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

To Climb the Mountain

Shlach (Numbers 13-15 )


Of all the sins which the children of Israel perpetrated in the desert, the one with the most far reaching consequences was the sin of the spies. While other offences generated a local' concentrated response, in the case of the spies, while the perpetrators perished, the entire nation suffered for the next 40 years by being forced to languish in the desert.1

There is a great deal of intrigue which surrounds the story.

There is a great deal of intrigue which surrounds the story. For one thing, the observation that despite the widespread labeling of the incident as the "sin of the spies"2 the word spy does not appear at any point in this Torah portion. Rather, here, the term tur is used, which implies touring and not spying. If the sin of the spies did indeed have such dire consequences, then why did God command it, and why did Moses acquiesce without the slightest discernable hesitation.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Send men, that they may travel the land of Canaan, which I give to the people of Israel; of every tribe of their fathers shall you send a man, every one a leader among them." And Moses by the commandment of the Lord sent them from the wilderness of Paran; all those men were chiefs of the people of Israel. (Numbers 13:1-3)

While most of us are primarily familiar with the episode based on the description in this week's Torah portion, this may provide a "stilted" reading, and hence our questions.


The recounting of the story in the beginning of Deuteronomy deals with both of these issues. On the one hand there, the tourists are referred to (in retrospect) as spies. On the other hand, far more background is offered to the story.

And I said to you: "You have come to the mountain of the Amorites, which the Lord our God gives to us. Behold, the Lord your God has set the land before you; go up and possess it, as the Lord God of your fathers has said to you; fear not, nor be discouraged." And you came near me every one of you, and said, "We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us word again by which way we must go up, and to what cities we shall come." And the saying pleased me well; and I took twelve men of you, one from each tribe. And they turned and went up into the mountain, and came to the valley of Eshkol, and searched (spied) it out. (Deut. 1:20-24)

We see from the above that the idea of sending the spies arose from the ranks, and Moses was enthused by the prospects. Now we may understand our Torah portion where we are told God says "If you really want to, then go ahead and send them." This is how Rashi explains the text. While the interpretation may have seemed somewhat forced and theologically disturbing - why would God encourage Moses to send the men to set out on a mission destined for failure? – Rashi explains that God is saying "if you really would like to send them then fine," hence the wording in Hebrew shelach l'cha, meaning "send for your edification."

Moses' role becomes more disturbing.

While this answers one question, namely God's involvement in the debacle, now Moses' role becomes more disturbing. By getting God "off the hook" Moses assumes more responsibility. Indeed, why did Moses think that this was a wonderful idea? Why did Moses wish to send spies?

The answer to this question is in the other observation: Moses never sent "spies." Moses sent "men" to see the land. The mission was not one of intelligence gathering.


The prototypical spies in the Torah are the accused brothers of Joseph:

And Joseph remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said to them, "You are spies; to see the nakedness of the land you have come." And they said to him, "No, my lord, your servants came to buy food. We are all one man's sons; we are honest men, your servants are no spies." And he said to them, "No, to see the nakedness of the land you have come." (Genesis 42:9-12)

They were accused of searching the land, of plotting calculated devious behavior. Moses did not request that type of mission. Moses sent them to "tour" the land. It is true that they were further told to see the land. The question is for what purpose - to produce a conquest feasibility study, or to see the land for an alternative reason.

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik suggested a completely different purpose of the mission. There is a law taught in the Talmud that it is inappropriate to marry someone unless you meet the person first. Technically marriage could be executed by sending an agent without a personal meeting. Despite the decidedly unromantic prospect of marriage without any relationship, the "acquisition" would be valid. Marriage, however, should be based on love, and hopefully the love should grow as the years go by.

Marriage – with the people and their land – should be based on love.

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested that the entering of the land by these emissaries "men of renown" was intended to foster the love between a people and the Promised Land. The critical approach which they took was therefore completely uncalled for and unexpected. This land had been their destiny for centuries; the Israelites had been pining for the day that they could return home. One can only imagine how tales of this exquisite land with the beauty of the sea coupled with the majestic mountain ranges, which would once again be home, gave strength to the slave in Egypt exhausted beyond imagination.

Now as these men return from their mission they articulate the impossible – the land is indeed stunning, but unattainable; and there are plenty of negatives, which apparently got lost in years of visualizing this land in idyllic terms.


If we were to return to the metaphor of the young erstwhile lovers, here the matchmaker was God, who promised that this is indeed the match of your dreams, the match which was made when you were conceived, the proverbial bashert. However upon meeting, self-doubt overwhelms and anticipation of years of happiness is replaced by the gnawing feeling that this match was not meant to be. In an ordinary match this would be akin to explaining your position to friends, then making disparaging comments about your date, which of course ultimately reflects on the matchmaker as well.

In light of Rabbi Soloveitchik's explanation, we can now understand Moses' enthusiasm in sending the spies. Moses saw the meeting in religious, spiritual terms. On the other hand the spies saw their mission in pragmatic terms, their mission was cold and calculating; in a word, they thought their mandate was to be "spies." We may discern Moses' motivation by the instructions that he offers:

And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said to them, "Go up this way southward, and go up into the mountain. And see the land, what it is; and the people who live in it, whether they are strong or weak, few or many. And what the land is that they live in, whether it is good or bad; and what cities they are that they live in, whether in tents, or in fortresses. And what the land is, whether it is fat or lean, whether there is wood in it, or not. And be you of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land. Now the time was the time of the first ripe grapes." (Numbers 13:17-20)


Moses's instructions are interesting; they may be divided into three parts:

  1. The first part seems exclusively geographical "Go up this way southward, and go up into the mountain."
  2. The second part seems inquisitive; looking for information "And see the land, what it is; and the people who live in it, whether they are strong or weak, few or many. And what the land is that they live in, whether it is good or bad; and what cities they are that they live in, whether in tents, or in fortresses. And what the land is, whether it is fat or lean, whether there is wood in it, or not."
  3. The third part sounds like a request; "and bring of the fruit of the land."

However, the last part is not stated in the conditional form, which it should have been if we properly understood the second part. In that case, it should have said: "See what type of land it is – and if you find produce please bring some back." Instead, Moses says definitively: "and bring of the fruit of the land." This means that the second part was not fact finding, rather it was rhetorical. When Moses asks "whether it is good or bad," Moses knows the right answer, as he assumes these men do as well.

Why did Moses tell them to climb the mountain.

What was the purpose of Moses's first comments: "Go up this way southward, and go up into the mountain"? From where the Israelites are encamped not that many options are available – of course, they will come from the south, and surely they will soon hit a mountain range. We must listen carefully to Moses's words, for they are not superfluous, nor mundane. Moses's words are intrinsic, they are part of his instructions, and, in fact, coming first they may be the most important part of the instructions.3


The term "ascend the mountain" should have an associative meaning, especially when we consider that the duration of the excursion was forty days. Moses too had gone up a mountain for forty days. Moses was involved in a profound religious experience, he met God on the mountain. Now, Moses believes that a similar experience awaits these travelers, as they embark on a mission to the land where God dwells:

"For the land, which you enter to possess, is not as the land of Egypt, from where you came out, where you sowed your seed, and watered it with your foot, as a garden of vegetables. But the land, which you are going over to possess, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinks water from the rain of the skies. A land which the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year." (Deut. 11:8-12)

Apparently Moses does know something about this land, especially its spiritual makeup, he does not need a detailed report. Which specific mountain does Moses have in mind? Based on an analysis of the Torah it appears to be Hebron.

And they ascended by the south, and he came to Hebron. (Numbers 13:22)

When they came from the south they arrived at Hebron, this is the mountain range they would have to cross, and is clearly what Moses had in mind. However readers of the text in Hebrew notice a shift in grammar "they ascended by the south" yet here, the form is singular "he came" to Hebron:

And they went up by the South and he came unto Hebron — It should have read "and they came"! Raba said: "It teaches that Calev held aloof from the plan of the spies and went and prostrated himself upon the graves of the patriarchs, saying to them, "My fathers, pray on my behalf that I may be delivered from the plan of the spies."4(Sotah 34b)

Had all these men heeded to Moses' advice they would all have been spared. Had they understood the spiritual nature of their mission they would not have needed to be spared.


There may, however, be a deeper meaning to the significance of Hebron in this context. The exile, which they were crawling out of, had its origin in Hebron. From Hebron Jacob sent Joseph to seek his brothers, and, as we know, he ended up in Egypt.

And Israel said to Joseph, "Are not your brothers feeding the flock in Shechem? Come, and I will send you to them." And he said to him, "Here am I." And he said to him, "Go, I beg you, see whether it is well with your brothers, and well with the flocks; and bring me word again." So he sent him out from the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. (Genesis 37:13-14)

The Midrash poses a question on the topography implicit in the verse:

So he sent him out from the valley of Hebron, But surely Hebron lies on a mountain, yet you say, "out from the valley of Hebron"? Said Rabbi Aha: "He went to bring about the fulfillment of the deep designs which the Holy One, blessed be He, had arranged between Himself and His noble companion who is buried in Hebron [Abraham], as it says And shall serve them, and they shall afflict them (Genesis 15:13)." (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LXXXIV:14)

The Midrash explains that the term valley of Hebron implies something deep in the recesses of Hebron, namely the covenant formed between God and Abraham which included a promise of exile.

Now it was time to return to Hebron and inform the Patriarchs that the time has arrived for the children to return home. Hebron the origin of the Jewish ownership of Israel, the plot bought by Abraham for a burial place for his beloved Sarah. Now these great men who were supposed to fall in love with the land of their dreams are told to return home ascend the mountain. Yet only one of the men understands his mission, only Calev comes home to Hebron.


Moses' itinerary was of the "holy sights" – this was to be a religious pilgrimage, therefore, of course, Hebron must be the first stop, where they are to ascend the mountain.

The spies however had a different plan, they thought that they must spy.

Was the conquest of the land meant to be a spiritual experience?

As we recall the very idea of entering the land on this mission arose from the people.5 What were they seeking? The people knew that one day soon the time would arrive for the conquest. Was this conquest meant to be a spiritual experience? Or was this to be a series of epic battles? The people preferred the "normal life" to the pressures of living with God in their midst. They probably envisioned the conquest as a natural process. This would be especially true if they knew that Moses would not be the leader who takes them into the land.

The Talmud teaches that the prophecy of Eldad and Medad contained that ominous message:

They said, "Moses shall die and Joshua shall bring Israel into the land.' (Sanhedrin 17a, cited in Rashi 11:28)

The last time Joshua led was the battle against Amalek, and things did not go as well as the people would have wanted:

Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim. And Moses said to Joshua, "Choose for us men, and go out, fight with Amalek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand." So Joshua did as Moses had said to him, and fought with Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses' hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Joshua weakened Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. (Exodus 17:8-13)

Then, the one with power to win was the great Moses; now with only Joshua leading, the spies felt that they would need greater military prowess. But the Talmud stresses that it was not the hands of Moses which clinched the battle, rather being with God, and focusing on God is what allowed the people to be victorious.

Now did the hands of Moses wage war or crush the enemy? Not so; rather, the text signifies that so long as Israel turned their thoughts above and subjected their hearts to their father in heaven they prevailed, but otherwise they fell. (Rosh Hashana 29a)


The spies are unconfident, uncertain what the future holds. Moses, for his part, tells them the secret to succeed – if they look to the heavens, if they climb the mountain, they will be victorious. If God is with them, then victory is theirs. The Torah had actually already told the plan for the conquest – immediately prior to Moses's ascension of the mountain of Sinai.

Behold, I send an Angel before you, to keep you in the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Take heed of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions; for My name is in him. But if you shall indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy to your enemies, and an adversary to your adversaries. For My Angel shall go before you, and bring you in to the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I will cut them off ... I will send My fear before you, and will destroy all the people to whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite, from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year; lest the land become desolate, and the beast of the field multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you are increased, and inherit the land. (Exodus 23:21-23,27-30 )

The passage is complex. On the one hand God's spirit will be in a force (or person) who leads them, yet the conquest will be gradual.

Is this the description of a natural or supernatural conquest?

The people evidently felt that they must do the hard work themselves. But the Torah was quite clear that God will scatter the enemies, He will put fear in their hearts and they will [slowly] prepare the land for its rightful owners.

The spies did not climb the mountain, they did not join God in a rendezvous as they were to transverse the land as Abraham of old had. Their pragmatism won the day, as their intelligence report concluded that they could not climb the mountain. Of course, had they known the significance of the mountain, they would have realized that indeed they could climb it.


The Torah ends the story of the spies by telling us how the spies are sentenced to death, and how the rest of the generation would die in the desert. There is then a postscript to the tragedy:

And Moses told these sayings to all the people of Israel; and the people mourned greatly. And they rose up early in the morning, and went up to the top of the mountain, saying, "Behold, we are here, and will go up to the place of which the Lord has spoken; for we have sinned." And Moses said, "Why do you now transgress the commandment of the Lord? But it shall not succeed. Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you; so that you should not be struck before your enemies. For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and you shall fall by the sword; because you are turned away from the Lord, therefore the Lord will not be with you." But they presumed to go up to the hilltop; nevertheless the Ark of the covenant of the Lord, and Moses, departed not from the camp. Then the Amalekites came down, and the Canaanites who lived in that hill defeated them, and pursued them, even to Hormah. (Numbers 14:39-45)

These people were known for posterity as the ma'apilim, which implies brazenness, or presumptuousness.6 Now, after the decree has been sealed that they must live and die in the desert, they decided that they wish to go up the mountain, they wish to enter the land. Moses tells them that they should not be foolish that they will not succeed. "Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you". The only way to enter the land is with God that is what Moses tried to teach them.7

The very fact that the land is a place where God may be discerned was what the ma'apilim misinterpreted. When they are sentenced to remain in the desert, the ma'apilim refuse to take the sentence passively.

They thought the only mistake was their lack of gumption, or bravery. They would correct that mistake. What the ma'apilim and the spies failed to understand, is that the Land of Israel is land where the presence of God is discernable.


It is a land where the Shechina rests. Therefore, the mode of entering the land is to join God, not to fight nor force the Divine hand.

The land indeed is a special land.

This is is a love story between a people and their home, a match which had been chosen at the dawn of history. It is land where the eyes of God are our constant companions: "A land which the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year." The manner of entering the land is intimately connected with living in the land. As the purpose of living in the land is a rendezvous with the Shechina, the way to enter the land is to ascend the mountain, and join God. Neither the spies nor the ma'apilim understood that.



    • The Rabbinic association of the destruction of the Temples on the same day is a further echo of the same idea. The 9th of Av is recorded as a day of infamy, and through history countless other atrocities, including the Spanish expulsion took place on that date. (return to text)

    • For example see Mishna Sanhedrin 10:3, Midrash Rabbah - Numbers 16:2, Rashi 13:2. (return to text)

    • Rabbi Solovietchik made this point. (return to text)

    • As far as Yehoshua the Talmud continues: As for Yehoshua, Moses had already prayed on his behalf. (return to text)
    • "And you came near me every one of you, and said, We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us word again by which way we must go up, and to what cities we shall come." (Deut. 1:22) (return to text)

    • The Midrash also asociates the term with darkness Midrash Rabbah – Numbers 17:3.

      "But they presumed (wayya'pilu) to go up (Numbers 14:44). Wayya'pilu implies that they brought darkness (afela) upon themselves and all of them remained in darkness." (return to text)

    • The Midrash explains the logic of the ma'apilim: See Midrash Rabbah – Bamidbar 17:3. (return to text)


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