The Sin of the Spies and its Lessons

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Adapted by Immanuel Meyer

Translated by Kaeren Fish


Rashi – Slandering the Land

            According to Rashi, the debacle of the spies began to unfold long before the spies returned from the Promised Land with their negative report. He maintains that the root of the problem is to be found in their dispatch in the first place:

“Send for yourself” – [Meaning,] “at your own discretion. I [God] am not commanding you; if you wish to, then send.” Since Bnei Yisrael came and said (Devarim 1:22), “Let us send men before us…,” as it is written (ibid.), “And you all drew close to me…,” Moshe consulted with the Divine Presence. He [God] said: I have told them that it is a good land – as it is written (Shemot 3:17), “I shall bring you up from the affliction of Egypt… [to a land flowing with milk and honey]” – by their lives, I will give them room to err in the words of the spies, in order that they may not inherit it. (Rashi, Bamidbar 13:2)

The fact that the spies gave a negative report of the land, and that the entire congregation believed them and refused to journey on, is not the essence of the sin, but rather the result of it.

Rabbenu Bechayei – Faith and Human Effort

            In contrast, Rabbenu Bechayei sees no problem with the initiative to send spies. He writes a lengthy comment; we will examine only a short part of it. He introduces his explanation with the verse, “The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but safety comes from the Lord” (Mishlei 21:31), and then goes on to praise the efforts to prepare for entry into the land without relying on miracles:

In this verse [from Mishlei], King Shlomo, of blessed memory, urges each and every individual to do whatever he needs to do, through natural means, to the extent of his ability, and to leave the rest to God. For a miracle occurs only when there is a deficiency in nature, while most of what man does is based on the natural dimension. Therefore, a person performs actions and deals with matters in preparation to achieve what he wants and to realize his desires, just as someone who intends to wage war on his enemies should prepare weapons and horses and chariots for the day of battle. For if he does not prepare, relying instead on a miracle, he will be given into the hands of his enemies.

Further on, Rabbenu Bechayei places explicit emphasis on this point: “For the Torah never relies on miracles.”

A similar view was proposed even earlier by the Rambam in his Commentary on the Mishna. The mishna records:

King Chizkiya did six things; for three [the Sages] praised him, while for the other three they did not praise him. (Pesachim 4:9)

The Rambam writes that although this mishna is a tosefta, he comments on it “because it is of benefit.” Concerning the statement that King Chizkiya “hid the Book of Remedies, and they praised him,” the Rambam explains that this was a book of idolatry that had been written for educational purposes, and Chizkiyahu hid it because people were using it as a practical guide for healing purposes. Alternatively, this was a book with precise instructions for preparing poisons and antidotes, and because people were using it not only to prepare antidotes but also to make poison, Chizkiyahu decided to hide it.

Then the Rambam explains why he devotes attention to explaining what this “Book of Remedies” was:

And I elaborate on this matter only because I have heard, and also it was explained to me, that Shlomo composed a Book of Remedies, such that if a person fell ill with some sickness, he would appeal to him, and would do whatever he told him to, and would be healed. And Chizkiya saw that people who were ill no longer put their faith in God, but rather in the Book of Remedies, and so he decided to hide it.

The Rambam expresses vehement opposition to this approach, arguing that there is nothing wrong with using remedies to cure oneself of illness. A person who is hungry will eat bread to “cure” himself of hunger, and will give thanks to God for creating food that sustains him. No one would think of arguing that by eating bread this person displays a lack of faith in God. In the same way, if a person is sick, he should take the appropriate medicine and thank God for the remedies for illness.

Although the Rambam is quite unequivocal in his view, insisting that only “the lowliest of the masses” would regard resorting to remedies as a weakness of faith, the matter is not so simple, as evidenced by the fact that Ramban seems to propose precisely this view:

When Israel are whole and numerous, and their course does not follow nature at all – neither regarding their bodies nor regarding their land, neither with regard to the collective, nor with regard to the individual – God will bless their bread and their water and remove sickness from their midst, such that they will need neither doctors nor any medical precautions, as it is written (Shemot 15:26), “For I am the Lord, your Healer.” This is how the righteous would behave in the era of prophecy. Even if some sin caused them to fall ill, they would not consult doctors, but rather prophets, as was the case with Chizkiyahu when he fell ill (Melakhim II 20:2-3). Conversely, the verse testifies [concerning King Asa], “Even in his illness he did not seek out God, but doctors” (Divrei Ha-Yamim II 15:12). (Ramban, Vayikra 26:11)

Further on, Ramban writes, “But one who seeks God through a prophet would not seek doctors. For what place do doctors have in the House of those who perform God’s will?”

In any event, Rabbenu Bechayei, as noted, adopts the Rambam’s approach on this question, and we must therefore attempt to trace where exactly the error occurred that led to such a terrible sin.

Acknowledging the Difficulty, Recognizing Ability, and Prayer

In order to find the answer, I propose, as a completely theoretical idea with no practical implications, that we consider a different haftara for Parashat Shelach. We are accustomed to reading the story of the spies in conjunction with the story of the spies dispatched by Yehoshua to Yericho. However, Yehoshua experiences a significant setback of his own in connection with a different set of spies – those he dispatches to Ai:

And Yehoshua sent men from Yericho to Ai, which is beside Beit-Aven, on the east side of Beit-El, and spoke to them, saying, “Go up and spy out the country.” And the men went up and spied out Ai. And they returned to Yehoshua, and said to him, “Let not all the people go up, but let about two or three thousand men go up and smite Ai, and do not weary all the people to go there, for they are but few.” (Yehoshua 7:2-3)

After the humiliating defeat at Ai, Yehoshua cries out to God in a manner that recalls the weeping of the people in our parasha:

And Yehoshua said, “Alas, O Lord God, why did You bring this people over the Jordan, to deliver us into the hand of the Emori, to destroy us? Would that we had been content to remain on the other side of the Jordan!” (Yehoshua 7:7)

Here we have another narrative that starts off with spies sent out and leads to fear of the inhabitants of the land and a nostalgic longing for the safer, eastern side of the Jordan. Indeed, Chazal are critical of Yehoshua for his outburst:

R. Nachman said in the name of Rav: What is the meaning of the verse, “The poor utters entreaties, but the rich answers with impudence” (Mishlei 17:23)? “The poor utters entreaties” – this refers to Moshe; “but the rich answers with impudence” – this refers to Yehoshua. (Sanhedrin 44a)

Moshe had entreated God to be permitted to cross over the Jordan; Yehoshua now questioned the benefit and wisdom of having done so.

What can we learn from the juxtaposition of these two episodes? It seems that in every instance of human initiative and effort, as encouraged by Rabbenu Bechayei, there are three crucial elements.

The first stage must be an acknowledgment of the difficulty involved. Yes, conquering the land is difficult and dangerous! Does anyone imagine that it will be quick and easy? Indeed, “The cities are fortified and very great, and moreover we saw the children of Anak there” (Bamidbar 13:28)!

The next stage must be the recognition that the goal is nevertheless attainable. It is regarding this point that Kalev disagrees with the other spies:

And Kalev hushed the people before Moshe, and said, “Let us go up at once, and possess it, for we are well able to overcome it!” But the men who went up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.”(Bamidbar 13:30-31)

If we examine this debate to see how many times God’s Name appears in it, we find that there is not a single mention of it. This is a wholly “secular” argument, pitting two different assessments of the situation against one another.

The text records:

They ascended into the Negev, and he [va-yavo – singular] came to Chevron, where Achiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the children of Anak, were. (Bamidbar 13:22)

Chazal deduce that Kalev alone entered Chevron, while all the other spies were afraid of the giants (benei ha-anak) who lived there. Kalev tells the people, “I was there, I know what it’s like, and it’s not as bad as it sounds.” From the outside, from a distance, things seem more frightening than they really are.

The third stage, once the first two elements have been established, entails faith in God and prayer. Once there is recognition of the fact that the path will be a difficult one, but nevertheless possible, there is a need for Divine aid in order to bring about the desired success. This element, of course, is dependent on the two previous ones. If there is no difficulty and no threat, then there is no need to pray (as the spies dispatched by Yehoshua might well have believed), whereas if there is no hope, then there is no point in praying (as the spies dispatched by Moshe would have it). In both instances, a heavy price was paid.

The third stage is critical. The conquest of the land was indeed a difficult process. A review of Sefer Yehoshua reveals that Bnei Yisrael did not conquer a single city that was “surrounded by a wall from the days of Yehoshua bin Nun.” They were neither trained nor equipped to lay siege to a city. The battles were always fought and won in the field. Somehow, God always sent the people of the city to them – whether by means of an ambush laid in the field along with a “bait” of some sort that caused the people to emerge, or by means of an alliance between rulers who decided to launch a joint attack on Bnei Yisrael, or through some other set of circumstances. One way or the other, by the grace of God, the battles were always fought in the field.

Similarly, Bnei Yisrael were unable to deal with the iron chariots of the Cana’anim. In Sefer Shoftim, we read about the men of Yehuda, who try to come down from the central mountain range towards the plain:

And the Lord was with Yehuda, and he drove out the inhabitants of the mountain, but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron. (Shoftim 1:19)

The men of Yosef had encountered the same problem earlier on:

And the children of Yosef said, “The hill is not enough for us, and all the Cana’ani that dwell in the land of the valley have chariots of iron… (Yehoshua 17:16)

However, even this challenge can be overcome – and it was this lesson that God had taught Bnei Yisrael in the Exodus from Egypt:

And it came to pass, when Pharaoh, had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Pelishtim, although that was near, for God said: Lest the people change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt. (Shemot 13:17)

The direct route from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael crosses the plain, but this would have brought Bnei Yisrael, emerging from Egypt, directly into confrontation with the iron chariots of the Cana’anim. “So God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Yam Suf” (Shemot 13:18). And in the Yam Suf, God wages war against the chariots of Egypt – “all of Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen” (Shemot 14:23).

This was a clear message to Bnei Yisrael: God can offer Divine aid in a war against chariots, whether it be by splitting a sea or in less dramatic fashion – as, for example, in the war waged by Devora and Barak against Sisera (in which the falling rain hampered Sisera’s chariots), or in the war of Mikhmash, when Shaul had to contend with “thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen, and people like the sand on the seashore for multitude” (Shemuel I 13:5).

Facts vs. Interpretation

Still we are left with a question. Once Moshe has sent spies and they have returned with a pessimistic assessment of the situation, we might well ask what the point was of sending them if not to listen to what they have to say. The fact that Kalev stands up against ten other spies makes little difference; after all, there is a large majority here insisting flatly that the campaign is hopeless, and Moshe has already taught, as per God’s command, that when opinions are divided, “Follow the majority.” (Anyone who cannot imagine that the “learned scholars” of the time would have eagerly offered such arguments in order to avoid taking the initiative, repeating instead the mantra of “saving lives,” need only consider the situation today.) But the answer is clear: the situation is not actually “one against ten.” Even in Halakha, it means nothing if there are ten people who spend forty days feeding each other’s anxieties and then – lo and behold – end up arriving at the same conclusion. At most, what we have is one agenda competing against another agenda.

Still, what reason is there to choose the “Kalev” camp? Here we arrive at the fundamental failure of the spies and of Bnei Yisrael, the lesson that the State of Israel learned only after the Yom Kippur War: intelligence personnel are meant to bring facts alone, not recommendations. The decision as to how to proceed lies with the commander. Moshe sent spies, asking them to “see the country, what it is, and the people who dwell in it, whether they are strong or weak, few or many…” (Bamidbar 13:18) – a list of informative questions. The answers – the dry facts – should have been received by Moshe alone, and he alone should have weighed the facts and decided whether he had the tools to deal with the situation, evaluating the forces and resources at his disposal, and assessing their ability to deal with what awaited them.

Indeed, this isolation of the facts is the proper approach in many other situations. As an example, we might consider studies at university. A student must be aware that in every area, a distinction must be made between the dry facts, on one hand, and the interpretation and conclusions drawn from them, on the other. Much of the latter proceeds from the basic assumptions and world-view held by the lecturer, who uses the facts to back up his conclusions – but the facts do not necessarily lead to those conclusions. This certainly applies to the study of Bible and Talmud, but no less so to political science and history. In any discipline, the scientific tools and the dry analysis are what they are, but the conclusions, on the level of morals and values, are a separate matter. Thus, the “layers” approach to Talmud may offer a clear and coherent analysis of a sugya, defining the different layers and exact dates for each, but to go on to conclude that a group of simple farmers wrote the gemara requires an associative leap powered by fundamental assumptions that have no place in the beit midrash.

In every sphere, then, one’s assessment must distinguish between the data and the conclusion.

Ramban – Prophetic Consciousness

Thus far, we have adopted the view of Rabbeinu Bechayei in investigating the sin of the spies. Let us now try to understand in depth the approach proposed by Ramban in Parashat Bechukotai.

The ideal set forth by Ramban, as cited above, is indeed an inspiring one, but attention should be paid to the conditions that he sets down as its framework: “When Israel are whole and numerous, and their course does not follow nature at all….” When, exactly, are Bnei Yisrael “whole and numerous”? How can we know when this situation described by Ramban becomes relevant? In a certain sense, his precondition seems to be the most supernatural and miraculous aspect of his entire description.[1]

So when are Am Yisrael whole and numerous? What period is Ramban talking about? I have no idea. But what I do know is that there are situations in the life of Am Yisrael when God reveals Himself to the entire nation, and at such times we must rely on Him and place our faith in His Sovereignty. The journey to enter the land was certainly one such occasion, as we see when it finally happened, in Sefer Yehoshua, when the holy ark passed before the people and split the Jordan. Here, too, the ark journeyed three days’ distance ahead of the people, seeking out a place for them to rest.

As I picture this in my mind, sending spies in anticipation of entering the land, in such a situation, is like arriving at Sinai dressed in fire-resistant clothing and holding a fire-extinguisher, “just in case…” It is simply unthinkable. God reveals Himself to all of Israel at Sinai; no one can possibly be occupied with fears that he might die in this encounter. In such situations, we must “rely on miracles” and follow God, through thick and thin.

Prophecy and Halakha

In Sefer Melakhim, we find that King Asa bribes the king of Aram to help in in his war against Ba’sha:

Then Asa took all the silver and the gold that remained in the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king’s house, and delivered them into the hand of his servants, and King Asa sent them to Ben-Hadad, the son of Tavrimon, the son of Chezyon, king of Aram, who dwelled at Damesek, saying, “There is a league between me and you, and between my father and your father. Behold, I have sent you a present of silver and gold; come and break your league with Ba’sha, king of Israel, that he may depart from me.” (Melakhim I 15:18-19)

Now some people, perusing books of Halakha, might ask: What is the problem with taking the treasures of God’s House? Usually, this would violate the prohibition of me’ila, misappropriation. But Asa faces mortal danger, and nowhere do we learn that saving lives is a less worthy goal than avoiding misappropriation! Asa was right, these people might argue, and he taught us an important lesson in the laws of me’ila.

However, the prophet is clearly criticizing Asa’s actions. Asa faces two potential allies, two kingdoms that might offer aid. He turns away from God’s kingdom, choosing the kingdom of Aram instead, and requesting aid in the war. This is unthinkable! The essence of the criticism of Asa is that he chooses a mortal kingdom over God’s kingdom. Even if his move can be justified in purely halakhic terms, the prophet opposes it with all his being.

A famous incident recorded in Massekhet Berakhot (32b-33a) describes a chasid immersed in prayer who is approached by a Roman officer. The officer greets him, but receives no response, and he wonders at the stupidity or brazenness of this man, who is willing to endanger his life – for the officer might put him to death. The chasid explains the situation to the Roman in terms that he can understand: surely if he, the Roman officer, were in the presence of a mortal king, he would not answer the greeting of any other person! All the more so, then, the chasid, engaged in communication with the King of kings, “Who lives and endures for all eternity,” cannot answer the Roman’s greeting.

Once again, there are those who peruse the books of Halakha and object: “But it is written explicitly right there in the gemara, and also in the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 104:1), that if one is greeted by a gentile king during prayer, one may reply in order not to put his life in danger!” However, the consciousness of this chasid is one that is filled with God’s Presence, at all times and in every place – even after the destruction of the Temple, and in the absence of prophecy. For him, a person in the midst of prayer is standing before the King of kings, and he may not interrupt his prayer even in a situation of mortal danger; he must rely on God to save him.

The gemara in Massekhet Megilla (7a) attempts to bring proofs showing that Megillat Esther was written with Divine inspiration. The term “proofs” is rather problematic in this context:

It has been taught: R. Eliezer said: [Megillat] Esther was written with Divine inspiration, as it is written, “And Haman said in his heart…” (Esther 6:6)… and who could have told the author of the megilla what Haman said in his heart?

To my mind, it is quite clear from a different verse that Esther was indeed written with Divine inspiration:

And Mordekhai commanded to answer Esther, “Do not think in your heart that you shall escape in the king’s house any more than all the other Jews. For if you at all remain silent at this time, then relief and deliverance shall be available to the Jews from elsewhere, but you and your father’s house shall perish; and how knows whether you have not come to royal estate for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14)

How can Mordekhai be so sure that “relief and deliverance shall be available for the Jews from elsewhere”? What gives him the idea that this argument vanquishes all the rational considerations that Esther has raised? One thing is clear to Mordekhai: in comparison with the Kingdom of the King of kings, there is nothing to fear from a mortal kingdom. There will assuredly be relief and deliverance for the Jews, and who knows if it was precisely for this purpose that you arrived at your royal station.

We learn the same lesson from a story recounted in the gemara:

Once the wicked kingdom issued a decree against Israel that anyone who wore tefillin upon his head would have his brains pierced through. Nevertheless, Elisha wore his tefillin and went out to the marketplace. A quaestor saw him; he fled from him, but the latter pursued him. As the quaestor approached, [Elisha] removed them from his head and held them in his hand. [The quaestor] said to him, “What is in your hand?” He answered, “The wings of a dove.” He stretched out his hand, and inside it were the wings of a dove. Therefore he was called the “man of wings.” (Shabbat 130a)

The gemara goes on to explain:

Why did [Elisha] specifically mention the wings of a dove, rather than any other bird? Because the Congregation of Israel is compared to a dove, as it is written, “As the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her pinons with yellow gold” (Tehillim 68:14) – just as a dove is protected by its wings, Israel is protected by the commandments.

When it comes to the commandments of the King of kings, decrees of a mortal king have no power.

The principle here is similar to the law of kana’ut (zealousness), which states that in certain circumstances, “kana’im pog’im bo” – zealous ones may smite him, without due process. These are phenomena that cannot be contained by the Halakha; there can be no halakhic instruction to act in this way, but prophecy and the level of chasidut recognize such situations. Situations in which the Jewish People is in danger – whether physical or spiritual – require a measure of initiative that goes beyond the usual rules and beyond consideration of the detailed sections of the law.

Of course, even when it comes to kana’ut, resorting to such measures requires very careful consideration, and the same applies to reliance on miracles. There have been many occasions when people relied on miracles, hoping that God would deliver and save them, and this approach ultimately brought destruction upon Am Yisrael.

Once again, I cannot say how such situations are to be properly identified. What I can say is that such situations do exist, even today – situations when God reveals Himself to His people, and at such times we must rely on our Father in heaven, even when small-minded considerations would seemingly require a different, more “pragmatic” approach.

In the case of the splitting of the Yam Suf, too – when Am Yisrael relied on God, with no rational basis – the truly great miracle, to my mind, came afterwards, with the Song of the Sea, when all of Israel sang together in praise and thanks to God for their deliverance, concluding with a declaration of His eternal Sovereignty: “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.”


[1] A similar sense of wonder arises from the description of the consumption of manna: “And when they measured it with an omer-measure, he who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack; they gathered every man according to his eating” (Shemot 16:18). We usually understand this as a description of the great miracle whereby each individual gathered what he was able to, yet it turned out that everyone had gathered precisely the same amount. I understand the miracle in a different way: everyone did not gather whatever he was able to, but rather an omer-measure. The description, “And when they measured it with an omer-measure” is not what they did after the gathering, but rather a description of how the gathering was carried out. Those who were used to taking much did not exceed the measure, while those who were used to taking little took no less than the measure. They all obeyed Moshe and took an omer per person. This, to my mind, is a far greater miracle.