Sh’lach: The Spies Who Condemned Us to 40 Years in the Desert

Who were Moses' spies and why were they so bad at their job?

The spies were great leaders. Some even say they were reincarnations of Jacob’s 12 sons, the original Children of Israel. So why did they fail so miserably in their task?

Table for Five: Sh’lach

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

 The Lord spoke to Moses saying, “Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel. You shall send one man each for his father’s tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst.”  -Num. 13:1


Rabbi Jonathan Leener, Rabbi of Base BKLYN and the Prospect Heights Shul

Why does the Torah specifically refer to the spies as “leaders of the Children of Israel” and not as “leaders of the Nation of Israel” as it does in other places? Rabbi Yitzchak Luria explains that they were literally the “Children of Israel,” the sons of Jacob. The spies were in fact reincarnations of Jacob’s sons! Remember it was Joseph who strangely calls his brothers spies in Genesis when they come before him asking for food. “And Joseph said to them, ‘You are spies…'” This gives new meaning to the notion that Torah has no beginning or end as its narratives and characters float through time and space with ease.

Entering the mystical worlds of reincarnation can be dizzying but also profoundly beautiful and inspiring. Each soul is on a long journey towards self-discovery and fulfillment. As the Zohar states, “As long as a person is unsuccessful in his purpose in this world, the Holy One, blessed be He, uproots him and replants him over and over again.” It reinforces one of Judaism’s greatest claims that each human has a distinct purpose in this broken world. Perhaps the Torah chronicles the multiple failures of Jacob’s sons as a way to inspire us to recognize that we too get numerous opportunities over a lifespan that may span far longer than we could ever imagine.


Yehudit Garmaise, Teacher of Parsha, Chizuk, and Chassidus

Rav Chaim of Volozhin says that our prayers ascend only on the days on which Jews say the word, “tov” (good) five times. However, on the days in which Jews say the word “ra” (evil) even three times, our prayers will not ascend.

So serious was the negativity of the spies’ report on the land, that they lost our nation’s reward of entering Israel right after receiving the Torah.

According to the Pri Tzaddik, the final Hebrew letters of the words, “Send men for you,” spell the word chacham (wise). Although tragically mistaken in their bad attitude about the land of Israel, the brilliant spies turned out to be too logical for their own good. Their mission was to report on the practical conditions of the Eretz Yisroel. Instead of reporting “just the facts,” the spies gave in to negativity.

If the spies had said, “This land is strong, and it has many blessings. With Hashem’s help, we will conquer it,” they could have conveyed positivity and encouragement to a tentative am Yisroel. Instead, the spies allowed themselves to see only difficulties. Similarly, every day, we are presented with many choices as to what to see. Hashem teaches Jews that we can change reality by seeing the world through lenses of emunah and simcha.

Like the spies, we see challenges. But unlike the spies, we have to remember that Hashem always wants to help us. Unlike the spies, to see the good, we have to know where to look.


Gershon Schusterman, Rabbi, mashpia, writer, businessman

The momentous transition of entering the land of Israel, that God had promised to each of the patriarchs, was about to begin. Now God was suggesting that Moses send a reconnaissance mission to ascertain the best approach.

God instructed Moses, “Send out for yourself men who will scout the [Promised] Land.” The words “for yourself” mean that “the decision is yours; I’m not commanding you” (Rashi). And why not? God, being God, generally issues commands, not suggestions. Mah Nishtana? Why was this situation different?

Although God is the Commander-in-Chief, He wants us to do His bidding with understanding and with passion. He wants us to partner with Him in making the world a Godly place. Partnership and passion come from making it our own choice to fulfill God’s commandments.

That the land of Israel is more than a homeland is central to Judaism. It is our holy, Godly land. That’s why going to Israel is called Aliyah, an ascent. God wanted all of the Jews to appreciate the gift of the land as something they desired, not only as an acquiescence to God’s command.

That is why God suggested to Moses that he could choose to send representatives to explore Israel from their human perspective, to assess the challenge and to realize the opportunity it affords.

The same is true of Judaism today. God wants us to serve Him because of the opportunity it offers. He wants us to partner with Him enthusiastically, to make the world a Godly place.


Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, Assistant Rabbi, Temple Beth Am

If we are unable to complete a task appropriately on our own, we are to appoint a shaliach – a messenger. For example, a shaliach tzibur to lead community in prayer, a shaliach to recite Kaddish if there is no one to do so for the deceased and a shaliach for a get if the couple is unable to divorce amicably together.

God tells Moses to send for himself, “shelach lekha”, people into the Land. Not for God’s sake, but for Moses himself. When appointing a shaliach, the messenger is in replacement of the sender, a reflection of the person and eyes, ears and heart on their behalf. Though the sender must appoint this messenger, the person receiving need not know their connection or why they were chosen. “Ish echad, ish echad” the text continues – “one person, one person” from their father’s tribe. Knowing the Torah’s economy of language, this redundancy is powerful and clever. Two separate people, each sent as a reflection of another.

These past weeks, we have joined or witnessed protests against injustice. People of all genders, races, religions and cultures stepping out of their homes not known by their names but reciting the names of those who sent them, for whom they give voice, value, and seething substance to too many tragedies of violence, hatred and unfairness. “Ish echad, ish echad” – We march the streets of our cities as shlichei tzibor, messengers for those who have long been unheard, unseen and unnamed.


David Brandes, Writer/producer of The Quarrel

In Deut. 1:22 Moses reveals the prequel to this week’s story. The Israelites, feeling confident of victory, ask Moses to organize a reconnaissance party to prepare for the invasion of Canaan. Moses senses that the moment is propitious and communicates his enthusiasm to God. As a result, God instructs Moses to tell the people in language echoing the famous, “go for yourself” speech given to Abraham many years earlier to select representatives. There are many ingenious interpretations of what it means to go for yourself. Generally accepted is Rashi’s understanding that the people must do this for themselves. Implying that they must feel ready for this mission.

As we will learn, the people were eager, but not ready. They did not have moral imagination. Their faith in God and in themselves was inconsistent. The operation turned into utter humiliation, disaster and 40 years of wandering.

In some poignant ways this story shines light on the current dilemma in America. The cold blooded almost banal murder of George Floyd and the ensuing demonstrations, vandalism, and plundering seems to have provoked a change in American consciousness. That race relations must change. That most blacks live in a painful state of vulnerability, which is unacceptable.

And now the leaders and the people of good-will are saying we are ready to change, we must change. This is impressive. America is impressive. But as we learned in this week’s parsha, intent without moral imagination and self-confidence without faith will not be enough.

With thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Leener, Yehudit Garmaise, Gershon Schusterman, Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, and David Brandes

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Read more at the Jewish Journal.


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