- Moses sends twelve spies to the Land of Israel to report on the inhabitants and the country. Despite the positive report of Joshua and Caleb, the people are frightened. (13:1–14:10)
- God threatens to wipe out the Children of Israel but relents when Moses intercedes on their behalf. To punish the people, God announces that all those who left Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel except for Joshua and Caleb. (14:11–45)
- Moses instructs the Israelites regarding setting aside challah, the observance of the Sabbath, how to treat strangers, and the laws of tzitzit. (15:1–41)
by Don Cogan
In this parashah, the Israelites approaching the Promised Land are faced with the prospect of entering Canaan while lacking tangible information about the challenges they would be facing. Through Moses, G-d allows them to use spies to bring back observations they felt would be useful in planning their entry and conquest. The spy mission was to glean information such as the strength of the enemy forces, their agriculture, the geography of the land and the civic structure of the inhabitants.
According to the parashah, 12 spies are sent, one from each tribe. Upon their return after 40 days, only one of the spies, Caleb, brings back a positive report, and he urges the Israelites to enter and take the land. A second chosen spy, Joshua, largely supports Caleb in this regard. However the remaining 10 spies are exceedingly negative, essentially outweighing and distorting Caleb’s and Joshua’s encouragement by emphasizing that the land is well-fortified and inhabited by giants that could easily destroy the Israelites. At this point, the Israelites become totally distraught, admonishing Moses and Aaron and plotting to stone Caleb and Joshua to death.
Not surprisingly, G-d is not at all pleased with this rebellion against his expectation that the Israelites enter the land and conquer it as commanded. It takes a considerable degree of assuaging on Moses’ part to appease G-d’s anger. Even then, G-d decrees that only Caleb and Joshua will live to enter the Promised Land and that the Israelites will be destined to wander for 40 years before entering.
In my reviewing interpretations of the parashah, it’s apparent it was not G-d’s initial recommendation that the spies be employed to investigate the land before the Israelites entered it. He expected the people of Israel to have faith and to proceed based on this faith. It was only after the people expressed their fear of moving forward “in the dark”, and Moses conveying their concerns to G-d, that G-d consented to have this reconnaissance mission take place, with the proviso that 12 spies are sent, one from each tribe to participate.
In deriving an interpretation on this parashah, I feel it’s vital that first one steps completely outside of our present-day context. If the Israelites were faced with a similar circumstance in today’s world, no doubt they would insist on availing themselves of every possible technique and technology to maximize their chances of success. Spy satellites, reconnaissance aircraft, drones – they would pull out all the stops to assure that they had the most comprehensive, objective information to work with in assessing the enemy and plotting their takeover strategy.
Unfortunately, back in these ancient times the Israelites simply didn’t have the benefit of relying on this modern high-tech stuff. They had to rely on their eyes, ears and wits. And the problem associated with these alone is that they are highly basely on subjective interpretation and resultant distortion. Many of us have learned this early on through the instructive game of “telephone”, where a story becomes more and more distorted the further down the line it goes. Far less innocuous, are the all-too-many cases of witness accounts of possible crime scenes in which each witness is subject to imperfect perceptions, mental filters and the influence and opinions of others.
It’s understandable that imperfect, vulnerable human beings are reluctant to proceed with lack of information, or on what we might refer to as “blind faith. G-d fully recognized man’s limitations and thus his reluctance understandable , to allow the Israelites the use of spies who, while they may have been quite skilled, were subject to the imperfections of subjectivity, distorted perceptions and peer pressure. The painful lesson learned by the Israelites in this parashah was a sobering yet necessary one. In order for the Israelites to thrive they needed to rely more on faith and thus not be falsely swayed falsely by those imperfect, tempting human influences they would continue to face.