Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Parshat Shelach

The Spies

Israel's camp was established and the army had been mobilized. Israel stood on Canaan's southern border waiting for orders to advance. Moshe sent spies and the spies reported back evil tidings that delayed the conquest for forty years.

However, the problem was not that Moshe sent spies. Indeed forty years later, when Israel was finally ready to make the Promised land its home, Moshe again sent spies: "Moshe sent [men] to spy out Yaazer and they captured its villages…"(Bemidbar 21:32). Furthermore, Yehoshua sent spies before the capture of Yericho and Ai (see Yehoshua 2:1 & 7:2).

It is crucial before any military campaign to know as much as possible about the enemy. What are their strengths, weaknesses, moral etc? Military intelligence has always been a vital factor in war.

So where did Moshe's spies go wrong? The answer is that Moshe did not send spies!!

Not once in our story as are the spies actually referred to as "spies" ("meraglim"). Their mission was not "leragel et haaretz" - to spy out the land - but "latur et haaretz" – "to scout the Land" (Bemidbar 13:17).

Furthermore, their mission was not just military. Moshe instructed them to find out about "the land they inhabit? Is it good or bad? … What is the soil like? Is it fat or lean? Are there any trees in it or not?" (ibid 19-20). This information is irrelevant for military conquest.

Additionally, Moshe sent 12 men, one from each tribe. That second fact suggests that the mission was flawed from the outset; that Moshe had to appease each tribe. The "spies" themselves, unlike Yehoshua's who "sent two men out of Shittim to spy secretly" (Yehoshua 2:1), were not sent secretly. Indeed, "each one shall be a chieftain in their midst they were all" (Bemidbar 13:2). Each one was an important personality, not a professionally trained spy. Furthermore, unlike Yeoshua's (and all other) spies, whose identities were kept hidden, no one knew who they were or that they were even sent., Moshe's spies however, are all named publicly. I would not be surprised if a farewell banquet was even held in their honor.

The fact that Moshe sent 12 people is also a flaw. Such a large group would find it hard to blend in and go about their work unnoticed.

The biggest mistake however, has to be that the people were the one's that ordered the mission. Moshe admits this publicly in Sefer Devarim (See Devarim 1:22-23). However, this is obvious from the fact that the spies do not report their findings back to Moshe alone, but to all Israel: "They went, and they came to Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the children of Israel in the desert of Paran, to Kadesh. They brought them back a report, as well as to the entire congregation" (Bemidbar 1:26).

Moshe's spies failed because he didn't actually send spies. Instead, Moshe sent tribal ambassadors, with a confusing mission and purpose who were unqualified for the task at hand. If Moshe would have sent trained spies, in secret with a clear military mission, they might have succeeded.

No wonder, God considered Moshe at fault with this mission: "The Lord was also angry with me because of you, saying, "Neither will you go there." (Devarim 1:37).

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Shelach, entitled: "The Spies, Challa and Tzitzit" appears at

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