> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

The Spies

Shlach (Numbers 13-15 )


God spoke to Moses saying: 'Send for you men to tour the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Children of Israel.' (Numbers 13:1-2)

Moses is called upon to send a reconnaissance mission, ostensibly to assess the lay of the land in advance of the upcoming conquest. He is to send a representative from each tribe. The text attests to the greatness of this select group:

All of them were leaders of the people. (Numbers 13:3)

The mission ends in failure. The spies return, but instead of planning a means of conquest, they conclude that entering the land is an unattainable goal, telling the entire nation:

'... the people of the land are strong and the cities are fortified ...' (Numbers 13:28)

Of course the question, "What went wrong?" is immediately posed. After all, it seems to have been God's idea to send the spies, and the people were hand-picked by Moses. What accounted for the failure?

We should note that this indiscretion had greater implications than the other episodes in the desert, such as the Golden Calf or the various incidents when the People demanded food or drink. The Zohar accuses them of self-interest:

Moses sent them. They were all men, they were righteous prominent leaders of Israel, but their words caused terrible calamity. What made them do this? Rather, they said: "If Israel enters the land, Moses will cause us to be replaced, for we can only lead in the desert, but in the land we will not lead." (Zohar Shlach 158a).

The Zohar paints a picture of leaders who are more concerned with their own position of power than the good of their constituents.

It is hard to imagine that such people were the elite, hand-picked by Moses to lead the Chosen People.

In a move that would have made Machiavelli proud, they guarantee their own standing by preventing the situation which would have caused their removal from power.

It is hard to imagine that such people were the elite, the men hand-picked by Moses to lead the Chosen People. What could have caused such a myopic outlook, such a breakdown in leadership?


Of the twelve spies, two men – Joshua and Caleb – rejected the nefarious plot. Of the two, Joshua is more familiar to us; he was Moses' "right-hand man" and was the one who eventually took the reigns of leadership. However, upon analysis of the text, we are somewhat surprised to find that Joshua remained silent when the other spies gave their report. It was Caleb, and Caleb alone, who spoke up:

And Caleb silenced the people before Moses, and he (Caleb) said, 'We shall surely go up and inherit the land, for we can indeed take her.' And the people who had entered with him said, 'We will not be able to go up against the nation (living there) for they are stronger than we.' (Numbers 13:30-31)

Caleb's heroism is striking. He stands up against the crowd, silences the rabble, and attempts to sway public opinion toward Moses and away from the nay-sayers. Joshua's silence, on the other hand, is equally striking. Surely, when the verse refers to the other spies, Joshua is not included, despite the implications of a literal reading of the text.

It is only later in the narrative that we hear Joshua's voice:

And the people said to one another, 'Let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt.' Moses and Aaron prostrated themselves in front of the community ... and Joshua bin Nun and Caleb ben Yefuneh, from those who had toured the Land, tore their clothes and they said to the assembled Congregation of Israel, 'The land which we traveled ... is indeed a very fine land.' (Numbers 14:5-7)

Here, finally, Joshua speaks. He follows the lead of Moses, Aaron and Caleb. The question remains: Why was Joshua silent up to this point?

This question, as well as our earlier query regarding the breakdown of leadership among the spies, can both be answered by a comment of the Sh"lah HaKadosh (Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz). He explains that, indeed, all the spies were great men, but the consideration of the ten errant spies was that they wished to remain in the desert with their beloved leader Moses. They did not reject the Land of Israel, but preferred to learn Torah from Moses in exile. They appreciated that the land was, indeed, a holy land, a special land, but they believed that the Jews needed to earn their entry into the land. They knew that the Land of Israel would "vomit out" any who were undeserving. (See also comments by Rav Tzaddok in "Pri Tzaddik").


This would explain the passage from the Zohar cited above. Their choice to remain in the desert was not a cynical misuse of power; rather, it was an earnest, well thought-out

strategy. They felt the people were simply not ready to enter the land, and that they needed the old generation of leadership, of the type represented by Moses. Their mandate, of course, was fact-finding; they were not asked to draw conclusions. Perhaps power, which is often intoxicating, clouded their judgment and brought them to the conclusion that the generation still needed them as leaders and Moses as teacher.

This understanding of the spies' intent is entirely contingent on the knowledge that Moses would not be entering the land, Moses would not be leading the Jews across the Jordan to Israel.

An enigmatic passage in last week's Torah portion provides the key to unraveling this mystery.

But why would they have suspected that this would be the case? If we follow the chronology of the narrative, Moses had not yet sinned by striking the rock, and it had not yet been decreed that he would die and be buried in the desert.

An enigmatic passage in last week's Torah portion provides the key to unraveling this mystery. We are told that Moses gathered 70 elders and the Divine Spirit rested on them, and they began to prophesize. In the aftermath, we are told:

Two men remained in the camp. One was named Eldad and the other Medad, and the Spirit rested upon them ... and they prophesized in the camp ... and Joshua bin Nun, the servant of Moses since his youth, said: 'My master Moses, arrest them, stop them.' And Moses said to him, 'Are you jealous for me? Would that all the nation were prophets, and that God will rest His Spirit upon them.' (Numbers 11:26-29)

Here, Joshua speaks. Moses' honor is his foremost concern. But what was it that elicited such a strong response from Joshua? Seventy elders had just prophesized; what was it about these two prophets, Eldad and Medad, in the camp that so upset Joshua? Perhaps the content of their prophecy is what concerned him:

And what did they prophesize? They said, 'Moses dies, and Joshua leads to the land.' (Sanhedrin 17a).

Joshua's outburst is understandable. This terrible prophecy must be false, he thinks. He calls upon Moses to silence them. Moses' response is all the more poignant, for at this point Moses understands that he is not to enter the land (Zohar 155b). Yet Moses instructs Joshua not to be jealous for him.


Our earlier questions are thus resolved: The spies were aware of the dreadful prophecy that Moses would not lead the people into the Land of Israel. The spies knew that the path which would lead to the land would be one fraught with spiritual and physical perils, and they felt that the people were not yet well-enough prepared to face the challenges ahead. They sought to "buy time" – time in which the entire nation, and the leaders in particular, could benefit from Moses' teaching and become ready for the tasks they would face. In a word, they felt the people were not ready to enter the land, nor leave Moses behind.

Joshua was effectively placed in an impossible position.

Joshua was effectively placed in an impossible position. Had he spoken out and expressed any desire to enter the Land, he would have been accused of seeking power. Had he expressed faith, in the face of the other spies' message of despair, he would have been called treacherous, faithless, megalomaniacal. Joshua had no choice but to remain silent.

The other ten spies did not account for Caleb's bravery, but when we consider who Caleb was and where he came from, we can gain insight into his strength. Caleb came from the tribe of Judah, while Joshua came from Joseph. These two tribes will will one day produce the two Messiahs, Son of David and Son of Joseph.

Joshua served as the prototype for the Messiah, Son of Joseph, whose role focuses on the physical deliverance of the Nation of Israel, just as Joseph himself was the great provider for his entire generation. Caleb, though, from the tribe of Judah, is an essential link in the chain leading to the Davidic Dynasty which culminates in Messiah, Son of David.

While the other spies outmaneuvered Joshua, forcing him into silence, they did not anticipate the profundity of Caleb's spirit. Caleb, from the tribe of Judah, is the prototype of Davidic leadership which brought the Temple to fruition. Caleb's spirit is foreshadowed in the text, when we are told:

They entered in the Negev and he came up to Hebron. (Numbers 13:22)

Here, Rashi notes the peculiarity in the text: The first half of the verse is plural, the second singular, which leads Rashi to state, based on a Talmudic teaching, that Caleb went to Hebron alone, in order to pray over the graves of his ancestors. As a reward for Caleb's later actions, he is allotted Hebron as his inheritance (see Deut. 1:36 and Judges 1:20). There is another aspect of Hebron; not only did Caleb pray at the graves of his ancestors, but he effectively established the spiritual antecedents of the reign of King David:

And the years that David ruled over Israel were forty years. In Hebron, he ruled for seven years, and in Jerusalem for 33 years. (Kings I, 2:11)

The beginning of David's monarchy is in Hebron, in the portion of Caleb. If the foundation of the Davidic Dynasty lies in the greatness of Judah, the infrastructure for that dynasty lies in Caleb. This was something which the spies never anticipated.


The error of the spies, placing their devotion to Moses (and their own jobs) over their love for the land, was justified in their minds as "true dedication to Torah." This error is mirrored in another episode later in this week's Torah portion:

And the Children of Israel were in the desert, and they found a man gathering wood (literally, trees) on the Sabbath. (Numbers 15:32)

Tosafot (Baba Batra 119b) explains that this episode immediately follows the spies incident. The entire generation, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, has just been sentenced to perish in the desert. The man who gathered the wood on Shabbat felt the people may have given up on Jewish practice, feeling that their actions were no longer relevant. He deliberately desecrated the Sabbath in order to force the issue, to demonstrate that they would still be held responsible for their actions.

The wood-gatherer placed Torah on a pedestal and desecrated Shabbat.

In the words of the Targum Yonatan (Yerushalmi), the wood-gatherer desecrated the Sabbath in order to illustrate what the punishment for this sin would be. The common denominator between the explanations of the Tosafot and the Targum is that the wood-gatherer gives up his life for Torah. He certainly saw his own behavior as heroic; like the spies, he had placed Torah on a pedestal, in conflict with the Word of God and the teachings of Moses. The spies too had distorted Torah, just as the wood-gatherer did soon after.

The spies were sent to inspect the Land:

'And to see if the Land is fat or thin, if it has a tree or not ...' (Numbers 13:20)

According to the Zohar, Moses is asking about a specific tree, the Tree of Life. Is the Promised Land the Garden of Eden? Will Moses be able to enter? (See Zohar 157a.)

The Torah is compared to the Tree of Life; this is what Moses is seeking. The spies' confusion begins when they do not find the Tree of Life and the Garden of Eden in Israel. They think that Moses seeks life for himself at all costs. Their actions, despite their good intentions, had a disastrous effect on the community, who were quickly frightened and lost faith.

The wood-gatherer, on the other hand, gathers the trees together, effectively confusing the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. The wood-gatherer confused the different types of trees, symbolically represented by his gathering the trees together, thereby allowing him to sacrifice his life in order to teach an idea, or perhaps a nuance of an idea.

Both the spies and the wood-gatherer were well-intentioned, but neither consulted with Moses. Instead, they both distorted the teachings of Torah, and the results were disastrous.

The spies chose Torah in exile over inheriting the land without Moses; the wood-gatherer hoped to illustrate that there was no goal for the Jewish people other than Torah, in its narrowest application, which was suicidal.

But both of these trends of thought are deviations. True Torah is a Tree of Life for all who embrace her, a way of life and a way of living in this world. Neither the spies nor the wood-gatherer understood that.


Leave a Reply

1 2 3 2,912

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram