• Rav Yaakov Beasley





In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner







By Rabbi Ya’akov Beasley





Although the seeds of the tragedy of Sefer Bamidbar are planted in Parashat Beha’alothekha, the death of the dream occurs in our parasha.  With the people’s rejection of the Promised Land, Hashem so despairs of the nation that He contemplated obliterating them entirely, and only Moshe’s heartfelt pleas avert the decree.  Instead of triumphantly marching into Eretz Yisrael, Bnei Yisrael will wander aimlessly in the wilderness for forty years, waiting for the death of one generation so that the next can enter the Land.  Some of the people attempt to attack the Land despite the withdrawal of the Divine Presence, but they only deal the Jewish people their first military defeat.  The parasha concludes with a series of mitzvot, some of which are to come into effect only when the people finally arrive in their Land (libations on the altar and the gift of challa to the Kohen), and others that allude to the sin that the people committed (the offerings of leaders that err and the mitzva of tzitzit, which is intended to guard against following the desires of the eyes, as the spies had done).




There are two basic approaches found among the commentators to what the offense of the spies was:


a)    RASHI – The very act of spying out the territory implied doubt about the value of God’s gift to the Jewish people, Eretz Yisrael. 

b)    RAMBAN – The act of spying and military preparations were perfectly acceptable; the error was in the spies’ presentation.


The first approach, that of Rashi, appears first in the Midrash, according to which the very request for further information about Eretz Yisrael contained the seeds of the subsequent rejection of the Land:


Even though Hashem agreed, saying, “Send yourself out men,” He did not really feel that they should be dispatched.  Why?  The Holy One had already told them the amazing qualities of Eretz Yisrael…This is comparable to a king who told his son, “I have found you a beautiful woman, from an excellent family, who is wealthy and altogether incomparable!”Said the son, “I want to go check her out.”  The king was very hurt by the son’s suspicions.  Said the king to himself, “What can I do now?  If I refuse his request, he’ll be convinced that she is ugly [and I am trying to fool him].”  So he gave his approval to his son. When the son met her, he was overwhelmed.  “You like her?”  Said the king.  “Good!  Now, I swear that you will not have her!”  (Midrash Tanchuma, Shelach 5)


The original dispatch of the spies reflects a lack of trust in Hashem regarding His promise of Eretz Yisrael.  Each of the forty days of spying added to the insult and directly contributed to the punishment of forty years.   


A variation of this approach distinguishes between the desire to understand the nature of the land and the demand for military intelligence. The request to send spies exposes a breakdown of faith in Hashem’s ability to wage the war necessary to bring them into Eretz Yisrael.


And Moshe sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said to them: “Get you up here into the South, and go up into the mountains;  and see the land, what it is; and the people that dwells therein, whether they are strong or weak, whether they are few or many; and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it is good or bad… and what the land is, whether it is fat or lean, whether there is wood therein or not. And be of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land.”  Now the time was the time of the first-ripe grapes. (13:17-20)


Hashem told Moshe that there was no need for military intelligence. He allowed them to send out explorers (tarim), not spies (meraglim).  When they returned, they appended to the appropriate information about the land a military analysis that was not their business, negating all the good tidings that they brought to the people … (commentary of the Malbim, 13:2)


It was an outrageous thing that these spies said: “For they are stronger than we (mi-mennu)” (13:31). Read that as “stronger than He (Hashem - mi-mennu)! They were suggesting that even The Owner was not able to move His tools out of there… (Arachin 15a)


As opposed to this approach, the Ramban bases his explanation on the assumption that he makes at the beginning of the parasha (13:2) – that the purpose of sending the spies was for military reconnaissance. The Ramban explains the series of questions that Moshe presented to the spies (verses 17-20) in terms of this assumption – all are aimed at preparing for the military conquest of the land. The first report of the spies was therefore mainly within the framework of their mission, the Ramban explains. Only with the word “only” (efes - 13:28) do they begin to overstep their authority (although it is still a military report, but of a different type). 


This [the espionage] is a perfectly acceptable approach, and Moshe himself sent spies [against Ya’azer], as did Yehoshua [against Yericho]… This is why Moshe Rabbeinu approved of the venture, because the Torah does not rely on miracles in all things, but insists that combatants arm themselves, set up watches, and arrange ambushes, just as we find in the war against Ai, which was waged according to Hashem’s own instructions …

What wrong did these spies do?  After all, Moshe told them, “See what kind of land it is, and the people who live there – are they strong or weak, few or many?  And about the cities are they open or fortified?  They certainly had to tell him what they were sent to find out.  What was their sin, what was their terrible crime when they told him, “However, the people living in the land are aggressive, and the cities are large and well-fortified?”  Were they sent in order to lie upon their return? 

Do not think for a moment that their sin was in saying, “the land devours its inhabitant” because even before they said that we find Calev disputing them…  As a matter of fact, Moshe himself said a lot worse than this to the children of these people [forty years later in Sefer Devarim, embellishing the power of the local population and exaggerating the fortifications of their cities – far beyond what these spies said to their parents,] as it states “You will be coming to conquer nations that are greater and more powerful than you, with great cities, fortified to the skies.  They are a great nation, as tall as giants, and you’ve heard the expression, ‘Who can standup to a giant!’” (Devarim 9:1, 2). Now if the meraglim were saying things like this, why would Moshe frighten the second generation exactly the same way that the spies frightened the first? 

[Why then bring fruit back?]  It is possible that Moshe [intended to]… let the people know, so that they would be happy and energized, inspired to go up to Israel with joy.  That would explain why he told the spies to make a special effort to bring back some of the land’s produce (12:20), so that all could see with their own eyes the fertility of the land. (Commentary of the Ramban, Bamidbar 13:2) 



According to both the Ramban (13:1 and 13:27) and the Akeidat Yitzchak (77), it appears that the sin of the spies lay in overstepping the bounds of their authority, in their transition from being faithful reporters – which was the mandate given to them - to becoming advisors with their own independent views and evaluations – which lay outside the bounds of their mission. Indeed, such a distinction exists in modern intelligence bodies, where the function of the information gatherers is to report on what they have seen or heard, and that of the intelligence evaluators is to evaluate the situation or to provide advice on the basis of that information.


In the transition from one function to the other, the spies indeed overstepped their authority, but ultimately this was no more than a formal sin. Is this really what constituted the true sin of the spies?




In discussing the laws of slander, the Rambam makes a fascinating distinction between tale-bearing and slander:


One who is talebearer (meragel) on his friends transgresses a commandment, as it says, “Do not go around as a talebearer among your people (Vayikra 19:16)… This is a terrible sin and brought about the death of many people from among the Jewish people, as the verse continues “Do not stand over the blood of your brother.”  Take an example from Doeg [whose accusations of treachery caused Shaul to wipe out Nov, the city of kohanim, for assisting David].


The talebearer refers to someone who hears something and then passes it to others, saying, “So and so said this” or “I heard such and such about this person” – even if it is true, it destroys society.


[Despite this], there is a sin that is exceedingly worse than this, which is included in the same commandment: lashon ha-ra.  This consists of saying something demeaning about someone, even if it true. (Mishna Torah, Hilkhot De’ot, 7:1, 2)

This implies that the sin of the spies was not a question of a lack of emuna, faith, or the technical slip from exceeding one’s boundaries.  Instead, the issue comes back not to what was said, but something deeper – if it should have been said at all.  In the Talmud’s formulation:


Come and see the incredible power of lashon ha-ra, which can be learned from the meraglim (spies):  if this is what comes of speaking lashon ha-ra only of trees and rocks, imagine what is involved when speaking lashon ha-ra about a friend!  (Arachin 15a)


Despite the fact that no damage was caused to the trees and rocks of Eretz Yisrael, the spies changed the course of history for an entire nation.  Clearly, lashon ha-ra is not measured by the extent of the damage it causes, but the fact that it has been spoken at all.  The talebearer reveals information that was not meant to be public.  Ultimately, however, he presented the information and the conclusions are drawn by the listener.  The speaker of lashon ha-ra, however, attempts to control the listener, to insinuate into his thoughts and influence his conclusions.  Through speech, the speaker defines himself.  A generation that was capable of speaking evil about Eretz Yisrael did not deserve to live there.  As the Talmud states:


The decree against our forefathers in the desert was sealed only because of lashon ha-ra, slander, as it states, “They have tested Me this ten times …” (Bamidbar 14:22).


But perhaps this lashon ha-ra was only the final straw [but ultimately was not innately worse than any of the other sins]?


Impossible, for it stresses here ‘they have tested Me this ten times,’ implying that it was uniquely this - lashon ha-ra – that sealed the decree.  (Arachin 15a)