A Weeping for Generations
The Spies and Tish’a B’av
By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
As the Rishonim point out at the beginning of our Parashah, there are two
different stories about the "spies" sent by Mosheh. The bulk of our Parashah
(Chapters 13-14) is devoted to one story, whereas Mosheh's "version", at the
end of the first chapter of D'varim, tells a different story:
Send men to search out the land of K'na'an, which I am giving to the
Israelites; from each of their ancestral tribes you shall send a man, every
one a leader among them." So Mosheh sent them from the wilderness of Paran,
according to the command of Hashem, all of them leading men among the B'nei
Yisra'el. (Bamidbar 13:2-3)
All of you came to me and said, "Let us send men ahead of us to explore the
land for us and bring back a report to us regarding the route by which we
should go up and the cities we will come to." (D'varim 1:22)
In D'varim, the idea of sending spies to check out the land was the people's
- acceded to by Mosheh. In our Parashah, it is a direct command of God.
In the D'varim version, the nation requests "men" to spy out the land. It
would be reasonable to assume two or three men, since the goal was to
"explore (spy out) the Land"; it would not be productive to send a stately
entourage to accomplish this goal. God's command, on the other hand,
includes twelve "leading men", one from each tribe (except Levi).
Another difference, one which helps us reconcile some of the others, is the
verb used to describe the mission. In D'varim, the people want men to
"explore" (*lach'por*) the Land. The implication is one of a military
reconnaissance mission. In our Parashah, the verb used is *latur* (to
visit/look over) - which implies much more of a "diplomatic mission" than an
Indeed, if the sole purpose of this mission - as is commonly assumed - was
to spy out the land in preparation for military action, there are a few
components in Mosheh's charge to the twelve princes that are unclear:
Mosheh sent them to spy out the land of K'na'an, and said to them, "Go up
there into the Negev, and go up into the hill country, and see what the land
is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether
they are few or many, and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and
whether the towns that they live in are unwalled or fortified, and whether
the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be bold,
and bring some of the fruit of the land." Now it was the season of the first
ripe grapes. So they went up and spied out the land from the wilderness of
Zin to R'hob, near L'vo-hamath. (Bamidbar 13:17-21)
Why would they need to walk the length and breadth of the Land? (L'vo Hamath
is in the north - far from their planned entry point into the Land). Why
would they need to describe the Land - besides in military terms (e.g.
"whether the land they live in is good or bad") and why would they have to
bring back fruit?
These questions become strengthened against the backdrop of Yehoshua's spy
mission into Yericho (Yehoshua Ch. 2 - this week's Haftarah). He sent two
men, who stealthily entered and exited Yericho, hid in the hills for three
days and then returned with their report. The text does not identify them as
"leaders", they are not sent to walk the Land and to bring back fruit - and
there are only two of them! What then do we make of this odd spy mission,
described in our Parashah and in Parashat D'varim?
In a beautiful essay (Megadim 10 pp. 21-37), R. Ya'akov Meidan explains the
two versions of the story as follows:
There are two independent missions presented here. In Parashat D'varim,
Mosheh recounts that the people were motivated (probably by fear) to send
spies - and, as the text there indicates - they were concerned only with
identifying the best military tactic for taking the first city in the Land
(akin to Yericho 38 and a half years later).
In our Parashah, on the other hand, God sends princes in order to stake a
first claim to the Land - or, perhaps (as R. Meidan suggests) to begin
dividing up each tribe's portion of the Land (thus explaining why Levi, who
received no land, sent no representative). R. Meidan suggests that the flow
of the four chapters leading up to our Parashah [the celebration of the
Pesach (9:1-14), the descriptions of the Cloud of Glory (9:15-23), the
description of their travels (10:1-28), the interaction with Yitro/Hovev
(10:29-34), the mention of Mahn and quail (11:1-15), the introduction of
support for Mosheh's leadership (11:16-35) and the ultimate statement about
the singularity of Mosheh's prophecy (12:1-16] suggest a strong parallel to
the sections in Sh'mot leading up to the stand at Sinai. As such, he
suggests, the forty days of the Divine mission to the Land parallel the
forty days during which Mosheh was atop Sinai (perhaps the clearest parallel
is the grievous sin of the people at the end of the forty days, followed by
Mosheh's plea for forgiveness). Just as Mosheh stood atop Sinai for forty
days in order to bring the Torah to the people, similarly, these princes
went up to Eretz Yisra'el for forty days in order to bring the Land back to
the people (thus explaining their bringing representative clusters of fruit).
R. Meidan goes on to explain that Mosheh combined these two missions (which,
he suggests, may have been the reason that God disallowed him from entering
the Land - see D'varim 1:37). As such, the twelve princes were sent to walk
the length and breadth of the Land, to stake our claim to the Land and to
each tribe's portion and to report back about the beauty of the Land. At the
same time, they were to check out the defenses of the first route of
military conquest and the first city they would conquer.
This explains Kalev's role in the mission - since he was the representative
of Yehudah, he was the only one with any business in Hevron from the
perspective of the Divine mission. All of the other spies went to Hevron in
order to check out its defenses, as it was the first fortified city to be
conquered - but Kalev went there in order to fulfill the mission of claiming
it for the tribe.
[This is, of course, just a thumbnail sketch of the main points in his
essay; R. Mordecai Breuer (Pirkei Mo'adot II pp. 409-456) adopts the same
general approach, but develops the story and themes in a different manner]
Picking up on R. Meidan's thread, I would like to raise another issue. The
reaction of the people is hard to understand; indeed, they seem somewhat
When the spies/travelers reported the strength of the local inhabitants, the
people wept, complained (again) about having left Egypt - and then utter
words they had never before said: "...let us appoint a captain and return to
Egypt." (14:4). Their fear and despondency led them to consider a plan to
return to the slavery of Egypt (which, as R. Meidan points out, is a total
rejection of "I am Hashem your God who took you out of the land of Egypt").
In other words, even though God had promised them this good land, they
rejected it out of fear of the military conflict. Yet, when Mosheh recounts
their punishment to them (14:28-35), they react in the opposite manner: "Let
us go up to the place of which Hashem has spoken, for we have sinned"
(14:40). This failed attempt on the part of the *Ma'pilim* is hard to
decipher - when God commanded them to conquer, they ran away in fear; yet,
when God decreed 40 years of desert-wandering, they suddenly became
courageous and prepared to fight!?
In order to understand this, we have to go back to last week's Parashah and
address a seemingly unrelated issue.
In Parashat B'ha'alot'kha, we are given a detailed description of the Cloud
of Glory that rested on the Mishkan:
On the day the Mishkan was set up, the cloud covered the Mishkan, the tent
of the covenant; and from evening until morning it was over the Mishkan,
having the appearance of fire. It was always so: the cloud covered it by day
and the appearance of fire by night. Whenever the cloud lifted from over the
tent, then the B'nei Yisra'el would set out; and in the place where the
cloud settled down, there the B'nei Yisra'el would camp. At the command of
Hashem the B'nei Yisra'el would set out, and at the command of Hashem they
would camp. As long as the cloud rested over the Mishkan, they would remain
in camp. Even when the cloud continued over the Mishkan many days, the B'nei
Yisra'el would keep the charge of Hashem, and would not set out. Sometimes
the cloud would remain a few days over the Mishkan, and according to the
command of Hashem they would remain in camp; then according to the command
of Hashem they would set out. Sometimes the cloud would remain from evening
until morning; and when the cloud lifted in the morning, they would set out,
or if it continued for a day and a night, when the cloud lifted they would
set out. Whether it was two days, or a month, or a year, that the cloud
continued over the Mishkan, resting upon it, the B'nei Yisra'el would remain
in camp and would not set out; but when it lifted they would set out. At the
command of Hashem they would camp, and at the command of Hashem they would
set out. They kept the charge of Hashem, at the command of Hashem by Mosheh.
In this description, we are told about the Cloud resting at one place
"...for two days, or a month or a year...". Note, however, that this
description is presented not only before the story of the spies and the
consequent decree of forty years' wandering - it is also presented before
the *Mit'onenim* and *Mit'avim* (beginning of Ch. 11). Up until that point,
as is clear from the Torah's description of our travels (see Rashi on
Bamidbar 10:33), the Divine plan was to bring us directly from Sinai into
the Land - without stopping, resting or setting up camp. Why does the Torah
describe setting up/breaking down the camp and the Mishkan - and why does it
describe resting in one place for as long as a year?
The Original Plan – From Sinai To K’na’an
Our question is predicated on an assumption which is borne out of the
evolution of events in our history - but was not necessarily the original
According to the original Divine plan, as can be seen from our Parashah, the
B'nei Yisra'el were to enter the Land directly through the Negev. Instead,
as a result of the decree recounted in our Parashah, they were to wander for
forty years. Ultimately, they crossed into the Land through the Jordan
river. This crossing is clearly symmetrical to the crossing of the Reed Sea
- where the *'Anan* (Cloud) first showed up. In other words, by dint of our
entering the Land via the Jordan, the "Desert Experience" was bookended by
these two "crossings-on-dry-land", such that the *'Anan*, which guided us to
the Sea and through the desert, no longer led us once we entered the Land.
This was, however, not the original plan. The Torah tells us that: "the Ark
of the covenant of Hashem traveled before them, three days' journey, to
scout out *Menuchah* (a resting place); and the *'Anan* of Hashem was over
them by day as they traveled from the camp." (Bamidbar 10:33-34). The Ark
and 'Anan worked in tandem; the Ark being carried ahead of the camp,
followed by the 'Anan - all to find "Menuchah". What is the meaning of
"Menuchah"? As the Gemara in Zevahim (119a) explains, Menuchah refers either
to Shiloh (the first place where the Mishkan was set up in a quasi-permanent
fashion) or Yerushalayim. In other words, the 'Anan was not originally
intended to lead us only into the Land; rather, it was to lead us while we
encamped in the Land while fighting for conquest, which would certainly
entail encamping at one place or another for longer than a few days.
This explanation of the "downturn" in our fortunes demands clarification.
Three Levels of Shekhinah-Intensity
When the Mishkan was dedicated, we entered into a relationship of intensity
and intimacy with the Divine Presence (*Shekhinah*) that evoked that
experienced in the Garden of Eden: Just as God is described as "walking in
the Garden" (B'resheet 3:8), similarly, God promises that "I will Place My
Presence/Sanctuary among you...And I will walk among you..." (Vayyikra
26:11-12). In other words, the promise of the Mishkan is a return to the
close relationship which we enjoyed with God in Edenic times. We will refer
to this promise as *B'rit Mishkan* - "They will make for Me a Sanctuary and
I will dwell among them" (Sh'mot 25:8).
A second, less intense relationship, is implied by the covenant of Sinai.
The covenant involves more than fulfilling Mitzvot and avoiding prohibitions
- it involves a unique relationship, as described by the introduction at Sinai:
Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my
treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is
mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These
are the words that you shall speak to the B'nei Yisra'el." (Sh'mot 19:5-6).
This is known as *B'rit Sinai*.
A final, much less intense relationship between the B'nei Yisra'el and
haKadosh Barukh Hu is known as *B'rit Avot* (the covenant with the
patriarchs). The covenants which God made with Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov
are binding for all time and give us the Land and a populous people.
Step One: B’rit Mishkan
Until we actually moved from Sinai, there was every reason for us to be able
to live up to the B'rit Mishkan - for the 'Anan to be more than a guide, it
would also be our protection in war. There was no reason for us to have to
fight; just like when the 'Anan first protected us at the Reed Sea: "Hashem
will fight for you..." (Sh'mot 14:14). This would have been the ideal
completion of Sinai and the Mishkan - for us to march directly into the
Land, with the Ark and 'Anan dispersing our enemies as we moved towards
This is the intent of the phrase, said by Mosheh when the Aron was taken out
...Arise, Hashem, let Your enemies be dispersed, let those who despise You
flee from Your Presence." (Bamidbar 10:35).
This phrase (and the next verse), however, is marked off by an upside-down
Nun before and after - where do these symbols come from?
Step Two: B’rit Sinai
The next verse tells us about the Mit'oNeNim, whose name includes two Nuns
in a row. These complainers weren't really complaining - they were
*K'Mit'onenim* - "like complainers". In other words, they had nothing
concrete about which to complain; rather, they were looking for things to
critique and fault about Mosheh's leadership.
How were they punished? "The fire of God burned against them" (11:1). What
was "the fire of God"? - it was the Cloud! (see 9:16). In other words, as a
result of the complaints of these people who could not stand the great
proximity and intimacy with the Divine, the "power" of the Ark and 'Anan was
turned against them - and, instead of the 'Anan remaining at the front of a
war which we would not have to fight, it turned against us and could no
longer provide protection. That is why the section of *Vay'hi bin'soa'
ha'Aron* is marked off with upside-down Nuns - those are the Nuns from the
*Mit'onenim* who turned the 'Anan (again, two Nuns!) from our "warrior" into
Once this level of intensity - the B'rit Mishkan - was lost, we moved back
to B'rit Sinai - where we are promised victory over our enemies and
perpetual settlement in the Land (if we don't violate its sanctity too
broadly), but we will have to fight for it ourselves. Coming into the Land
on these terms would have been the completion of the Sinaitic experience. In
order to "match" the stand at Sinai, the first enemy (as indicated in our
Parashah) would have been Amalek, whose destruction would have meant the
introduction of the Messianic era:
He said, "A hand upon the Throne of Y-H! Hashem will have war with Amalek
from generation to generation." (Sh'mot 17:16).
Commenting on this verse, R. Levi says in the name of R. Aha:
The Name is not complete, neither is the Throne complete, until the memory
of Amalek is destroyed, as it says: *Ki Yad al Keis Y-H* (A hand upon the
Throne of Y-H); it should have said *Ki Yad al Kisei Hashem* - but once the
memory of Amalek is wiped out, the Throne and the Name are complete.
(Midrash T'hillim 9:10)
In other words, had we but maintained the level of B'rit Sinai, we would
have entered the Land through the south, defeated Amalek and ushered in the
era when "on that day, Hashem will be One and His Name One" (Z'khariah
14:9). The Messianic era would have followed immediately from Sinai.
This is why Mosheh sent the "scouts" on the Divine mission for forty days -
to approximate the stand at Sinai.
Step Three: B’rit Avot
Now let's reexamine the people's odd reactions, opting for Egypt when God
wants them to conquer the Land, then turning around and storming the Emorite
mountain when God tells them to go into the desert.
What was the phrase with which the scouts introduced the negative part of
their report? - *Ephes Ki Az ha'Am* - the word *Ephes*, which may mean
"nonetheless", is not easily translated. The sense of the word - and the
entire report and the subsequent reaction - is one of choice: Shall we go up
to this Land or shan't we? The feeling that there was a choice was what
directed the reaction of the people. This is often the cause of the success
of outmanned and poorly armed fighters against more powerful enemies. When
you are fighting with your back to the wall, and there is no choice (as the
old Israeli slogan - " 'Ein B'reirah' (there is no choice) is our most
powerful tool" attests), your fighting ability is greatly enhanced. On the
other hand, when the fighting force feels that they don't need to win this
war, defend this land, take this hill - they can be defeated (witness Vietnam).
When the scouts said *Ephes*, the people still thought there was a choice -
to go back to Egypt and return to slavery there. What they (perhaps) didn't
realize was that going back to Egypt was also a direct reversal of B'rit
Sinai - of "I am Hashem your God who took you out of the land of Egypt". It
was only when Mosheh told them of their punishment - that they would wander
the desert for forty years etc. and that a return to Egypt was not an
option, that they opted to take the Land. If their only choices were
(certain) ignoble death in the desert or (possible) heroic death on the
battlefield, they chose the (seemingly) heroic path.
They had already rejected the B'rit Mishkan of "walking with God" as
evidenced by the Divine reaction to the Mit'onenim. Now they rejected the
B'rit Sinai by expressing a willingness to return to Egypt. (This would
explain an interesting textual difference between Mosheh's prayer here and
the original of that statement in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf.
Hashem passed before him, and proclaimed, Hashem, Hashem, a God merciful and
gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and truth, keeping
steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and
transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the
iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to
the third and the fourth generation. (Sh'mot 34:6-7)
And now, therefore, let the power of Hashem be great in the way that you
promised when you spoke, saying, ‘Hashem is slow to anger, and abounding in
steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means
clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children
to the third and the fourth generation.' Forgive the iniquity of this people
according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned
this people, from Egypt even until now. (Bamidbar 14:17-19)
Note that when God forgave the people at Sinai, He declared that He is *Rav
Hessed v'Emet* (abounding in steadfast love and truth); when Mosheh
"reminded" Him of this commitment, he said: *Rav Hessed* (abounding in
steadfast love), but *Emet* (truth) was left out. Truth is the mark of
Sinai, of the Torah which was given there. Since the people had rejected
B'rit Sinai, Mosheh could only point to *Hessed* as a Divine attribute which
would save the people.
Now that they had rejected B'rit Sinai - all that they had left was B'rit
Avot. They had, effectively, returned to a pre-Exodus mode of Divine
promise. This explains the forty years of wandering - a micro-version of the
400 years of exile promised to Avraham (B'resheet 15:13). This also explains
how their reaction to the scouts' reports, how their weeping on that night,
introduced the possibilities of future exile into the national destiny.
From the Mishkan, we were to "move" the Edenic reality to the Land. From
Sinai, we were to (at least) usher in the Messianic era with the immediate
destruction of Amalek. Both of these were lost. Once we go back to the model
of B'rit Avot, we aren't encountering the permanence of settlement in the
Land, rather the cycle of exile and return which was begun by Avraham
(Haran, Israel, Egypt, Israel) and continued by Ya'akov (Israel, Aram,
Israel, Egypt) and his children (Aram, Israel, Egypt). Once the people
reverted to B'rit Avot, they allowed for the possibility that this upcoming
entrance into the Land would not have the permanence promised at Sinai - but
that the cycles of exile and return would remain our destiny until the final
redeemer would come.
Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night.
Rabbah said in the name of R. Yohanan: That night was Tish'a b'Av; haKadosh
Barukh Hu said: They cried for naught, I will establish for them [this night
as] a weeping for generations. (BT Sotah 35a)
Text Copyright © 2013 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.