, already”, said Yigal son of Yosef, representative of the Tribe of Issachar. “This water is stale and putrid. None of the water from any of the wells or streams in Canaan could even begin to compare with the pure waters of the miraculous Well of Miriam. Now that’s something we’ve really missed since entering Canaan”.
“He’s right”, agreed Palti son of Rafu, representative of the Tribe of Benjamin. “It’s something we’ll all miss if we enter this Land permanently”.
There was a murmur of general agreement. Yehoshua and Calev began to have serious misgivings about where this was heading.
“And what about the fruits?” added Gadi’el ben Sodi, representative of the Tribe of Zebulon. “I mean, sure they’re tasty, but they can’t really compete with the Manna.”
Again, a murmur of general agreement.
Yehoshua drew himself to his full height, and addressed the others: “We always knew that the protection of the Clouds of Glory, the Manna, Miriam’s Well – these were always supposed to be temporary. They’re not meant to be forever. We’re supposed to build natural lives in our Homeland.”
Calev nodded – but from the others there was only apathy.
As usual, Shammua son of Zaccur, representative of the Tribe of Reuben, took control effortlessly. “We were given a clear charge by Moshe, to scout out the land and see if we could and should take it.”
Calev leapt up, outraged: “No! There’s no ‘if’ about it! Moshe didn’t’ send us here to see ‘if’ we should conquer our Land, only how to! What’s the best and most effective way? That’s the only question we have to answer!”
Shammua held up his arms for quiet. “What’s important is that we present a united front to Moshe and the people. Let’s agree on a consensus that we can all present this evening when we get back.”
“It’s very clear”. It was Ammiel ben G’mali, representative of the Tribe of Dan. “We’ve been out of the shade and protection of the Clouds of Glory for just forty days, and we’re all sunburnt. We’ve been eating regular food instead of Manna for forty days, and we can barely digest it. We’ve been drinking ordinary river- and lake-water for forty days, and we all agree that after the water of Miriam’s miraculous Well, it’s barely potable.
“The people just won’t be able to survive here in this country. That should be clear to us. We’re clearly better off in the desert where we have our comfortable lives, the shade of the Clouds of Glory, the sacred waters of Miriam’s Well to drink, and the Manna to eat.”
Nachbi son of Vofsi, representative of the Tribe of Naphtali, arose. “I’m not sure that that’s the biggest problem,” he began. “The real problem is that we’ll have to fight. We all saw the Nephilim, the giants, and the Amalekites. The people, our people, just aren’t ready to fight them. They’ll be slaughtered. It’s a matter of pikuach nefesh [saving lives]: Do you want your sons to be conscripted into an Army where they’ll have to lift swords, bows-and-arrows, and spears? Where they’ll have to kill or be killed? What kind of a life is that? We’re obviously better off in the desert where we’re protected from our enemies.”
“If I might add” – it was Shafat son of Chori, representative of the Tribe of Shimon – “in the desert we can devote our entire lives to studying Torah. We have no distractions, we don’t have to work for a living, we don’t have to till the land, we have no fields to furrow and irrigate or crops to harvest. We’ll have to do all that, and fight the Canaanites and Philistines and Amalekites and Nephilim at the same time.
“We won’t have any time left to devote to our Torah-learning if we’re in Israel. That’s not what we’re about. We’re obviously better off in the desert where Hashem provides us with everything for free.”
“Just a moment,” protested Yehoshua, “Hashem Himself commanded us to enter the Land of Israel and possess it. You don’t think that He can’t protect us in the Land? That He doesn’t know all these issues? Hashem Himself has commanded us to live in the Land of Israel, to sow and till the land, to eat of its fruits! All the Mitzvot He has given us over the past year – Shmitta and Yovel and tithes, Cities of Refuge – we can only do these in the Land of Israel!”
“Of course these Mitzvot have their time and place.” It was Ge’u’el son of Machi, representative of the Tribe of Gad. “But remember, as long as there’s no Holy Temple, as long as Mashiach hasn’t come, there’s absolutely no Mitzvah to live in the Land of Israel. We don’t even have a regular king! How can we possibly build a national life in the Land of Israel? For sure, the time will come when we will be able to, but until then, we’re obviously better off in the desert.”
“He’s right”, said Gadi son of Susi, representative of the Tribe of Menashe. As long as we have no Holy Temple and no Mashiach, Israel is as much exile as the desert. Indeed without Holy Temple and Mashiach, Israel is even deeper and darker exile than Egypt ever was.”
“To sum up”, declaimed Shammua son of Zaccur, representative of the Tribe of Reuben, “we are all agreed. The nation is not yet ready to enter the Land of Israel. They’ll have to fight wars, which is clearly not what Hashem wants His nation to do. They’ll have to abandon Torah to work the land, plant fields, harvest crops, and so on, which is clearly not what Hashem wants His nation to do.
“We’re all better off, far better off, in the desert, without any distractions. Maybe one day when there is a Holy Temple in the Land, after Mashiach will have come, there will indeed be a time for us to enter the Land of Israel and possess it. But until then, we’re clearly better off remaining in the desert.”
Yehoshua and Calev looked at each other in uncomprehending horror.
“Can you imagine how Moshe our Master will feel when he hears this?” asked Yehoshua.
“I’d rather not”, muttered Calev. “He’ll be devastated. We can only pray that we will convince the people to listen to us, and not to the other ten.”
“Please G-d may it be so”, responded Yehoshua fervently. “I should have come with you when you went to pray at the Graves of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron. I desperately need their strength now, and will need it even more tonight when we return to the Camp to give our debriefing.”
And so, depressed and full of foreboding, Yehoshua and Calev trudged along behind the other ten Spies, out of the Negev Desert, out of the Land of Israel, back to the Paran Desert, back to the Clouds of Glory.
Endnotes and sources
For the basic events, Numbers Chapter 13.
For Calev having visited Hebron alone, Sotah 34b.
For the ideology of the ten spies, listen to virtually every Rabbi in the USA, Britain, South Africa, and everywhere else outside of Israel today.