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"My Servant Calev"

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


YCT and Michlelet Herzog's Yemei Iyun
on Bible and Jewish Thought

Tuesday, June 27, 2006 - Thursday, June 29, 2006

At Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School, Teaneck, NJ

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"My Servant Calev"

By Rav Michael Hattin





            Last week, we read in Parashat Beha'alotekha concerning the commencement of the people's journey from Mount Sinai towards the land:  "On the twentieth day of the second month of the second year (after the Exodus) the cloud lifted off of the Mishkan.  The people of Israel traveled from the wilderness of Sinai, and the cloud came to rest in the wilderness of Paran.  This was their first journey, by God's command and by Moshe's deed" (Bemidbar 10:11-13).  But although that migration was undertaken with great promise and potential, a number of serious and disastrous setbacks occurred almost immediately.  The people began to inexplicably protest, they then denounced the manna and demanded meat, and by the sorry conclusion of the episode at Kivrot Ha-ta'ava, Moshe's leadership had been badly shaken and many people lay dead – stricken by God's vengeance for their insufferable effrontery.  The Parasha concluded with the account of Miriam's indignant words concerning her brother Moshe, for which she was Divinely stricken with tzara'at and then temporarily expelled from the camp of Israel.


            This week, the downward spiral continues unabated with the debacle of the spies.  As the people approach the land, God bids Moshe to dispatch twelve illustrious men, "all of them leaders among Israel" (13:3).  They travel to Canaan with the express purpose of reporting on the land's natural abundance as well as ascertaining the strength of its inhabitants' defenses.  After forty days of discovery, they return to the expectant masses, bearing fruits attesting to Canaan's fertility coupled with fearful reports of "great and fortified cities (defended by) the offspring of giants."  And as the resolve of the people of Israel begins to crumble, ten of the spies conclude with damning words of discouragement: "We will not be able to engage them in battle, for they are stronger than us!" (13:31).




            The rest, as they say, is history.  These ten spies go on to sate their citizens with further tales of terror, with frightening and disheartening reports of a harsh land populated by invincible inhabitants, while only two have the audacity to oppose the ominous report of their craven colleagues and to claim that with God's help the "very good land" could be conquered.  These two are none other than Yehoshua bin Nun of the tribe of Ephraim, and Calev son of Yefune of the tribe of Yehuda.  But their impassioned pleas to the people to trust in God and to have confidence in themselves are at first drowned out by the panicked din of Israel's cries and then dissipated in the hot dusty air of Midbar Paran.  Instead the people of Israel cry out that night to God in desperate dejection, and they then utter the ineffable: "let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!" (14:4).  In the end, the entire generation is condemned to perish in the inhospitable wilderness, to suffer the inevitable consequence of their rejection of the land, while that day of infamy is etched in Jewish consciousness forevermore:


"All of the congregation lifted up their voices, and the people cried that night" – Said Rabba in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: that very night was the night of the ninth of Av.  God said to them: You have cried out for no reason, but I will designate it for you to cry out for generations! (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Ta'anit 29a).


But even while the other ten members of the spy mission soon perish by Divinely initiated plague and all of the adult Israelites are condemned to die in the wilderness, Yehoshua and Calev are given a pledge that they will survive to one day enter the land:


God said:…'as surely as I live, the glory of God will fill the world.  All of the men who saw My glory and My signs that I performed in the Egypt and in the wilderness – who nevertheless tested Me these ten times and did not listen to My words – they will not see the land that I swore to their ancestors.  All of those that blasphemed Me will not see it.  But My servant Calev, because he was possessed by a different spirit and followed after Me completely, him I will bring to the land to which he arrived, and his descendents will inherit it! (Bemidbar 14:21-24).




            More than forty years would elapse, of course, before that Divine promise would be fulfilled.  After the demise of the generation of the wilderness and the death of Moshe their leader, Israel entered the land under the able guidance of Yehoshua.  Moshe's faithful protיgי, fiercely loyal to his master and ever trusting in God, succeeded the aged lawgiver as might have been expected from the events of this week's parasha.  A new generation, raised in the trying environment of the barren and bleak wilderness, nurtured on the fortifying milk of Divinely-imposed deficiency and want, expectantly traversed the Yarden and entered the land as recounted in the book of Yehoshua.  This time undeterred by Canaanite might, they engaged their city-states in a series of memorable battles and inflicted smashing defeats upon their confederacies.  And after many years of conflict and not a few setbacks, Israel stood in possession of some of the hill country as aging Yehoshua prepared to allocate the remainder of the land.  


            The account of that distribution, preserved in Chapters 14 through 19 of Sefer Yehoshua, predictably begins with the general observation that the lands were distributed by Ela'zar the Kohen, Yehoshua bin Nun and the tribal leaders of the people, all of whom had been appointed to the august task by God Himself while Moshe yet lived (see Bemidbar 34:16-29).  But then quite unexpectedly, the detailed border delineations that take up the majority of those eight chapters are introduced by a passage that returns us once again to the debacle of the spies and to the memorable role played by Calev!


            The people of Yehuda approached Yehoshua at Gilgal, and Calev son of Yefune the Kenizite said to him:  You remember that which God spoke at Kadesh Barne'a to Moshe the man of the Lord concerning myself and yourself.  I was forty years old when Moshe the man of the Lord sent me from Kadesh Barne'a to spy out the land, and I returned with a sincere report.  My comrades who went with me melted the heart of the people, but I followed God my Lord.  Moshe swore on that day saying 'surely the very land upon which your foot tread shall be yours and your descendents' inheritance forever, for you followed God my Lord.' (Yehoshua 14:6-9)




            While Yehoshua continued to occupy a prominent role in the narratives of the wilderness (see Bemidbar 27:15-23; 32:28; 34:17) and eventually succeeded Moshe as leader of Israel, Calev passed quietly from the Torah's pages until this episode in Sefer Yehoshua.  Although there are two intervening mentions of him in Sefer Bemidbar (26:65; 32:12), these are both references to the earlier incident of the spies.  How astonishing then to hear from him again, more than forty years after the last encounter! 


            To be more exact, it had been forty five years since he had embarked on that fateful mission, for as he himself then relates in the passage quoted above:  "I was forty years old when Moshe sent me…and now, behold I am today eighty-five years old…" (14:7,10).  Parenthetically, it should be noted that it is on account of Calev's oblique reference to his age that we can derive the length of the initial period of conquest: the spies were sent in the second year after the Exodus (see Bemidbar 10:11; 13:20), and the people finally entered Canaan thirty-eight years later (see Devarim 2:14).  Thus, when Israel crossed the Jordan and entered the land, Calev was seventy-eight years old (40 + 38 = 78).  Now, as the land stood to be formally divided, he indicated that he was eighty-five years old.  In other words, seven years had elapsed since the time that the people entered the new land, until the tribe of Yehuda with Calev at its head, now stood ready to press their claim.


            Calev, the text of Sefer Yehoshua informs us, does not ask for a general and non-specific portion of land, but instead requests the provision of a very particular location:


"…and now, give me this ridge concerning which God spoke on that day, for you heard on that day that there are giants there, and great, fortified cities.  Perhaps God will continue to be with me so that I will drive them out, as God has spoken."  Yehoshua blessed him, and gave CHEVRON to Calev son of Yefune as an inheritance (14:12-13).




            The ancient city of Chevron, located at the southern end of the range of hills that runs the length of Canaan, is familiar to us as the burial site of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Ya'akov and Leah, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the people of Israel.  In the passage, Calev maintains that Chevron was pledged to him by Moshe himself: "Moshe swore on that day saying 'surely the very land upon which your foot trod shall be yours and your descendents' inheritance forever, for you followed God my Lord.'"  When Moshe recounts the incident of the Spies in Sefer Devarim, he makes clear that the initiative for that pledge came from God: "(God said)…Calev son of Yefune will surely see it (the land) and I will give to him and to his descendents the land upon which he trod, for he followed God" (1:36).  This is in fact the implication of the original passage from our parasha, in which God is the speaker: "But My servant Calev who was of a different spirit and followed after Me, him I will bring to the land to which he arrived, and his descendents will inherit it…" (14:24).


            Mysteriously, however, the travels of Calev to Chevron that are understood in Sefer Yehoshua to be an unassailable fact and the basis of his claim to that territory, are never mentioned explicitly in the original account of the episode preserved in our parasha.  Parashat Shelach informs us concerning the spies only that


they went up (va-ya'alu) from the Negev and he arrived (va-yavo) at Chevron, and there were to be found Achiman, Sheishai and Talmai the sons of the giant.  Now Chevron had been built seven years before Zo'an (Tanis) in Egypt.  They arrived (va-yavo'u) at the wadi of Eshkol and there cut a vine with a cluster of grapes that two of them carried on a stave, and took also from the pomegranates and figs.  That place they called 'Nachal Eshkol' because of the cluster (eshkol) that the people of Israel cut… (Bemidbar 13:22-24).


We do note, however, that in contrast to the other travels that the spies undertook (va-yavo'u – "they arrived"), the arrival at Chevron is phrased in the singular (vayavo – "he arrived").  But while this seems to indicate that only one member of the expedition visited the site, nowhere does the text explicitly state that it was CALEV who traveled to Chevron.  The matter is left unstated, obscured by the use of the indefinite pronoun.  It therefore is only in the passage in Sefer Yehoshua that the necessary clarification is provided: God and His servant Moshe pledged to Calev that he would receive the very land upon which he trod.  That was none other than the place of Chevron, for it was none other than CALEV who arrived at Chevron!




            Why would the text of our parasha leave that critical detail concerning Calev's lonely visit to Chevron unmentioned?  Conversely, why does the account of the tribal territories in Sefer Yehoshua begin with that very detail?  It is the Midrash, mentioned by Rashi in Bemidbar (13:22) and drawn from the Talmudic tractate Sota 34b, that first alerts us to a possible solution, albeit with a characteristic storytelling flourish:


"He arrived at Chevron" – this refers to Calev who went there alone and threw himself down at the graves of his ancestors, imploring God to preserve him from the seductive counsel of his cohorts.  Thus it says: "I will give him the land upon which he trod" (Devarim 1:36), and it later states that "they gave Chevron to Calev" (Shoftim 1:20).


The Midrash here links the visit of Calev to Chevron, a city inhabited by a race of giants, with its only other early Biblical association: the burial place of the progenitors of Israel.  Recall that Avraham and Sarah spent many formative years as semi-nomadic shepherds in the environs of Chevron, and it was in the aftermath of her death that Avraham first established a more permanent presence there by purchasing the Cave of Makhpela as a family sepulcher.  The relevant passages in Bereishit (23:1-20; 25:9-10; 35:27-29; 49:29-32; 50:13), however, leave no doubt that in the collective conscience of the people of Israel, Chevron and its cave of Makhpela came to mark not only the final resting place of their ancestors, but to signify as well their own intense connection to Canaan.  The patriarchal desire to be buried in its dark and silent recesses was their last and most moving expression of tying themselves forever to its rocky earth.  It was a final, tangible demonstration of their intense and lifelong trust that God would one day give Canaan to their descendents, who would possess it as a nation and there realize their unique destiny. 


            Calev's visit to that very place, in spite of the danger suggested by the presence of the "giants," was thus understood by the Midrash to indicate more than a reconnaissance mission.  Alone among the spies, he went to Chevron and to the Cave of Makhpela seeking to be imbued with the emotional strength that he would need to oppose them and to refute their fatalistic report.  But from that pilgrimage Calev also hoped to draw inspiration for the people of Israel to remain steadfast in their faith that God's pledge to bring them into the land would be realized.




            If Chevron suggested the encounter with Israel's deepest roots in Canaan, if the progenitors there entombed signified an everlasting love for the land and an absolute trust in God's as-yet unfulfilled promise of nationhood, then the rest of the matter is clear.  The tragedy of the spies preserved in our parasha is for the most part an exploration of the limits of trust.  On the one hand, God indicated to the people that the land of Canaan was beautiful, bountiful and within reach.  On the other hand, the spies surveyed a land whose verdant slopes were dotted by highly fortified cities and populated by powerful and hostile tribes.  How could the people of Israel, scarcely freed from the crucible of a harsh and prolonged bondage that enslaved the body and crushed the soul, persevere against the Canaanites, except by believing in God's promise and in themselves to overcome the twin plagues of self-doubt and inadequacy that would otherwise consume them?


            The passage of the spies in our Parashat Shelach, their crisis of confidence precipitated by their lack of trust, is no place to highlight the heroism of Calev, who was so obviously filled with a "different spirit."  Theirs was the story of downfall and failure, while his was the tale of eventual triumph.  They betrayed the traditions of their forefathers who believed God's word in spite of all, while he knew in his innermost heart that His pledge to them would be upheld.  Their counsel won the day, that generation was plunged into the abyss, and so Calev's moving visit to Chevron was shrouded in textual obscurity and concealed.


            The passage in Sefer Yehoshua, however, is the textual antithesis of Parashat Shelach and the ironic reversal of its tragedy.  In Sefer Yehoshua we see how the people of Israel have weathered those forty years of infamy, how they have resolutely traversed the barren wilderness to successfully enter the land and to conquer its powerful Canaanite alliances.  They finally stand at the threshold of God's dual promise of land and nationhood being fulfilled.  With the process of settlement well under way, they prepare to formally divide up the land among the tribes.  What more fitting way to introduce the great and awesome undertaking than by emphasizing its necessary underpinnings of an unshakable faith?  The message is most credibly communicated by a moving recollection of Calev's visit to Chevron some forty-five years earlier, an expedition now understood as more than his own personal odyssey and the dazzling proof of his own personal mettle.  In fact, the memory of Calev's visit to Chevron now serves the people of Israel as a paradigm for the nurture of their own spiritual fortitude.  After all, Calev is still alive to recount those ancient events, standing before them with his vigor and trust undiminished and his vision of God's promise undimmed, while his erstwhile comrades and their capricious constituency have perished long, long ago. 


            This matter is further reinforced by the now-intelligible tradition that pins the chronology of the conquest on Calev's passing remark.  As we saw above, the calculation of the seven years of conquest, which is to say the successful entry of the people of Israel into the land of Canaan, is predicated upon his seemingly oblique mention of being presently "eighty-five years old."  In essence, the Rabbinic tradition that saw in his age the key to calculating the duration of the conquest most certainly alluded to more than mere mathematics.  It forcefully implied that Israel's success in the land would ultimately be a function of adopting not only Calev's lifespan as the chronological anchor of their history, but also his lifelong conviction as the foundation of their own spiritual strength, so that they might complete the awesome task that God had placed before them of settling the land.  "Therefore was Chevron given to Calev the son of Yefune the Kenizite as an inheritance until this very day, for he followed after God the Lord of Israel" (Yehoshua 14:14).


Shabbat Shalom