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The Sale of Yosef and the Spies

Shlach (Numbers 13-15 )


Bereishis, 42:9: “Yosef recalled the dreams that he had dreamt about them, so he said to them, “You are spies (meraglim atem)…”
Baal HaTurim, 42:9 Dh: You are spies: “This [you are spies] means [that Yosef alluded to them], ‘you and not me, because Yehoshua who came out from me, was not in the counsel of the Meraglim’. And they replied, ‘your servants were not spies’, this means that Yehuda replied, because he was the leader, ‘and also came out from me Calev, who was not in the counsel of the spies’. [The words ‘loh hayu’ (were not) is the same gematria (numerical number) as Calev.”

When learning the episode of the spies a number of similarities emerge between that tragic account and a story that took place many years earlier – the sale of Yosef. The Baal HaTurim notes the use of the very word Meraglim (spies) when Yosef, in his role as the Viceroy of Egypt, accuses the brothers of being spies. The Baal HaTurim makes a remarkable observation, that there seemed to have been some kind of underlying or subconscious debate between Yosef and Yehuda that alluded to the future sin of the spies: Yosef calls the brothers spies, alluding to the future sin of the spies, but he notes that his descendant, Yehoshua, was not part of the sin of the spies. However, Yehuda, the leader of the brothers, replies that his descendant, Calev, was also against the spies, so he cannot be called a spy either.

This fascinating Baal HaTurim alerts us to the fact that there is a strong connection between the two seemingly disparate episodes of the sale of Yosef and the spies. In particular, it is noteworthy that the main protagonists in the sale of Yosef – Yosef and Yehuda - were also the progenitors of the only righteous parties in the spies.1 Before addressing this specific connection, it is instructive to cite a number of other similarities between the two stories.

One method to find connections is to search for similar word usage in the two accounts. In addition to the use of spies, other words come up in both stories: One of the causes of the brothers’ hatred towards Yosef was the fact that he spoke badly about them to their father, Yaakov. Indeed, the sages criticize Yosef for speaking lashon hara about the brothers, regardless of his pure motives. The Torah describes his negative speech as ‘dibatam raah’ meaning bad speech about the (the brothers). In a similar vein, the Torah relates how the spies brought out ‘dibat ha’aretz’ – evil speech about Eretz Yisrael. The root word ‘dibah’ is so rarely used that these are the only two times they ever appear in the Torah.

Another striking word similarity is in the word shelach – to send. Obviously, the whole Portion of the spies begins with that word, with God telling Moshe to send spies. Less obviously known is that the story of the sale of Yosef also begins with the word ‘shelach’ when Yaakov tells Yosef that he is sending him on a mission.2

We have seen some uncanny links between the accounts of the sale of Yosef and the spies. What is the deeper connection between the two, and who do the roles of Yosef and Yehuda fit into both events?

The commentators3 explicitly connect the two stories, and say that had the spies spoken well about Eretz Yisrael, then they would have rectified the sin of the sale of Yosef.4 Sadly, when the spies criticized the land, they failed, with disastrous consequences.

However, perhaps the two ‘good’ spies, Yehoshua and Calev, did rectify aspects of the sins of their specific ancestors, Yosef and Yehuda, that led to the tragic events of the sale of Yosef.5 Yosef himself is assigned some blame for his role in the course of event that led to his sale. In particular, as mentioned above, he is criticized for speaking lashon hara about the brothers. The Sages see from here that on some minute level, Yosef had a slight failing in this area. The commentaries observe that this fact arises in the story of the spies: When describing the spy from the Tribe of Yosef’s eldest son, Menashe, the Torah notes that he comes from the Tribe of Yosef. However, when describing Yehoshua, the spy from the Tribe of Yosef’s other son, Ephraim, the Torah omits any mention of Yosef. One answer given to explain why Yosef is mentioned only with regard to Menashe, is that the spy from that Tribe, failed in the same area where Yosef stumbled, in speaking lashon hara about the Land.6 In contrast, Yehoshua did not emulate Yosef’s lashon hara and therefore Yosef’s name is not mentioned with reference to him.

To develop this idea further, it seems that Yehoshua did more than just avoid his ancestor’s mistake, rather he rectified it with his own speech. So, whereas Yosef spoke badly about the brothers, and the ten spies spoke badly about the Land, Yehoshua (along with Calev) spoke positively about the land, going against the vast majority of the spies, saying: “The Land that we passed through, to spy it out – the Land is very, very good…a Land that flows with milk and honey.”7 In this way, even though he failed to dissuade the people from rebelling, Yehoshua succeeded in this own personal test to rectify the failing of his ancestor.

How did Calev rectify Yehuda’s mistake in the sale of Yosef? It seems that the specific criticism of Yehuda more than the other brothers, is that he was the recognized leader, and so he had the most influence over their course of action. In particular, there is one pivotal moment where Yehuda could have completely saved Yosef - when Yosef is floundering in the pit, Yehuda tells the brothers that they should not kill Yosef. At that point, he could have continued that they should bring him out of the pit and return him home. However, instead, he told the brothers to sell Yosef, setting off the tragic course of events that followed. Yehuda is criticized by the Sages for this, specifically for the fact that when he said not to kill Yosef, he started the Mitzva of saving Yosef, but he did not continue it by saving Yosef. It seems that Yehuda’s failing is in the area of his leadership – he was a natural leader but he did not use his power in the optimum way. Indeed, because of this, he was removed from his position of leadership of the brothers.8

Yehuda’s descendant Calev was placed in a similar situation where he could have used his evident influence as a leader to encourage the spies in their evil speech. In the midst of the spies’ evil speech, Calev stands up and everyone turns to him, eager to hear his words. He first sounds like he is going to join in their criticism, yet he suddenly switches and negates the evil words of the spies. Sadly, his words were not heeded, yet it seems that he managed to rectify the trait of misused leadership displayed by his ancestor, Yehuda.

Both Calev and Yehoshua received tremendous reward for their brave stand while they were outnumbered. They excelled where their ancestors stumbled, in the realms of speech and leadership. They continue to serve as examples of moral strength in the face of adversity.

  1. It is true that the Tribe of Levi were also innocent in the sin of the Meraglim, but there was no Levi included in the 12 spies, so only members of Yehuda and Ephraim sent spies who did not join in the sin.
  2. There are numerous other parallels between the two stories. See, ‘The Real Heroism of Joshua and Caleb’ for an outline of these parallels.
  3. See Chida in Lechem Min HaShamayim, Parshas Mikeitz, citing the Gevuras Ari, and in many other places.
  4. It is not immediately apparent why praising the land would rectify the seemingly unrelated sins involved in the sale of Yosef. Any thoughts on this are greatly appreciated.
  5. The basis of this approach is from the article on, ‘The Real Heroism of Joshua and Calev’.
  6. Rashi in Sefer HaPardes; Tiferes Yehonasan.
  7. Bamidbar, 14:8.
  8. Rashi, Bereishis, 38;1, Dh: Vayehi.


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