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   by Jacob Solomon

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G-d spoke to Moses, saying, “Send for yourselves men, and they will spy out the land of Canaan which I am giving to the Israelites…” (13:1-2)

These words introduce the events that culminated in an almost entire generation of Israelites being denied entry to the Promised Land. Yet a closer examination of the text and its commentaries brings the following difficulties:

  1. Moses knew his people. The reason according to the Talmud (Sotah 34b) that G-d changed his pupil Hoshea’s name to Joshua is because the addition of the two central letters of G-d’s name would give him His protection from the evil counsel of the Spies. If Moses knew that the Spies would harm the Israelites, why did he not plead with G-d to cancel the mission?

  2. The Midrash (Tanchuma, Shelach 4) says that the Torah’s referring to the Spies as anashim – ‘men’ is to show that they were respected, decent people at the time they were sent on their mission. Yet at the same time, the Midrash (Tanchuma, ibid. 6) says that G-d changed his pupil Hoshea’s name to Joshua, so that he would be protected from the evil counsel of the Spies. How may this contradiction in the Tanchuma be resolved?

  3. What special qualities did Joshua and Calev possess that set them apart from the other ten Spies?

In approaching these issues, consider a statement made by the Midrash (Tanchuma 5) which Rashi quotes in his opening to his commentary on this Parasha:

Why is the story of the Spies put next to the story of Miriam? This is because Miriam was punished on account of her (negative) report she spoke against her brother. These evil people (the Spies) saw (her punishment) and they did not learn a lesson from it.

The Spies did not heed the consequences of negative reports. But most commentators hold that the Spies were worthy men at the start of their tour – or at any rate, the worthiest available.

However, the text seems to indicate that from the moment that the Israelites left Mount Sinai, ‘like a child who runs away from school’ (Ramban to 11:35), they were on the spiritual downward path – as witnessed by the tragedies at Taveiyra and Kivrot Hataava. The public punishment of Miriam did not impress on the Israelites – or even on their leaders, the need to avoid gossip and negative reports. So the Spies may have been the best available people for the mission, but still they did not carry it out in the right way.

We see from here that the Spies were not on the highest spiritual level to begin with. In this context, consider the following scenario.

A young man hears the tradition that, ‘ten measures of beauty were given to the world. Nine of them went to Jerusalem, and the tenth was shared by the rest of the world’ (as found in Sefer Kolbo, 118). He decides to check it out for himself. So, following a long flight from Los Angeles, and an unseemly haggle with the taxi driver at Ben Gurion Airport, he enters Jerusalem for the first time in his life. He sees no beauty at all. Sweating in the 35-degree heat, he finds himself greeted by a cacophony, pungent odors, people in strange dress speaking a strange tongue, decrepit buildings, beggars, impoverished neighborhoods, and littered sidewalks. Some beauty!

But this young man merely saw Jerusalem. He did not tune into Jerusalem. His soul was not open to respond to the sparks of kedusha – holiness that emanates from the spot where the Shechina – Divine Presence is at its most intense. He did not pause to consider why virtually all its residents would never consider settling permanently anywhere else.

The Spies had a similar experience. They entered the Promised Land from the South (13:22), and they passed through the Negev Desert. Their first impressions were negative: like the young man, they saw the Land, but they did not tune into the Land. Coming from the spiritual decline of the Israelites, as discussed above, they did not have the spiritual sensitivities to experience the Land.

This explains why Calev alone (according to most commentaries) went to Hebron. As the Talmud (Sotah ad loc.) explains, he went to pray at the graves of the Patriarchs, so that he should not be affected by the negative reactions of the Spies. Like them, he did not yet possess the spiritual qualities to perceive the kedusha of the Land. Unlike them, he decided to find out what was behind the very uninspiring first experience of the Promised Land. He sought out the place of more intense kedusha – the graves of the Patriarchs, and his prayers included the wish to obtain the spiritual sensitivities needed to tune into the Holy Land. Joshua – who had a special blessing – was already spiritually sensitive, so he did not need to go. And the other Spies, not wishing to recognize their own spiritual insensitivities, did not see why it was necessary to make a detour to Hebron in the first place.

With those qualities the Calev and Joshua reacted differently to what they saw on the rest of the mission. They themselves were first and foremost tuned into the spirituality of the land. Thus when they saw the fruit that was so big that a pole and two people were needed to carry a fair sample (Rashi to 13:23), they related to it as a symbol of G-d’s promise of the Land’s prosperity. When they saw the giants and the Canaanites burying their own dead (13:32; Sotah ad loc.) they tuned into G-d’s promise of the Holy Land rejecting its own inhabitants because of their immoral ways (Lev. 18:28), despite their apparent invincibility. In other words they were in spiritual harmony with the Land, and they saw it was ‘very good indeed’ (14:7) - exclusively for His people when they would keep His Commandments.

This helps to answer the questions. Moses himself was unsure of the Spies’ spiritual sensitivity. He selected them as they were the best available, and he gave them the benefit of the doubt. But he did not know them as well as he knew his own student, Hoshea bin Nun. He changed Hoshea’s name to Joshua because as he was his own student, he knew him far better, and he knew his potential weaknesses…

We may learn from here that one of life’s challenges is to develop spiritual sensitivity. This is vital to be able to enjoy and develop in the environment of Eretz Yisrael today. Our physical vision is limited – we cannot see ultra violet or infra red light. Similarly spiritual sensitivity in its unrefined form is limited – it takes much learning of Torah and Mitzvah observance to actually feel the kedusha that radiates from Israel in general and from Jerusalem in particular…

May we all develop that necessary spirituality to live in harmony with the inherent kedusha of Jerusalem the Holy City and thus merit the Redemption in our days.



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