Parshat Shlach -
'Meraglim' or a Fact Finding Mission?

(To prepare for this shiur,
see the questions for self study.)

What was so terrible about the sin of the "meraglim?" After all, they were instructed to report the facts, and that's exactly what they did! Furthermore, even if we consider their report as deliberately slanted, why should the entire nation be punished for being misled by a small group? Finally, even if the people's initial reaction was improper, immediately afterward they repent by declaring their willingness to take the challenge of conquering the Land!

Why then is Dor HaMidbar punished so severely? Why must they wander for forty years until they perish? This week's shiur examines this tragic event in an attempt to understand why.

Before we begin, we must make an important point about nomenclature. Although this event is commonly known as "Chet HaMeraglim" - the sin of the spies - in Parshat Shlach they are never referred to as such! For the sake of convenience, our shiur will continue to refer to them as the "meraglim;" however, we will show that their mission involves much more than just 'spying out the land.'

In order to ascertain more precisely what their mission was, we begin our shiur with a discussion of the words that the Torah uses to describe them.

Tourists or Spies
In describing the mission of the meraglim, the Torah uses the verb "la'tur" (see 13:2,17 and 25, among others). This verb can be translated as 'to tour' or 'to scout.' However, to arrive at a more precise definition, we must analyze the specifics of that mission. Let's take a closer look at the instructions that Moshe gives them:

"And you shall see the land,
what it is
Are the people who live in it strong or weak, few or many?
Is the Land good or bad?
Are the towns open or fortified?
Is the soil rich or poor? Are there trees?
[If so,] bring back samples of the fruit..." (13:17-20)
Clearly, this is more than a spy mission. Note that the meraglim are sent to gather two types of information: (See Board #1.) This is not a job for military spies! This is a fact finding mission. Let's explain.

Normally, spies are sent only after a nation has decided to engage in war. The military commander sends a small number of spies to help plan how to attack the enemy. The mission of the meraglim is quite different. They are gathering information to help the nation decide if they should conquer the Land. Clearly, this is not a mission for military spies. It would be better defined as a National Commission of Inquiry, engaged to conduct a feasibility study vis a vis the establishment of Eretz Canaan as the new national homeland for Bnei Yisrael.

To understand why, we must recall that Bnei Yisrael are in search of a homeland, to set up a nation for over two million individuals. [Extrapolate the census figure of 600,000 - men above 20 - to arrive at this approximation.]

Therefore, before Bnei Yisrael begin their conquest of the land they must verify two important points, corresponding to their double mission (as explained above):

(See Board #2.) Based on this introduction, we can better understand the opening pasuk of the Parsha:
"And God spoke to Moshe... send one man from every tribe, each one a chieftain among them... all the men being leaders of Bnei Yisrael." (13:1-3)
Due to the nature of this mission, it is necessary to send a senior representative from each "shevet" (tribe).

This also explains why the meraglim report back not only to Moshe, but also to the entire public (see 13:26). Had they been military spies, they would report only to Moshe (i.e. the military commander), but definitely not to the entire nation! Furthermore, had they been military spies, there would be no reason to publicize their names, and certainly no reason to send tribal leaders. Quite the opposite! It is because they comprise a national fact finding mission that specifically national leaders are sent, and precisely for this reason, they report back to the entire nation (see 13:26).

A Proof From Sefer Yehoshua
To clarify this distinction between 'spies' and a 'commission of inquiry' it is helpful to compare these meraglim to the meraglim sent by Yehoshua [see this week's Haftarah]:

"And Yehoshua bin Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim saying: Go scout out the land and the area of Yericho..." (Yehoshua 2:1)

"And the two men returned... and they came to Yehoshua and they told him concerning what happened to them." (2:23)

Note that in Sefer Yehoshua the spies are actually referred to as meraglim. These meraglim (we are not told their names) are sent secretly to spy out the city and report back only to Yehoshua. Clearly, their mission is purely military.

To highlight this contrast, Board #3 summarizes the differences between these two missions. Yehoshua's meraglim serve as military spies sent by Yehoshua to help him plan how to conquer Yericho. Moshe's meraglim serve as an inquiry commission, sent to help the people determine if they should conquer the Land.

One Report / Two Opinions
Now that we have clarified and defined the double nature of the mission of Moshe's meraglim, we are ready to evaluate their report in order to determine what they did wrong.

When the meraglim return, their report correlates perfectly with the double purpose of their mission. Based on their findings, in regard to (1) the nature of the land, the meraglim conclude that the land is superb:

"And they showed them the fruits of the land saying... it is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey..." (13:26-27)
(See Board #4.) However, in regard to (2) the feasibility of its conquest, the meraglim conclude that conquering the people of Canaan is impossible:
"Alas, for the people who live in that land are mighty, and the cities are fortified... the Amalekites guard the South, the Chittites and Jebusites and Emorites control the mountain range, and the Canaanites command the planes... " (13:28-29)
(See Board #5.) These conclusions reflected only the commission's majority opinion. Kalev and Yehoshua presented a dissenting opinion. Based on the same findings, they conclude that conquest of the Land is possible:
"It is indeed feasible to conquer the Land..." (13:30)
Up until this point, it appears as though this commission is quite objective; they report the facts as perceived. All twelve members concur that the land is good, yet the enemy formidable. However, two opinions exist in regard to the feasibility of its conquest: the majority opinion concludes that it is futile to even attempt to conquer the land (see 13:31), while the dissenting opinion, presented by Kalev, argues that conquest is achievable (see 13:30).

The majority opinion appears to be logical and quite realistic. Why then is God so angered?

It is usually understood that this majority opinion of the meraglim, and hence their punishment, stems from their lack of belief in God. After all, had they believed in Hashem, as did Kalev and Yehoshua, they would have arrived at the opposite conclusion. However, this understanding may be overly simplistic. Is it possible that ten out of the twelve tribal leaders, after witnessing the miracles of the Exodus and their journey through the desert, do not believe in God and His ability to assist His nation in battle?

No Faith in Whom?
There can be no doubt that the tribal leaders, and the entire nation as well, believe in God and the possibility of Divine assistance. Unfortunately, they are also well aware of the possibility of Divine punishment. Throughout their journey, not only had God intervened numerous times to help them, He had also intervened numerous times to punish them. However, the meraglim are also aware that to be worthy of Divine assistance Bnei Yisrael must remain obedient at all times. This precise warning had already been raised at the conclusion of Parshat Mishpatim:

"Behold I am sending a 'malach' to lead into the Land... Be careful and listen to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your sins, for My Name is with him. For if you will listen... and do everything that I command you, then I will help you defeat and conquer your enemies..." (Shmot 23:20-25)
This warning clearly states that God's assistance is totally dependent on Bnei Yisrael's behavior. Should they not listen, they will fall before their enemies. [The story of Achan (see Yehoshua 7:1-26) proves this assumption. There we find that the mere sin of one individual led to the defeat of the entire nation in battle.]

One could suggest that the conclusion of the meraglim is based on their assessment that Bnei Yisrael are not capable of retaining the spiritual level necessary to be worthy of miracles while conquering the Land. Realizing that conquest is only feasible with Divine assistance, they concur that conquest is impossible. The meraglim are not doubting God's ability to assist them in battle; rather they are doubting their own ability to be worthy of that assistance.

So what's so terrible? Is it not the job of leadership to realistically evaluate all of the relevant factors?

Dibah - The Chet of the Meraglim
It is precisely in this type of situation where leadership is critical! Ideal leadership should have challenged the nation to raise their spiritual level - to become worthy of Divine assistance. The meraglim take a very different approach. Instead of rallying the nation to fulfill its destiny, the meraglim hide their spiritual cowardice behind a wall of hyperbole! Pay careful attention to their reaction to Kalev's 'dissenting opinion' (in 13:30), for it sheds light on their true character:

"But the people who went up with him said: We cannot attack that people for it is stronger that we. And they spread dibat ha'aretz among Bnei Yisrael saying: The land that we visited is one that devours its inhabitants, all the people who we saw there are giant... we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and that is how they saw us." (13:31-33)
Note that the Torah refers to this rebuttal as "dibah" - slander. These are not the objective statements of a fact finding mission! Rather, they comprise a presentation of hysterical exaggerations made in a desperate attempt to shape public opinion. A land does not 'devour' its inhabitants, nor is it likely that the meraglim are perceived by the Canaanites as 'grasshoppers!' Instead of confessing their true fear and lack of confidence in the nation's ability, they over-exaggerate the seriousness of the situation. (See Board #6.) Rather than encourage the people to prepare themselves for the task, they prefer to utilize populist politics and create fear in the camp.

Proper leadership is exhibited by Kalev and Yehoshua. Note their rebuttal of this argument:

"Im chafetz banu Hashem - If God truly wants us [to be His nation], surely He will bring us into the land... only you must not rebel against God, and you should not fear the people of the land for they are our prey... for God will be with us - do not fear them." (14:8-9)
Unfortunately, the meraglim had succeeded in convincing the people that conquest was impossible (see 14:1-2). Considering that staying in the desert was also not a long term option, the nation concludes that their only realistic option is to return to Egypt (see 14:3-5). The attempt of Yehoshua and Kalev to convince the people otherwise was futile (see 14:6-9). Bnei Yisrael prefer returning to Eretz Mitzraim over the challenge of becoming God's special nation in Eretz Canaan.

Based on our explanation thus far, only the meraglim should have been punished, for it was they who led the people astray. Why does God punish the entire nation as well?

The Last Straw
One could suggest that the people's preference of adopting the conclusion of the meraglim over the conclusion of Kalev reflects their own spiritual weakness as well. Undoubtedly, the slanted report presented by the meraglim had influenced their decision. However, since the time of the Exodus and throughout their desert journey, the people had consistently shown a lack of idealism. Had the Land of Israel been offered to them on a silver platter, Bnei Yisrael most likely would have been delighted to accept it. However, once they realize that conquering the Promised Land requires commitment and dedication, the nation declines. God's conclusion is final:

"Ad ana y'na'atzuni ha'am ha'zeh... - How long will this people defy Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me, despite all the signs..." (14:11-12)
As was the case at Chet Ha'Egel, God wishes to destroy the entire nation, opting to make a nation out of Moshe instead. Once again, Moshe petitions God to invoke His "midot ha'rachamim" (attributes of mercy). However this time, it is impossible to reverse the "gzar din" (verdict); it could only be delayed. Due to Chet HaMeraglim, God is convinced that Dor HaMidbar would never be capable of meeting the challenges of conquering and establishing a 'holy nation' in the Promised Land. They are to perish slowly in the desert, while a new generation will grow up and become properly educated.

Based on this interpretation, we can explain why the repentance of the "ma'apilim" (see 14:39-45) is insufficient. Even though their declaration of, "We are prepared to go up and conquer the place which God has spoken of, for we were wrong" (see 14:40) may reflect a change of heart, it is too late. Had this been Bnei Yisrael's only sin, then most likely their repentance would have sufficed. However, Dor HaMidbar had suffered from an attitude problem since the time of the Exodus (see Tehilim 95:8-11, Shmot 6:9-12, and Yechezkel 20:5-9). Even after they received the Torah and built the Mishkan, their numerous complaints against Moshe since the time they left Har Sinai were inexcusable. Chet HaMeraglim was not an isolated sin; it was simply the "straw that broke the camel's back."

Bnei Yisrael may have been more than happy to accept the privileges of becoming an "am segula," yet they were not prepared to accept those obligations which that entails. God decided that it was necessary to educate a new generation instead.

It is not often in Jewish History when the opportunity arises for Am Yisrael to return to its homeland. The implication of such an opportunity is far greater than simply the fulfillment of "mitzvat yishuv ha'aretz" (the commandment to settle the Land), for it relates to the entire character and destiny of the Jewish people. When such opportunities arise, spiritual weakness should not be allowed to hide behind subjective pessimism. Rather, Jewish leadership must gather strength and assess the realities objectively while rising to the challenges idealistically.

Virtual ClassRoom enhancements by Reuven Weiser.

For Further Iyun
1. Note the parallel account of this event in Sefer Devarim (1:22-24). There, they are called "meraglim" and only the military aspect of their mission is detailed. Relate this to the purpose of Moshe's speech in the 40th year and the fact that Bnei Yisrael are about to cross the Yarden and begin conquest of the Land. See also Ramban (Bamidbar 13:1), note how he attempts to combine both accounts.

2. All said and done, the obvious question remains, why does God command Bnei Yisrael to undertake a mission that may fail?

One could suggest that even though God has promised the land to Bnei Yisrael, He prefers that its conquest follows a natural sequence of events. Even though Yisrael enjoyed a supernatural existence in the desert, as they prepare for entering the land, they must begin to behave in a natural manner, as this will be the mode of life once they conquer the land. Now there is value in the fact that Bnei Yisrael participate actively in the process of "kibush ha'aretz" and begin to live like any normal nation by making decisions on their own.

This could be compared to a 'first step' towards national maturity. Just like a child's needs are first taken care of by his parents, and slowly he must begin to take on his own responsibilities, so too Bnei Yisrael at this stage. Unfortunately, it seems that this 'weaning' process began a bit too soon. Bnei Yisrael were as yet not ready.

3. Recall from the shiur on Parshat Naso that in the overall structure of Sefer Bamidbar, parshiot of mitzvot that would appear to belong in Sefer Vayikra often 'interrupt' the ongoing narrative 'challenging' us to find a connection. Review the mitzvot in 15:1-41 and try to find a thematic connection to the story of the meraglim.

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