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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Shlach

Send forth men, if you please, and let them spy out the land of Canaan...They brought forth to the Bnei Yisrael an evil report on the Land that they had spied out. (13:2, 32)

One of the most difficult narratives in the Torah to understand is the incident of the meraglim, spies. They went to Eretz Yisrael on an ill-fated mission, to slander the land, Moshe Rabbeinu and even Hashem. The Yalkut Shimoni refers to these meraglim as "kesilim," fools. They were actually the nesiim of their respective tribes, men who were gedolim, great leaders, whose reputation until that moment had remained untarnished. What happended? What transpired that suddenly changed a tzaddik into a "kesil"?

Chazal cite the pasuk in Mishlei 10, "One who slanders /spreads lashon hora is a fool." They say that although when they left they were gedolim, the meraglim transformed themselves into fools. Chazal reveal to us that they were not actually foolish, but rather, they acted foolish. They made themselves into fools. How does a wise man, someone who has seichel, common sense, suddenly become a fool? Horav Shmuel Truvitz, Shlita, suggests that the answer lies in Moshe's rebuke to Bnei Yisrael. In Sefer Devarim 1:26,27, Moshe recounts Bnei Yisrael's transgressions throughout their journey in the wilderness. He addresses the times that they "tested" Hashem, when they displayed a certain lack of trust or a deficiency in faith. In regard to the sin of the spies, Moshe Rabbeinu says, "But you did not wish to ascend, and you rebelled against the word of Hashem, your G-d. You slandered in your tents and said, 'Because of Hashem's hatred for us did He take us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Emori to destroy us.'" The word, "vateiragnu," "(and) you slandered," implied a different form of slander. Rabbeinu Yona interprets this verb to describe the behavior of one who constantly finds fault, who is always complaining. He grumbles about everything and everyone. He blames others for his plight. Even if his circumstances are not negative, he perceives them as bad. Moreover, he convinces himself that people are always cheating him, rejecting him, disparaging him. This form of depression is a disease in which the individual can never have any enjoyment, because he thrives on being miserable. Indeed, he needs to find fault in his own behavior to justify his punishment.

The meraglim grumbled, "Hashem hates us - and indeed, He has every reason to despise us. Did we not worship idols in Egypt? He is taking revenge against us." They were so obtuse in their depression that they perceived a positive sign as a negative omen. They saw funerals taking place in Eretz Yisrael. Rather than viewing this as Hashem's form of intervention to distance the inhabitants so that they would not see the strangers, they looked at it from a negative perspective. This was their utter foolishness. They convinced themselves that Hashem hated them and wanted to destroy them. It is no wonder that their vision was so myopic that everything looked sour.

With this idea in mind, we can understand why Moshe prayed for the welfare of Yehoshua but did not pray for the other spies. One would think that Moshe was displaying favoritism. Horav Truvitz cites the Targum Yonasan ben Uziel who says that Yehoshua's exceptional humility catalyzed Moshe's prayer on his behalf. Simply, Moshe was concerned that, as a result of his diffidence, Yehoshua would not take a stand against the other spies. Thus, he would defer to their sinful intentions. Horav Truvitz suggests that Yehoshua's humility determined his worthiness for blessing. Because he was humble, he viewed everything that occurred in his life as a gift from Hashem. He saw the positive in everything. He was the type of person that deserved Moshe's blessing. The meraglim, on the other hand, were bitter, unhappy people. They could be exposed to the most positive expression of Hashem's beneficience and distort it with their negative perspective. Someone who cannot appreciate Hashem's gift does not really deserve to receive it. Moshe prayed on behalf of the individual who would appreciate and value his prayer.

They said to the entire congregation of Bnei Yisrael...the land which we traversed ...the land is good, very, very much so...(14:7)

The sin of the meraglim is, indeed, difficult to understand. After all, the meraglim did not really tell any lies about Eretz Yisrael. The testimony that it is a land that "eats up its inhabitants" certainly appeared to be true, considering the many funerals that they had witnessed. Veritably, they even recounted that it was a "land flowing with milk and honey." So, why were they punished to such an extent?

The Yismach Yisrael cites his father, who posits that the meraglim were aware of the superiority of Eretz Yisrael. They felt the kedushah, holiness, everywhere they travelled. The kedushah permeated the air. The spies conceded that the "land was very good." It would be mush easier to reach a sublime level of spirituality in such a land.

The spies' refusal to enter Eretz Yisrael was not a product of their fear for their material/physical well-being. They said, "Efes ki az ha'am." "But the people that dwells in the land is powerful and strong." This is a reference to the unusually powerful forces of tumah, spiritual impurity, which exist there. A commensurate measure of tumah is necessary in order to combat the unequaled forces of kedushah. They feared that, while they had the opportunity to attain the summit of kedushah, they were also vulnerable to descending to the nadir of tumah if they erred. They conjectured that, in the long run, it would be more beneficial for their spiritual well-being to remain in the desert and defer the opportunity for growth rather than risk ultimate failure. In the midbar, wilderness, they might not have become such great tzaddikim, but they also would not risk turning into reshaim.

Were the meraglim really inappropriate? Do we not have precedent from Yaakov Avinu, who feared the effects of his previous "sin"? Indeed, even after Hashem assuaged his anxiety with His assurance of protection, Yaakov still expressed the fear that receiving Hashem's kindness might have diminished his own merit. If Yaakov's fear was not viewed as transgression, why were the meraglim faulted for their anxiety?

There is, however, a significant distinction between Yaakov Avinu's fear and the meraglim's anxiety: their response to their individual concerns. Yaakov Avinu, despite his overriding concern, continued. He did not halt in his path, refusing to pray, reluctant to continue to Eretz Yisrael. He prepared for the eventuality of war. He sought a peaceful reconciliation with Eisav. Above all, he prayed. He entreated Hashem to grant him life, to give him a future - despite his past transgression. He did not concede to his fear.

The meraglim's reaction is well-known. Not only did they react hysterically, denying Hashem's "ability" to bring them into Eretz Yisrael, they also cultivated distress in the hearts and minds of Bnei Yisrael. Because they feared their later spiritual decline as a result of the increased opportunity and demands in Eretz Yisrael, they were willing to sin now. They thought that by sinning now they would preserve their subsequent spirituality. They erred in thinking the end justifies the means. Not going to Eretz Yisrael was apparently clearly wrong, whereas the possibility of not being able to succeed in Eretz Yisrael was ambiguous. Why would they defer to a dubious situation? We do not sin today just because we might sin tomorrow!

Horav Simcha Bunim,zl, M'Pesicha, applies a similar approach to understanding the sin of eating from the Eitz Ha'daas. According to the Rambam, the Eitz Ha'daas provided the koach ha'bechirah, the ability to choose between right and wrong. Now they would develop a yetzer hora, evil inclination, which they would have to overcome in order to choose to do good. The serpent encouraged Chavah to eat of the forbidden fruit, so that she could grow spiritually. She would not simply gravitate to doing good because now she would have to contend with her yetzer hora. Commensurate to the challenge would be the reward. She would earn her spiritual success. She would work for it. She deferred to the serpent's guileful suggestion. She sinned now so that she might grow in spiritual stature later. She destroyed her present to build an ambiguous future. In the end, she lost her present and arrived ill-prepared for the future. The wise person listens to Hashem and does not attempt to manipulate circumstances according to his limited perspective.

They ascended toward the mountain-top saying,"We are ready, and we shall ascend to the place which Hashem has spoken, for we have sinned. (14:40)

The people were embarrassed. They sought to compensate for their sin. They finally realized that their reaction to the spies' slander of Eretz Yisrael was terribly wrong. They were, however, too late. Their teshuvah was long overdue. How many times can a people rebel against Hashem, apologize and proceed with life as planned? They would not accept a negative response, insisting upon going on to Eretz Yisrael. They failed; their fate was sealed. They were attacked and thrown back.

Why did Hashem reject their teshuvah? They acknowledged, "We have sinned." What more should they have done? The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh attributes Hashem's rejection of their teshuvah to two factors. First, the sin was still fresh. Second, their declaration of teshuvah was inspired more by regret over defaulting Eretz Yisrael than by remorse over the sinful behavior.

The Baal Shem Tov responds to this question with an observation on human nature. He punctuates the pasuk in such a manner that a different meaning may be applied to it. They were actually saying, "We are ready to go to Eretz Yisrael, for Hashem has said that we have sinned." In other words, they did not concede one iota that they had sinned. It was Hashem Who had said they had sinned! Their self-righteous attitude was obvious. They conceded that Hashem was not happy with their behavior, but, they did not necessarily agree with His perspective. Although externally they manifested a contrite image, between the lines, they were still defiant.

We compound our sin by refusing to acknowledge our role in its perpetration. How can one perform teshuvah if he refuses to recognize his error? Self-denial usually leads to an obstinacy that controls the individual - and his perspective. Klal Yisrael was prepared to fight, to go and attempt to conquer the pagans. They were prepared to do whatever was needed to go up to Eretz Yisrael - everything - but be modeh al ha'emes, concede to the truth, confess that they had sinned. Are we any different today?

That you may see it and remember all the mitzvos of Hashem. (15:39)

The Torah reveals to us that by seeing the tzitzis we might remember all of the mitzvos. Consequently, we will be inspired to perform them. How does this transpire? Rashi explains that the numerical equivalent of tzitzis is 600. In addition, there are eight threads and five knots, bringing it to a total of 613, the number of mitzvos which we are commanded to observe. In the Talmud Menachos 43b Chazal comment that the techeilas, turquoise wool, which was the color of one string of each fringe, brings the Almighty to mind. Techeilas is similar to the color of the sea, the sea to the sky, and the sky to Hashem's Throne. Thus, techeilas helps the wearer to focus on Hashem and his duty towards Him.

Chazal imply that one string can inspire a person, so that he can visualize the Holy Throne. How does this happen? Horav Zaidel Epstein, Shlita, suggests that the key lies in the word "u'reisem," "that you may see." We should approach the Torah in a manner that we can visualize it. We should look at tzitzis and visualize mitzvos. It must be something tangible, something that we can see, something that we can perceive.

Chazal tell us, "Who is a wise man? He who can see that which will be born." It is not sufficient to merely know what will be. It is necessary that one understand it so well that he actually sees before his very eyes what will take place. Everyone knows that one day our sojourn on this world will come to an end, and we will eventually have to give an accounting for our behavior. But, how many of us actually see it? We are to focus on mitzvos and their message to the point that we actually perceive that message.

The Alter M'Kelm was wont to say, "The difference between a tzaddik and a rasha is the ability to visualize the Torah's truth. The Rasha is not simply a non-believer, he does not see! If he would apply himself and/or open his eyes he would see. Thus, he would believe.


1. Where did the Egyptian kings and noblemen live?
2. Hashem enabled the spies to traverse Eretz Yisrael in "record" time. Why?
3. Hashem wanted to destroy Bnei Yisrael because of their involvement in the sin of the meraglim.
What would have happened to His promise to the Patriarchs that their descendents would enter Eretz Yisrael?
4. What relationship is there between the chet ha'egel and the chet ha'meraglim?
5. Why, regarding the sin of idol worship, does the Torah add "ki dvar Hashem bazeh," "because he humiliated the word of Hashem"?
6. Can one who intentionally worships an idol do teshuvah?
7. Why is there an obligation to place tzitzis specifically on a four-cornered garment?


1. Tzoan.
2. Hashem "knew" that the decree against Bnei Yisrael would be to remain in the wilderness one year for every day of the meraglim's trip. Had they remained in Eretz Yisrael longer, Bnei Yisrael would have had to stay in the wilderness for a longer period of time.
3. Hashem would have regenerated Bnei Yisrael from Moshe Rabbeinu.
4. After Bnei Yisrael had sinned with the Golden Calf, Hashem had wanted to decree that they would not enter Eretz Yisrael. The chet ha'meraglim confirmed His initial response.
5. Regarding avodah zorah, Hashem Himself asserted the admonition when He gave the first two commandments of the Aseres Hadibros (Anochi, Lo Yihyeh), which refer to idol worship.
6. Yes.
7. The four corners correspond with the four leshonos shel geulah, expressions of redemption, mentioned in Sefer Shemos prior to yetzias Mitzrayim.

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