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A Divine Rendezvous

Shlach (Numbers 13-15 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Group dynamics are interesting and complex. Individuals who come from different places, geographically or emotionally, see the same situation in different ways. In the episode of the so-called spies, this phenomenon repeats itself over and over.

The first instance may be seen in the divergent reports delivered by the twelve emissaries who are sent to scout the Land of Israel. Ten of the scouts speak of the Land's beauty and bounty, but stress that conquest is not a viable option. The eleventh man, Calev (Caleb), insists that the land is conquerable, while the twelfth scout, Yehoshua (Joshua), remains silent. Remarkably, God is not a factor in the discussion: Divine intervention and the supernatural protection they continue to enjoy are not taken into consideration by any of the opposing sides in the debate.

Calev is adamant, and refuses to fall in line with the majority, which leads the ten dissidents to change tactics: making a subtle shift, they malign the Land itself and cast its desirability into question. Fear leads to mass hysteria; panic sets in. Suddenly, life and death as slaves seem preferable to the uncertain future that awaits them in the Promised Land (Bamidbar 14:2), and the masses begin to plot overthrowing their leaders and returning to Egypt (Bamidbar 14:4). It is likely that this consequence, the rebellion against Moshe and Aharon, was neither intended nor anticipated by the spies: They themselves were tribal leaders, and would likely have been cast aside in the same putsch.

Calev and Yehoshua protest: If God wills it, the conquest will happen. The Land, they insist - is exceedingly good. Here, then, are two different perspectives on the same set of observations: Is the Land conquerable? Is it desirable? What should the next stage of their collective history look like? One opinion is to forge ahead and begin the conquest; others prefer to abort the entire project and return to Egypt. A third group emerges: the very same people who started the debate, the ten spies who opined that going forward was not an option yet did not articulate an alternative plan of action, stand bewildered, even dumbfounded.

At this point, God intervenes. He threatens to eradicate the entire people and build a new nation from Moshe's descendants, but Moshe intercedes, pleading and praying, until a drastically reduced sentence is handed down: The malicious spies perish in a plague, and the masses who preferred Egypt or even death in the wilderness are banned from entering the Land they had rejected. In an ironic twist of poetic justice, they are doomed to die in the desert; only their children will merit entrance to the Land. Of the entire generation that left Egypt, Yehoshua and Calev would be the sole survivors.

In the aftermath of this tragic series of events, something strange happens. Another group forms, a group whose identity or size are not revealed. They reject the punishment, the death sentence that hangs over them, and decide that the time is ripe to conquer the Land of Israel. Tragically, they are massacred in battle.

Who were the members of this ill-advised group of would-be warriors? The Torah provides no details; all that is left to us is conjecture. While we might be tempted to say that the ten rogue spies repented and sought to correct the damage they had done, this is not an option: The text clearly states that they were already dead. One other certainty is that neither Calev nor Yehoshua were party to this effort; they both lived to fight another day.

While the possibilities seem endless, we can nonetheless narrow down the field of candidates. It seems unlikely that those who were so terrified of war that they preferred slavery and certain death, were suddenly emboldened. Only two reasonable candidates remain: the tribes of Calev and Yehoshua, the two dissenting scouts: Yehuda and Efraim.

While both are excellent candidates, one tribe in particular has fidelity to the Land of Israel indelibly imprinted in its spiritual DNA. While Calev's enthusiastic "Yes we can" (Bamidbar 13:30) response to the spies' disheartening assessment is certainly impressive, it seems far more likely that descendants of Yosef would take up the cause of Eretz Yisrael(1): Yehoshua was a descendant of Efraim, the son of Yosef - the same Yosef who mourned his personal exile, and whose dying wish was that he be carried out of Egypt and buried in Israel. Generations later, the daughters of Zlafhad(2) from the tribe of Menashe, Yosef's elder son, were unwilling to forfeit their inheritance in the Land of Israel. Time and again, the children of Yosef express a greater yearning for the Land of Israel. Yehoshua's own tribe seems likely to have spearheaded the push to conquer the Land; just as the head of the tribe, Yehoshua, would one day lead the battle, they decide to step forward.

Unfortunately, they seem to have failed to internalize the thrust of Yehoshua's message: The conquest will take place when God wills it, and only when He is in their midst. They had taken the wrong message from the sin of the spies, concluding that the time had come, and that they could correct the error of those who had eschewed the land by actively taking their future into their own hands. A comparison of census data before and after this episode reveals that the tribe of Ephraim suffered a sudden, drastic drop in population.(3) Apparently, in a tragic mix of bravery, self-confidence and misguided idealism, this band of Efraimites, known as the Ma'apilim, thought they could force God's hand, as it were. Perhaps they hoped to "catch up" with their destiny, which they saw slipping away. They must have hoped to reconcile with God in the Land of Israel, but they did not think they needed His help to get there.

Once again, we are struck by the difference in perspective: Ten spies considered God uninvolved, and did not figure Him into the equation at all. The masses thought that God hated them (Dvarim 1:27) and fully expected to be eradicated. The Ma'apilim looked forward to meeting God at the end of the battle, in an intimate rendezvous in The Land of Israel. Only Yehoshua and Calev fully understood that the only way to enter the Land is with God.

The message should not be lost on us: Although the events of modern history may also be interpreted from many different perspectives, there is, in fact, one interpretation that is more correct, more relevant, than the others: The miraculous ingathering of the exiles we are witnessing in the modern era is nothing short of the hand of God bringing His People back home for that great, long-awaited rendezvous.

For a more in-depth analysis see:


1. Sifri, Bamidbar 133 states that the descendants of Yosef had a particular love of the Land of Israel.

2. The Talmud (Shabbat 96a) suggests that Zlafhad may have been one of those who died on this failed mission.

3. As noted by the Radak in his commentary 1 Chronicles (Dvrie Hayamim) 7:21.


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