> Weekly Torah Portion > Beginner > Torah for Your Table

Relevant Lessons From the Spies

Shlach (Numbers 13-15 )

by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Very often we experience what we believe to be the punitive hand of God, but the Almighty is our Heavenly Father Who created us and loves us with infinite paternal devotion and Whose mercy and compassion always encompass us. His punishments are not afflictions, but corrections. This teaching is blatantly obvious in this parashah. The people are guilty of an act of perfidy. They spurn God's magnificent gift, Eretz Yisrael, the Holy Land. They demand that scouts be sent on a reconnaissance mission, which, in and of itself, betrays a hidden agenda. As anticipated, the spies return with a most disheartening, blasphemous report. They inject fear into the hearts of the people, a fear that results in a call for a return to Egypt.

The Almighty God, Who knows the machinations of the hearts of men, foresaw the future and protected His people, even in their time of disgrace. He allowed these ill-intentioned spies to scout out the entire land in a mere 40 days - an impossible feat for those times. God gave the spies good speed so that the punishment might be minimized, since for each day that they spied out the land, the nation had to spend a corresponding year in the desert. The 40 days of scouting became 40 years of wandering. During this time, the nation was reborn and made atonement for the sins of the spies; herein lies profound lessons for us to remember.

When difficult and challenging days come upon us, and we find ourselves wandering in our own "desert," we should recognize that this experience is a call from God ... a challenge to grow and realize our higher purpose, our life mission.

Our mother, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, has often advised people struggling with life's many tests not to ask "Why?" "Whys" have no answers and leave people bitter, angry, and cynical. "But," she would advise, "do ask 'why' in the holy tongue, for Hebrew is God's language and every word is definitive. The Hebrew word for 'why,' madua, is the contraction of two words: mah dei'ah - what is the wisdom; that is, what can we learn from this?"

There is yet one more Hebrew word that means "why," and that is "lamah." That word, too, is the contraction of two words, "le mah - to what end." That is, what is the higher purpose of this challenge? Thus, the Hebrew "why" transforms a question that can leave one cynical and bitter into an inspiring, self-motivating quest.

The second lesson that we can learn from this 40-day journey of the scouts is that even as God wanted to minimize the punishment of the nation and allowed scouts to travel the length and breadth of the land in a mere 40 days, similarly, we too should make it easy for those who wronged us or departed from the path of Torah to make amends, re-enter, and become part of our families and the greater Jewish community.


Through the sins of the spies, we gain a glimpse of the complexity of human nature. We become painfully aware that if the mind is twisted and the heart is crooked, then no matter how many miracles God performs, no matter how much kindness He extends, His actions will be misinterpreted and maligned, for a man sees and hears only that which he wants to see and hear. Thus we find that when the spies entered the Land of Israel, God made a miracle on their behalf and arranged that just on that day, Job, the righteous citizen of the land, should die. Job was respected and revered; therefore, his death signaled a national day of mourning. Everyone attended his funeral, and this great outpouring of people permitted the spies to go undetected. No one paid attention to them, no one hampered their movements, and they were able to return safely to their camp.

However, instead of being grateful for this miracle, instead of recognizing God's protective care, the spies had the chutzpah to pervert God's kindness and gave a slanderous report: "The Land ... is a land that devours its inhabitants!" [1] "People are dying all day - there are constant funerals," they declared.

This jaundiced response to God's benevolence reinforces the sad reality that even open miracles are of no avail if people have hidden agendas. Commentators discuss what motivated the spies to be so fearful of entering Eretz Yisrael, but whatever their rationale, it perverted their judgment. They will see only that which they want to see and hear only that which they want to hear.

The reality of this painful portrait of human nature should prompt all of us to self-scrutiny. Before making a decision, let us ask, Am I looking at the situation truthfully or do I have a hidden agenda? Am I motivated by personal bias or by truth?


What was the power of Joshua and Caleb? How did they resist the evil counsel of the spies? How did they remain immune to the pressure?

Prior to their departure, Moses blessed Joshua and prayed that he might be protected from the counsel of the spies. In his prayer, Moses changed the name of Joshua, who had formerly been known as Hoshea, to Yehoshua, meaning, "May God save you." Our Sages teach us that this change of name shielded Joshua from the poisonous influence of the other spies.

There is an amazing Midrash[2] that tells us that the yud that Moses added to Joshua's name came from our Matriarch Sarah. That little letter yud complained before God's Throne, "Why was I removed from the name of that holy woman?"

At first glance, this may appear to be a strange Midrash. After all, do yuds talk? And again, why was there a need to take the yud from Mother Sarah's name? Certainly Moses could have given Joshua a new yud? And if a change of name could be so powerful, why didn't Moses change the names of all the spies? Let us address all these questions.

Everything that God created speaks on its own level, even if we do not understand it. And this is even more valid in regard to the Hebrew aleph-beis. The letters of the aleph-beis are alive and have profound dimensions. As a matter of fact, it was with the aleph-beis that God created the world. As for the yud having its roots in Mother Sarah's name, there too lies a basic principle of Judaism. We are a nation that is sustained by zechus avos - the merit of our ancestors. Our wisdom and our vision are gifts bequeathed to us by our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. It was specifically the yud of Sarah Imeinu's name that had the power to endow Joshua with the understanding and foresight to guide the nation to its destiny.

Sarah was the first to discern the brutal, savage character of Ishmael, who would shoot his arrows and kill for sport. It was Sarah who told Abraham to send Ishmael and his mother Hagar away, for she recognized that it would be disastrous for Ishmael to inherit the land with Isaac. Thus, Moses prayed that Joshua might be guided by the wisdom of Sarah and would lead the people to their ultimate calling, establishing the Kingdom of God in the Land of Israel, where righteousness and truth would prevail and evil would be banished. In such a society, there is no room for terror and brutality - the murderous acts of Ishmael.

Caleb, on the other hand, was saved by the power of prayer. As soon as they entered the land, Caleb departed from the group and made his way to Hebron, the city where our Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried, so that he might pray at their gravesite. Those prayers protected him, infused his heart with faith, and enabled him to resist the conspiracy of his comrades.

The eminent Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt"l, explained that Caleb did not require a change of name, for he was married to Miriam, the righteous prophetess, and if a man is married to an eishes chayil (woman of valor) that, in and of itself, affords protection.

As to why Moses did not change the names of all the other spies: Blessings work only for those who desire and appreciate them. In vain does one bless someone or change his/her name if he/she chooses to spurn and defile that blessing and that name. Sadly, these spies all had their preconceived bias: They were determined to reject the Land even before seeing it. Blessings are potent when we truly desire them, appreciate them, and act upon them.


When the spies gave their report to the nation, they related that there were giants in the land of Canaan, and they felt like grasshoppers next to them.[3] Herein is to be found the roots of the demoralization of these scouts.

How is it possible for members of a nation that stood at Sinai, that heard the voice of God, to view themselves as grasshoppers?

Time and again, our parents related to us how, even in the brutal, dehumanizing darkness of Hitler's concentration camps, Jews of faith never forgot their calling and thanked God every day for the gift of the Torah. No matter how many epithets the Nazis hurled at them, they stood proud and strong with Shema Yisrael on their lips.

We live in a generation in which people are lacking Jewish pride. Even as the spies of old, many of us see ourselves Jewishly as grasshoppers, unaware of the Divine spark in our souls and the gift of Torah that is our rightful legacy.

How do you view yourself as a Jew ... and how do your children view themselves?

  1. Num. 13:32.
  2. Tractate Sanhedrin 107a.
  3. Num. 13:33.


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