This Week's Torah Portion: Moses Dispatches the Spies

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Shëlach (Numbers XIII, 1-XV, 41)

This week’s parasha deals with the tragedy of the mëraggëlim (“spies”) whom Moshe dispatched in advance of the bënei Yisra’él preparatory to their invasion of the Holy Land.

Ha-Shem told Moshe:

Shëlach lëcha anashim, vëyathuru eth Eretz Këna‘an asher Ani nothén livnei Yisra’él ish echd ish echad lëmatté avothav tishlachu kol nasi’ bahem.

Send for yourself men, and they will tour the land of Këna‘an which I am giving to the bënei Yisra’él; one man each of the staff of his fathers will you send, every nasi’ among them (XIII, 2).

Rashi famously tells us, based on the Talmud (Sota 34b), that the word lëcha implies “according to your discretion; I am not commanding you; if you wish, send them.” Thus, even though the next verse tells us vayishlach otham Moshe … ’al pi Ha-Shem (“And Moshe sent them … in accordance with Ha-Shem”), this was, as Rashi says, “with His permission, for He did not prevent him.”

The parasha then begins to name the participants, the mëraggél from the tribe of Efrayim being Hoshéa‘ bin Nun. At the end of the list, we are told, vayiqra’ Moshe lëHoshéa‘ bin Nun Yëhoshua‘ (“and Moshe called Hoshéa‘ bin Nun Yëhoshua‘”), a change requiring only the addition of single letter in Hebrew. Rashi, still following the same Talmudic text, explains the name change: “Moshe prayed for him, May Ha-Shem rescue you from the advice of the mëraggëlim.”

But this is mind-boggling!

The implication is that Moshe knew the “advice of the mëraggëlim” in advance! If so, and if it is true that he had discretion in their deployment, then why in the world did he send them out in the first place?

Even assuming (as we must) that Moshe had his reasons, we are led to ask additional questions:

(1) Under the circumstances, why did Moshe pray only for Hoshéa‘/ Yëhoshua‘? Why did he not pray for the other mëraggëlim?

(2) In general, when we pray for somebody’s welfare, we do not change his name; why was it necessary to change Hoshéa’s nme by adding the letter yud?

(3) The fact is, of course, that two of the mëraggëlim resisted the temptation to revile their Divinely ordained destination; Yëhoshua‘ was joined in this by Kalév ben Yëfunne. Since Moshe evidently did not pray on his behalf, what protected him from the corruption of the “advice of the mëraggëlim”?

The Torah Tëmima is also bothered by our main question, and concludes that Moshe must not, in fact, have known the specific intentions of the mëraggëlim. Indeed it seems plain from the account itself that they did not set out in advance to slander the country; they were led to it by despair resulting from their discovery of the giants around Chevron and of the ‘Amaléqim in the Negev. We have every reason to believe that they intended to carry out their mission in good faith. What, then, did Moshe actually ask for?