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?

Yëhoshua’, it must be remembered, was of the tribe of Efrayim, directly descended from Yoséf. Yoséf had greatly exacerbated the jealousy, which was evidently already present from the favoritism shown by his father’s gift of the famous striped coat, by telling lëshon hara‘ on his brothers (cf. Genesis XXXVII, 2). It was this youthful indiscretion that led directly to his sale into Egyptian slavery, a personal disaster, and indirectly to Israel’s descent into the Egyptian exile, a national disaster. Moshe feared that the tendency was “in the family,” as it were, and that Yëhoshua’ was therefore vulnerable to it.

The likely consequences were plain from what, in fact, actually did happen: the offending mëraggëlim died and Israel was condemned to another 38 years of wandering in the desert until the generation of yotzë’ei Mitzrayim died out.

Thus, it is this potential for lëshon hara‘ with its dire consequences which the Rabbis characterized as “the advice of the mëraggëlim,” not because Moshe knew in advance that the mëraggëlim would give way to it, but because they eventually did.

That Moshe’s fears were perhaps in some measure justified is suggested by the wording of verse 11, in which the ancestry of Gaddi ben Susi of Mënashe, who did succumb to the temptation, is traced to Yoséf. This inevitably leads to yet another question: if the Torah Tëmima is right about Moshe’s concerns, why did he not include Gaddi ben Susi in his prayers, since Mënashe was likewise descended from Yoséf, and so would have shared the fatal tendency?

For this, the Torah Tëmima offers two explanations: the first is that Yëhoshua‘ was, after all, Moshe’s best and most distinguished pupil. Moshe understandably felt a greater measure of empathy for him because of this relationship. He did not necessarily have any specific grounds to suspect Yëhoshua‘, G-d forbid, but wanted to grant him a little extra measure of protection. The second reason is related to the first. As his best and brightest pupil, Moshe saw in Yëhoshua‘ his likely successor. Thus, for the ultimate good of all Israel, that they not be deprived of the best possible leader for the next generation, Moshe prayed for Yëhoshua‘.

So we understand why Moshe was concerned, and why he concentrated his concern on Yëhoshua‘; why did he change his name from Hoshéa‘?

The Talmudic passage cited by Rashi supra suggests that the yud which was added to form Yëhoshua‘ from Hoshéa‘ is the initial letter of the Divine name Y-ah. The Këli Yaqar notes that Moshe’s instructions to the mëraggëlim, ‘alu ze baNagev va‘alithem eth hahar (“Go up into the Negev and ascend the hill-country” ibid., 17) brought them an immediate shock, as they reported on their return: ‘Amaléq yoshév bë’eretz haNegev (“‘Amaléq is dwelling in the land of the Negev” ibid., 29). The implacable enemy who had harried them in the desert (cf. Exodus XVII, 8-16) now sat athwart their route!

As the Këli Yaqar points out, at the time of this initial encounter, Yëhoshua’s name already possessed the initial yud. It was with the spiritual strength provided by a letter in this Divine name that Yëhoshua‘ was able to lead Israel to victory against the Amaléqim. The last verse of the passage in Exodus records a Divine oath: Ki yad ‘al kés Y-ah, milchama la-Shem ba‘Amaléq midor dor (“For a hand on the throne of Y-ah, H-Shem is at war with Amaléq from generation to generation”). In anticipation of this second encounter with Amaléq, the yud became a permanent part of Yëhoshua’s name.

Rabbi Chayyim ben ‘Attar, in his masterful Or haChayyim, offers another explanation: the letter yud has a gimtriya (“numerical value”) of ten; therefore, he says, in the merit of this additional letter Yëhoshua‘ was able to withstand the psychic pressure of the ten spies who cracked.

In this light, it seems to me that we can offer yet another suggestion. When Ha-Shem discusses His indictment of Israel with Moshe, He says: ki chol ha’anashim haro’im eth këvodi vë’eth othothai asher ‘asithi bëMitzrayim uvamidbar vayënassu Othi ze ‘eser pë‘amim (“For all the men who are seeing My signs which I did in Egypt and in the desert have tested Me ten times.”) The Torah Tëmima turns to the Talmudic digest known as the ‘Éyn Ya‘aqov and cites a commentary known as the “margin” (gilayon) on Rashi to the effect that the verb vayënassu signifies Israel’s angering Ha-Shem, until this tenth episode led to the demoralizing decree that the yotzë’ei Mitzrayim — those who had indeed witnessed the othoth performed in Egypt — would perish in the desert and not enter Eretz Yisra’él.

Which brings us to the question of how Kalév managed that feat. Moshe made no special provision for him, as we have noted, yet he nonetheless was able to resist the “advice of the mëraggëlim” fully as well as Yëhoshua’. What was his secret?

When the spies set off on their mission, we read: Vaya‘ali baNegev vayavo’ ‘ad Chevron (“And they went up into the Negev and he came to Chevron” XIII, 22). The singular verb vayavo’ caused the Rabbis to exclaim: Vayavo’u mibba‘ei leih! (“it should read, vayavo’u!”). Whereupon the great Talmuduc sage Rava says:

It teaches that Kalév emerged from the counsel of the spies and went and prostrated himself on the graves of the Patriarchs. He said to them, My fathers, ask for mercy upon me, that I be spared from the counsel of the spies (Sota 34b).

Rashi then puts his finger on Kalév’s uniqueness, when he writes: “Kalév alone went there.” Kalév alone of the spies had the sensitivity to see the danger inherent even in a factual report of what they had seen (which, if defamatory, is the classic definition of lëshon hara‘) and the humility to seek Divine help to avoid that danger. G-d Himself subsequently lauds Kalév’s moral courage in this regard:

Vë‘avdi Kalév ‘éqev haytha ruach achereth ‘immo vayëmallé’ acharai vahavi’othiv el ha’aretz asher ba’ shamma vëzar‘o yorishenna.

And My servant Kalév, because a different spirit was with him and he followed Me whole-heartedly, I shall bring him to the land whither he came, and his offspring will inherit it (XIV, 24).

It was this moral courage, this combination of sensitivity and humility that was the merit that protected Kalév. May we all merit the sensitivity to see the pitfalls before us, and the humility to seek help in avoiding them.