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


Shlach (Numbers 13-15 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Twelve men are chosen for a mission. The mission will take them to the Promised Land; soon the entire nation will follow. In the end, the mission is a dismal failure: Ten of the twelve emissaries prove to be treacherous, and instead of bringing the People of Israel closer to the Promised Land they cause the entire nation to remain in the desert for forty years.

Even the most casual reading of this episode raises many questions, not least of which is most primary question of all: Why were these twelve men sent - and at whose bidding? Whose idea was this? The textual evidence seems self-contradictory: In this week's parsha, God Himself initiates the expedition:

And God spoke to Moshe, saying, Send men, that they may spy 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. (Bamidbar 13:1-2)

On the other hand, in Moshe's retrospective of the events, he recounts that the initiative came from the people, and he gave his approval:

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 idea pleased me; and I took twelve men of you, one from each tribe. (Devarim 1:22-23)

The more complete picture is that the idea to send scouts ahead of the camp was a grassroots initiative which eventually received official approval: The people asked for the mission, Moshe agreed and God acquiesced. This is actually a very significant nuance in understanding the way the story unfolds. We begin to sense that the mission itself was flawed from the very outset: God knew that the plan was doomed to failure, but He nonetheless allowed the people to follow their chosen path, despite its folly. God directs them to send the leaders of each tribe.

The names of the twelve spies are enumerated, and the we are informed that one name was changed:

These are the names of the men which Moshe sent to spy out the land. And Moshe called Hoshea the son of Nun - Yehoshua. (Bamidbar 13:16)

Why was this name changed? We are offered two different interpretations - one by the Talmud and one by Rashi. Both are somewhat ominous.

According to the Talmudic tradition, Moshe renames Yehoshua in preparation for the transfer of the mantle of leadership. Moshe knew that it would be Yehoshua who would lead the People into the Land. The prophecy of Eldad and Meidad, recorded in last week's parsha, echoed through the camp.

And what did they prophesy? They said, Moshe shall die and Yehoshua shall bring Israel into the Land. (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 17a)

Moshe knew that eventually Yehoshua would lead the nation; as they stood on the threshold of the Land of Israel, he thought the time had arrived. Moshe changed Hoshea's name as a symbol of his new status as leader of the nation, just as God changed Avraham and Sarah's names to reflect their new status as progenitors of great nations. But Moshe had no illusions about the task which he would leave to Yehoshua; he had witnessed his share of rebellion on the part of the people. Their behavior had pushed him to the brink.1 Moshe had every reason to suspect that the People of Israel would present Yehoshua with the same challenges they had presented him, and he prayed on Yehoshua's behalf:

Another exposition: When Moshe saw that the others were wicked men he said to Yehoshua: "May God save you from this generation." (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 16:9)

Rashi's comments are of a similar vein, but offer an alternative reading of Moshe's prayer: Moshe had a premonition about the group chosen as scouts; he believed them capable of treachery and feared for his protege's spiritual health. In order to spiritually fortify Hoshea, Moshe calls him Yehoshua.

He prayed for him, may God (Y-A) save you from the plot of the spies. (Rashi, Bamidbar 13:16)

This explanation presents problems of its own: If Moshe had a negative premonition, why did he proceed? Why not delay or cancel the mission, or change the personnel? And if Moshe felt the need to pray - why not pray for all of them? 2 Moreover, Hoshea ben Nun is called Yehoshua in various earlier junctures in the narrative, a fact that led some commentaries to posit that the name change took place prior to the mission of the spies. They explain that it was standard practice for leaders to rename people when they began their duties in service of the king.3

In fact, at no point before this mission is Hoshea referred to by any name other than Yehoshua, leading the Ramban to surmise that Moshe had changed his name to Yehoshua long before this episode. Moshe's premonition was not new; he had foreseen this mission, and its dangers, from the beginning of Yehoshua's service, and changed his name long before the mission set out.4 While this would account for earlier usages of the name Yehoshua, we must now face the question of the origins and impetus of the spies' mission with even greater scrutiny: Did Moshe know, much earlier on, that the people would ask to send spies and that the mission would result in disaster? If so, why did he take no steps to avert this chain of events?

We have noted the Ramban's comments regarding the timing of Yehoshua's name change; we should not fail to note the context in which the Ramban makes these comments. Yehoshua is first introduced in the Book of Sh'mot; even then, the Ramban notes, he is referred to as Yehoshua, not as Hoshea. The context is the battle against Amalek: Moshe summons Yehoshua to lead the forces:

Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim. And Moshe said to Yehoshua, 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 Yehoshua did as Moshe had said to him, and fought with Amalek; and Moshe, Aharon, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. (Shmot 17:8-10)

We should also note that this earlier episode shares a key theme with the episode of the spies: In both cases we find the phrase "choose for us men" - in the earlier case, to fight against Amalek, and in our present parsha, to ascertain the lay of the Land of Israel. In fact, these two episodes may have more in common than meets the eye: At the end of the battle against Amalek we are told that Amalek was weakened, and Moshe is commanded to transmit a message to Yehoshua:

And Yehoshua weakened Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. 14. And God said to Moshe, 'Write this for a memorial in a book, and recite it in the ears of Yehoshua; for I will completely put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. (Shmot 17:13)

Of all of Israel, it is specifically Yehoshua who is addressed; the message is directed to Yehoshua above all others. On one hand, this is understandable: Yehoshua was the one chosen to lead the first battle against Amalek, but the enemy was defeated yet not vanquished. Yehoshua had won the battle, but the war was still undecided. There would be another battle, and Yehoshua would be there - waiting to defeat the enemy once and for all.

As a descendant of Yosef, Yehoshua was particularly well-suited to defeat Amalek. At Yosef's birth Rashi tells us of the special trait that Yosef possesses that will allow him to defeat Israel's sworn and mortal enemy.

Yosef and his descendants are the spiritual antidote to "Amalekism"; only when Yosef is born does Yaakov feel he will be capable of surviving the confrontation with Esav/Amalek. Similarly, it is Yosef's descendant Yehoshua who is chosen to lead the first battle against this old-new enemy. Yet the war with Amalek had yet to be won; Yehoshua knew it, as did Moshe. And so, when men are sent to explore the Land of Israel, Moshe's instructions are very precise:

And Moshe sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said to them, 'Go up this way through the Negev (i.e., southward), and go up into the mountain. (Bamidbar 13:17)

They are instructed to climb the mountain from the south. When the so-called spies eventually return, this is one of the few truthful elements of their dire report: The hated and feared Amalekites occupied the land in the south.

The Amalekites live in the land of the Negev; and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, live in the mountains; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and by the side of the Jordan. (Bamidbar 13:29)

Moshe's instructions set them on a course that might well have led to confrontation with the tribe of Amalek. Therefore, the choice of Yehoshua as a member of the scouting party becomes understandable: It was he who led the first battle against Amalek; it was his ancestry and his personal attributes that made him most suitable then, as now, to lead the battle. It was clear from the start that Hoshea ben Nun was the man for this job. Therefore, before the first battle against Amalek, Moshe changed Hoshea's name - reflecting the primary task for which Yehoshua was destined, the battle against Amalek. This task was part and parcel of the mission on which the twelve men were sent. Yehoshua, who led the first battle, might here be given a chance to complete the mission for which he had been chosen.

Was this Moshe's purpose in directing the emissaries along this specific route? We must consider that Moshe had fully intended to precipitate a decisive victory over Amalek at this point. The nation stood on the verge of the Land of Israel, about to fulfill God's covenant with Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. The only element still missing to usher in this new era, the missing piece in the picture of a redeemed world which Moshe saw unfolding before him, was the eradication of the forces of evil represented by the descendants of Amalek.

In changing Hoshea's name to Yehoshua, Moshe sought to address this last remaining element. Moshe's choice of the new form of Hoshea's name was not random: adding the letter "yud" to Hoshea created a string of letters which constitute the first three of Tetragrammaton, the four-lettered Name of God. "Hoshea" indicates salvation; by transforming this name to include the Name of God, Moshe includes God in the equation. Hoshea becomes Yehoshua: God will be within him, there to aid, to bring about their salvation.

Surprisingly, Yehoshua is the first person in the Torah whose name includes the Name of God. The only other person whose name has the same string of letters is Yehuda, though his name comes from the word hodaya, "thanks" and not from the Divine Name. And yet, the only other "successful" member of the group of twelve scouts, the only other to join ranks with Yehoshua and reject the libelous report of the spies, was Calev - from the tribe of Yehuda.

Yehoshua's name connects with a very particular Divine Name. Rashi and the Talmud recount Moshe's prayer for Hoshea; in both versions, the Name of God that Moshe employs is not a common form: "May God (Y-A) protect you." The form of the Divine Name Moshe invokes is composed of two letters - "yud heh." This particular form appears only two other times in the Torah to this point. The first is in the Song at the Sea:

God (Yud-heh)is my strength and song, and he has become my salvation; he is my God, and I will praise him; my father's God, and I will exalt him. God (the Tetragrammaton) is a man of war; God is his name. (Shmot 15:2-3)

The second instance occurs immediately after the battle with Amalek:

For he said, Because God (Yud-heh) has sworn that God (the Tetragrammaton) will have war with Amalek from generation to generation. (Shmot 17:16)

Both of these sources refer to God in the context of war; we might say they describe a God of War or God who goes to war with the enemies of His People. Rashi notes that in the latter source, which describes the unfinished battle against Amalek, the word kes (throne), is written defectively, in a shortened form of the more common word kiseh. The truncated form teaches us that God's throne is incomplete, His Kingdom on Earth not fully realized, as long as Amalek walks the earth, sowing seeds of hatred and attacking all that is good. Rashi connects this incomplete form with another word in the verse that is written defectively: the two-letter Name of God, Yud-heh. The message is the same: as long as Amalek exists, God's Name is incomplete.5

Hoshea's name is changed to Yehoshua. When he is given the extra yud, his name now also has reflects the "incomplete" Name of God, with three of the four letters of the Tetragrammaton. He is now ready for the battle against Amalek; he is prepared to complete God's throne, to complete God's Name. The question is, are those accompanying him worthy? Will they rise to the occasion? If faced with battle, will they have the courage and moral fortitude to defeat Amalek? The answer is - no. They did not face battle, but they were so terrified by the prospect of confronting Amalek that they infected the hearts of the entire nation with their own fear. They were not prepared for the battle of the future; overcome by fear, they retreated into the past. The time to enter Israel had arrived; the fulfillment of the hopes of their fathers, the prophecies bestowed upon their ancestors, the realization of the dream that had sustained them through their years of slavery was within reach - yet they chose to remain in the desert. If the way to the Promised Land was via war with Amalek, they chose exile. Amalek was a feared enemy, and they were unwilling to fight. Their names did not contain God's name, as their hearts did not contain God's presence: they were unprepared to fight God's battle.

The Talmud records an Oral Tradition that the names of the spies listed in the parsha were assigned ex post facto; these were their names after the debacle:

And these were their names: of the tribe of Reuven, Shammua the son of Zaccur. R. Yitzchak said: It is a tradition we received from our forefathers that the spies were named after their actions, but only with one has it survived with us: S'tur the son of Michael. [He was named] S'tur because he undermined [satar] the works of the Holy One, blessed be He; and Michael [was so named] because he suggested that God [El] was weak [mak]. R. Johanan said: We can also explain [the name] Nahbi the son of Vofsi. [He was named] Nahbi because he hid [hikbi] the words of the Holy One, blessed be He; and Vofsi [was so named] because he stepped over [pasa] the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He. (Talmud Bavli Sotah 34b)

Yehoshua, who had God in his heart, received God in his name; the other members of the group who rejected God, were given names of calumny, and are remembered in infamy to this very day.

We might say that Moshe's prayer - both of the versions of his prayer - came true in an unexpected way: Because of the sin of the spies the entire generation perished; Yehoshua was saved from the plot of the spies, and from the wickedness of that entire generation. The time to pass the baton of leadership had not arrived; Moshe continued to lead the nation for an entire generation - some 39 years after the sin of the spies. Yehoshua would indeed lead the People into the Land of Israel, but not the generation that sent the scouts to the land; the next generation, the generation of their children and grandchildren, joined Yehoshua in his march of conquest.

When Yehoshua led the People into the Promised Land, they did not travel from the south; they entered from the East. The confrontation with Amalek was avoided once again - postponed, but not cancelled. The battle against Amalek still awaits us. To win this war, we must put God on our lips and in our hearts. Only when we are able to rise to that challenge, to face our enemy without fear, with complete faith in the salvation of God, will we truly fulfill our destiny. Only then will God's Name and God's throne be complete.



1. See especially Bamidbar 11:10-15: 'Then Moshe heard the people weep throughout their families, every man in the door of his tent; and the anger of God was kindled greatly; and Moshe also was displeased. 11. And Moshe said to God, Why have you afflicted your servant? and why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people upon me? 12. Have I conceived all this people? Have I fathered them, that you should say to me, carry them in your bosom, like a nursing father carries the sucking child, to the land which you swore to their fathers? 13. From where should I have meat to give to all this people? for they weep to me, saying, Give us meat, that we may eat. 14. I am not able to carry all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me.15. And if you deal thus with me, kill me, I pray you, at once, if I have found favor in your sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.

2. These question were posed by the Akaidat Yitzchak Gate 77.

3. A well-known biblical precedent is Yosef being renamed Tzafnat Paneach by Pharoh; see Bereishit 41:45. Some of the commentators to offer this explanation are Rashbam, Chizkuni, Baaley haTosafot. Rashi himself gives this interpretation in his commentary to Chronicles II 36:4.

4. Ramban Shmot 13:9.

5. See comments of Kli Yakar, Haamek Davar and Meshech Chochma to Bamidbar 13:16, they all note this connection between the battle with Amalek and the mission of the spies.



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