Sh’lach: Entering the Land

Heroic Words

Why was Caleb so confident?

Table for Five: Sh’lach

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.”

Num. 13:30


Rabbi Dr. Jason Weiner, Cedars-Sinai; Knesset Israel

Not all commentaries read this verse in accordance with our translation. For example, Rabbeinu Efraim offers a startling insight by reading the verse as “Alah (rather than Aloh) Na’aleh.” Thus, instead of “by all means let us go up,” the Torah is stating that “he went up,” referring to the angel Michael who already went up to Canaan before us (“Alah”), and therefore the land is ready for us to easily enter it (“Na’aleh”).

This fascinating and unique interpretation explains why Caleb was so confident about the Jews’ ability to enter the land. It was not their strength or strategic insight that would enable successful conquest, but rather the fact that they had already been there, metaphysically. Consequently, their “return” to the land would not be as challenging as if they were entering Canaan alone for the first time.

This idea reminds me of the way basketball players first imagine themselves making a perfect free throw before taking a shot.

I get nervous before doing something for the first time, but usually once I’ve done it, I can repeat it with more confidence and success on subsequent attempts. Perhaps the message of Caleb’s confidence here is that even when we are asked to do something for the first time, if it is a worthy action, we receive some sort of Divine, angelic support saying to us, “I’ve prepared the way, we’ve been there before, and therefore you can do this.” Next time you’re afraid to try something new, know that if what you’re doing is a mitzvah, see it as though you’ve already accomplished it before, and there is Divine protection leading you forward.


Rabbi Natan Halevy, Kahal Joseph Congregation

The powerful inhabitants of Canaan intimidated the spies, causing their spirit to be weakened, and doubting Hashem’s power. They conveyed their fear to the nation, making them doubt Hashem, which was a grave sin. In sharp contrast, Caleb was empowered through his visit and became strongly connected to Israel. Caleb emphasized the importance of our faith in Hashem in the conquest of Israel. A land which is a spiritual entity and unlike any other physical land.

He cried aloud saying: “Is this the only thing the son of Amram has done to us?!” —The nation assumed he would disparage Moses, whom they were upset with when they heard the spies’ statements. They kept silent to hear his disparagement. Caleb said: “Did he not divide the Red Sea for us, and bring down the Manna for us, and collect the quails for us?!”

WE CAN INDEED GO UP — even to heaven, if Moses were to say “Make ladders and go up there,” we should listen to him because we would be successful in all his words and in all he bids us do. The Canaanite nations will not be able to stand up against us.

With his words ‘Go up’, Caleb alluded to the nation’s connection with the spiritual power of the Shechina, Hashem’s divine presence which creates all of reality and is embodied in the land of Israel. Caleb embodied these aspects and thus merited to enter the land 40 years later, settling in Hebron, the city of our patriarchs.


Ilana Wilner, Judaic Studies Teacher & Israel Guidance, Ramaz Upper School, NYC

This week’s parsha features the infamous story of the sin of the spies. I’ve been told this story in parsha class many, many times. I know it by heart and I know Caleb and Joshua are two of the spies that stand up to the others. However, actually taking time to read the story, it’s a bit different than what I remember. Our pasuk highlights Caleb’s heroic words. He silenced the group and reassured them that they can conquer the land and God will help them. Caleb is the one who stands up to the spies. Joshua doesn’t react until the complaint turns into a rebellion. And yet they both receive praise and the reward for their bravery. 

Caleb is portrayed as an independent leader, whose faith in God, in the nation of Israel and in the land of Israel is beyond any doubt or question. Joshua, in contrast, is not a leader by his own merits alone, but rather by virtue of his mentor, Moshe. His actions in the episode of the spies are a reflection of his loyalty.

Joshua’s bravery is subtle and the message is self-evident: be loyal and align yourself with people who are like-minded and have good values. Caleb, on the other hand, highlighted for me a more unique and nuanced message, of speaking up in moments when the people around us, even our leaders are silent.  Caleb is described as having a “different ruach.” I read this not as spirit, but a voice. Caleb found his unique voice and the courage to speak up.


Rabbi Nicole Guzik, Sinai Temple

Caleb is usually lauded as one of the spies who does not share a false report about who inhabits the land. And while this is praiseworthy, one has to wonder about his approach in trying to tame the crowd. Bnai Yisrael is swept up in waves of complaints. Perhaps the question isn’t, why does Bnai Yisrael fall prey to their own insecurities? The question may be, why doesn’t Caleb seek different ways of persuasion? Doesn’t Caleb realize Bnai Yisrael isn’t in a position to hear anything at all?

The scene is a perfect lesson in any familial debate. There are moments in which our loved ones are present, open to differing thoughts and opinions. And then, there’s the opposite. The moments in which we must evaluate when and where our views will best be expressed and internalized.

Sforno, the Italian commentator, explains that Caleb silences the cries of the people. They’re scared, frightened, unable to think past the terrors that await them in an unknown land. Would Caleb have been more successful if he had listened first, offering his opinion second?

Sometimes we feel as if we might explode if our views aren’t immediately offered. And yet, the Torah reveals an often-overlooked lesson: taking stock of the situation and environment is just as important as expressing one’s thoughts. For in that analysis, the assessment of when and where to speak may eventually lead towards settling in a Promised Land.


Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, Congregation Bnai Torah, Springfield, MA

The Talmud (Sotah 35A) says (in paraphrase): “Caleb silenced”: He silenced them [the spies so that the people could hear what he was going to say] “to Moses”: to hear what he would say about Moses. He cried out, “Is this the only thing the son of Amram has done to us?” Anyone listening might have thought that he intended to disparage him, and since there was resentment in their hearts against Moses because of the spies’ report, they all became silent so they could hear his defamation. But, instead (once he had their full attention – the people anticipating more calumny) he said, “Didn’t he split the sea for us, bring down the manna for us…?” Therefore, “of course he can lead us to the Land and enable us to acquire it!”

Although Caleb’s strategy was ultimately unsuccessful, we learn an important lesson from here: Caleb obviously disapproved of the people’s attitude towards Moses, and G-d. Nevertheless, he started off by acknowledging the mental and emotional place they were in. This goes deeper than mere strategy – it is about understanding where another(s) is holding, and what their fears and conceptions are. Once one acknowledges that he /she genuinely can “stand in their place” -then that connection allows for the potential to move the other(s) in a different direction. Caleb didn’t change the minds of the People of Israel on that occasion – but he did show us the necessary path for creating positive change in others for all time.


With thanks to Rabbi Dr. Jason Weiner, Rabbi Natan Halevy, Ilana Wilner, Rabbi Nicole Guzik, and Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe.

Image: Caleb and Joshua by Nicolas Poussin, c. 1662


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