Just what were they thinking? This preoccupation with spying out the land,
so appealing that an entire people clamored to Moshe to make it happen –
how did it make any sense to those for whom miracles were commonplace? The
mind-bending miracles in Egypt, the crossing of the Sea, the constant
representation of the presence of the Shechinah in their midst
through the cloud leading them by day and the pillar of fire by night, all
the while protected from the elements by the Clouds of Glory – was there
anything in their immediate experience that was not miraculous? The impact
of G-d’s wonders upon each and every one of them was as close as the last
meal – and the one before that, and before that. Water flowed in a
wilderness from a rock; their bread arrived each day from Heaven. Surely
they needed no convincing and no reminder of G-d’s ability and willingness
to lead them with no regard to the limitations of natural rules and laws.
What information could spies give them? What understanding did they seek?
The words they used to explain what they were looking for does not seem to
help our understanding of what was on their minds. They said they wished
to find out whether the “land was good or bad.”2 Hashem had already described it as “flowing with milk
and honey!”3 Did they not trust Him?
Of what consequence was it to them if the “people that dwells in it is
strong or weak?”4 Why did Moshe concur
with the request, declaring it “good in my eyes?”5
The last question is the easiest one to answer. Chazal interpret the
command Shlach lecha6 as “send
according to your own understanding.” This does not mean that Moshe was
to take responsibility for the initiative, but that he should send the
spies according to his own understanding of the need to spy out the land,
not the mindset of the rest of the people.
Moshe saw no need to assess the physical parameters of the Land. He
grasped the incredible holiness of the Land, and therefore realized that
Eretz Yisrael would also be plagued by formidable forces of
tumah. (This is one of the most basic laws of the spiritual makeup
of the universe. Parity must always be maintained between the strengths of
available good and its opposite.) Knowing the enemy – the spiritual enemy –
is always appropriate. Moshe found it incumbent to learn “where” the
forces of tumah in Israel would be found. Would they be strong and
concentrated in a given location, or diffuse? Is a given area “good,” in
the sense of tending to produce people with good character? If so, they
would be forewarned about the kind of spiritual challenges waiting for
them there. Such an area would demand a different spiritual struggle than
an area that naturally produced people of bad character, whose
avodah would need to start with the repair of their own inner
qualities. It would take people of great spiritual sensitivity to pick up
on the subtle cues necessary to make this determination. Therefore, Moshe
chose only “distinguished men”7 for the
The rest of the people did not understand the purpose of spying out the
land in the same way. In their minds, the mission would be a conventional
one. As accustomed as they were to miracles, they nonetheless assumed
that this period of miraculous assistance would of necessity come to an
end with their entry into the land of Israel. There, they would be
governed by the same laws of nature that govern all other human beings.
Gathering intelligence for the future military campaign – to be waged
under very down to earth conditions – made complete sense.
Their error, in a word, was to deny the transcendent nature of Eretz
Yisrael. They failed to grasp that this land was outside the
parameters of nature. Without this appreciation, they could not take
possession of it. That would have to await the next generation,
the “young children of whom you said they will be taken captive.”8 They would have full belief and confidence
in a Providence connected to the land that is not limited by the natural
and the ordinary.9 With that belief,
they could enter the land and possess it.
The spies are described as having “despised the desirable land.”10 At first, this seems puzzling. Their
report about the land was quite good, and quite accurate. They were
positively impressed with it being a land of milk and honey, just as
promised. What frightened them were the people, the inhabitants, not the
blood itself. We can now understand, however, that what they despised and
rejected was the special quality of Eretz Yisrael as primarily a
spiritual space, a place that transcends nature. Believing Israel to be a
land like others is to despise it, to repudiate its most salient aspect.
To drive home this message, the waters of the Jordan split for them just
as they crossed over into the land. It was a powerful indicator that the
land they were about to enter was not restricted by nature but transcended
it. This point remains as true today as back then. A Jew makes his place
in the land through his emunah. We open ourselves up to the special
kedushah of the land by first believing in its standing outside the
boundaries of the natural order.
Rav Yehudah HaLevi explains in the Kuzari that there shines in Israel and
Israel alone a Divine light that illuminates through Torah, avodah,
and all lofty levels of spirituality. He likens Israel to a vineyard,
whose grapes grow best on an elevated hillside. We Jews as well are best
nurtured at the spiritual heights of Eretz Yisrael.
Following inexorably from this remarkable aspect of Israel is the parallel
strengths of the kelipah, the forces of tumah that
counterbalance its kedushah. These forces, however, are extrinsic
to the land. They can be overcome. (Thus, Yehoshua and Calev urged the
people on, “The land is very, very good.”11 They saw the land while the forces of tumah were
still fully resident, before Klal Yisrael could work to banish them.
They still understood that the land was intrinsically good!) When the
Torah warns against impropriety, so that “the land should not spit you out
in your contaminating it,”12 it does
not mean that the land will become changed in the process. It means that
the land must and will maintain its essential holiness, and will expel
those who introduce contamination to its borders.
To succeed in the struggle against the forces of tumah once again
takes emunah – belief in the ability of a Jew to overpower and
shatter those forces. To the degree that a person has ingrained in himself
this faith, this can-do attitude, to that degree he is able to take from
the holiness of the land.
Conquering the prodigious quantities of tumah associated with the
land takes great people. This explains why Moshe chose distinguished
leaders as the spies, rather than ordinary soldiers, as is usually the
case. Moshe understood that a breakthrough on the spiritual level had to
come through great people. (Even they could not do it alone. Yehoshua
and Calev were successful, but only after securing Divine assistance –
Yehoshua through Moshe’s special berachah, and Calev through his
davening at the tomb of the Patriarchs.) Moshe also wanted to be
armed with the merit of all twelve of the shevatim. He therefore
insisted on twelve spies, one per shevet.
The seven peoples who inhabited the land, and who ultimately engaged us in
combat, are simply the physical manifestation of the forces of
tumah which must counterbalance the extreme kedushah of the
land. (The Meor Einayim saw this relationship as a general truth.
We sometimes sense ourselves hounded or persecuted by people around us.
At those times, the real cause of our discomfort is not the evil in their
hearts. The ultimate reason is that we have been engaged by some aspects
of Judgment, making us vulnerable to attack. Those dinim from
Above then take substantive shape in the form of our persecutors! It is
the forces of tumah we really have to contend with, not their
agents in human form.)
Most of the spies were unable to complete their mission. Two succeeded.
Yehoshua and Calev made use of a technique spurned by the others. They
latched on to the merit of a great tzadik. Both Calev and Yehoshua
bonded significantly with Moshe. In fact, both attached themselves so
thoroughly that each nullified his own sense of self in favor of an
association with the tzadik.
This, too, is included in the opening Divine command, Shlach lecha -
send according to your own understanding. Your wisdom and insight should
shape the minds of those you send.
To succeed in overcoming the forces of tumah that are deliberately
placed in our way, we need to be able to eschew our own inner voices, and
align ourselves perfectly with the tzadik who is available to us.
1 Based on Nesivos Shalom, pgs. 62-65 2 Bamidbar 13:19 3 Shemos 3:8 4 Bamidbar 13:18 5 Devarim 1:23 6 Bamidbar 13:2 7 Bamidbar 13:3 8 Bamidbar 14:31 9 Recently, a non-observant spokesperson for the IDF told
journalists, “We don’t rely on miracles here in Israel. But we are not
surprised when they happen.” 10 Tehilim 106:24 11 Bamidbar 14:7 12 Vayikra 18:28