Eretz Israel is Acquired Through Trial and Effort
One the verse that states, “Send for yourself men” (Numbers 13:2), Rashi writes in the same of the Sages: “‘Send for yourself.’ if you judge them useful, you may send them if you want to. Myself, I do not order you to do so.” One may refer to what commentators have said concerning this subject, since it is not within the scope of this article to deal with the subject in depth.
However, there are several points that we should try to understand:
1. If the Holy One, blessed be He, did not command Moses to send the spies, why then did he do so?
2. It must be understood why Moses gave Hoshua bin Nun the name Yehoshua (“Joshua” – Numbers 13:16). Moses added the letter yud to his name and prayed that G-d protect him from the evil designs of the spies. He therefore knew that they had evil plans and would relate wicked things about Eretz Israel, as the Sages in fact confirmed by their statement: “Their going is compared to their coming” (Sotah 35a), which implies that they left with harmful intentions. In such a case, why did Moses send them?
3. The most difficult question of all concerns the following statement: “They were all distinguished men; they were heads of the Children of Israel” (Numbers 13:3). At that point their intentions were still good (as Rashi writes). Consequently, how is it possible that all of a sudden they damaged the holiness of both themselves and the land by means of slander?
Let us try to explain all this as best we can. Moses was afraid to have all the Children of Israel enter into Eretz Israel at one time because he knew that there were giants living there. If everyone entered, the fear they would experience would greatly weaken them, and they would begin to speak badly of the Holy Land even while in it. This risked bringing about a great punishment, from which thousands of the Children of Israel would have died as a result, not to mention the punishment that future generations would have experienced.
This is why Moses decided to send the spies to observe the land. He told them that there were giants and other curious things in the land, but added that there was nothing to fear. In reality, Moses wanted to battle the enemy by natural means, without having to resort to G-d’s help. Now to wage war by natural means, a precise plan is required. Moses therefore thought that these spies could prepare a battle plan for fighting against the enemy in Eretz Israel, and that in this way all the Children of Israel would be encouraged and fight like lions. Yet despite all this, he still felt that the spies were not very strong, for they were not yet accustomed to normal living, meaning that they were not used to a life which comprises trials that must be overcome when there is no way to avoid them. Moses perceived their weakness in this area.
This is why the spies were righteous while they were still in the camp. However the great trial began when they had to leave, for they knew that if they entered Eretz Israel, they would lose their positions as commanders. Thus for them, it was a formidable test to renounce their status for the good of the Children of Israel (and even to report nothing but good things concerning the land), in order to be of service to their brothers who suffered in the desert. However, Moses was cognizant of their weakness, and doubted if they would be capable of renouncing their status. This is why he decided to conduct himself according to the natural order of things in exploring the land in order to prepare a battle plan, a plan in which the spies (who were commanders) would also participate. They would have therefore learned to confront their pride, lowering themselves for the sake of all the Children of Israel, and reporting good things about the land. Even if they were to have encountered strong people, or giants, in Eretz Israel, they would not fear because “the L-RD is a man of war,” and with His help one can conquer the enemy.
This is why Moses asked them to see how “the land is that they dwell in … and how the cities are in which they dwell; are they open or are they fortified” (Numbers 13:19). He wanted to know all this in order to follow the natural order of things. If they had fortified cities, heavy armament would have been required, and if they had open cities, the army’s requirements would be less. Despite everything, he decided that it was good to add the letter yud to the name of Hoshua, for he suspected the weakness of the spies and didn’t want Joshua to be influenced by them to his detriment. Moses wanted to spare him from acting out of pride (as did the spies) for pride is proper only for G-d, as it is written, “The L-RD has reigned. He has donned pride” (Psalms 93:1). Moreover, the Hebrew word gaavah (“pride”) has the numerical value of 15, meaning that of the Divine Name Yud – Hei. This is what Moses told Joshua, namely “May G-d [Yud – Hei ] protect you from the evil designs of the spies, in order that you not become proud.”
Consequently, we understand everything. Moses did not want to bring the Children of Israel into Eretz Israel under a cloud of testing and slander, which is why he sent the spies (who at that time were upright and just men) even though Moses knew that they were already morally weak. One finds an allusion to this in the words shelach lecha (“send for yourself”), for shelach (“send” – (-:) is formed from the same letters as chalash (“weak” – :-(). He therefore wanted to strengthen their faith in G-d and send them to observe the land to prepare combat plans according to the natural order of the world.
In reality, since the text relates that the spies stayed in the land for 40 days (Numbers 13:25), this proves that they themselves loved Eretz Israel. If the opposite had been true, they could have immediately come back to Moses and told him, “We came into this land and saw the Nephalim there, descendants of giants. As well, we saw enormous fruits and were terrified. This is why we came back right away without delay.” If they stayed there for 40 days, it was because they themselves loved Eretz Israel. They were good and upright at the start of their journey, for in their hearts they were attached to the land, even if they later maligned it. Nevertheless, they were weak, which led them to pride and the desire for honor, which was the cause of the terrible catastrophe that stuck all the Children of Israel in the desert, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua. These two were self-effacing before Moses, affirming that the war depended on the Eternal and that “they [the inhabitants of the land] are our bread. Their protection has departed from them and the L-RD is with us” (Numbers 14:9). These two were protected from harm.
And if we are correct, this explains the connection between Parsha Beha’alotcha and Parsha Shelach.
Rashi writes in the name of the Sages: “Why does the account of the spies follow Parsha Beha’alotcha? Because Miriam had spoken of Moses and was punished with leprosy. Now the wicked ones noticed this, yet did not draw a lesson from it.” The connection between these two events must be understood. Miriam had spoken ill of a man and was punished. Notwithstanding, the spies has spoken ill of an entire land! The question then becomes, how could they have learned from Miriam’s lesson?
It seems that the answer to this lies in that which is written concerning Moses, namely that he “was very humble, more that all the men upon the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). Consequently, he considered himself as if he were made of the dust of the earth. Hence if Miriam spoke ill of Moses, it was as if she had said spoken ill of the earth. (The Hebrew words for “man” – adam – and “earth” – adamah – are similar because man originates from the earth). From this, the spies should have understood that it is forbidden to slander an entire land! This is the criticism that was made of them, namely that they could have learned from Miriam’s lesson, yet completely failed to do so. Then they followed an evil path and did not overcome their test. This is why Moses did not want to risk endangering all of the Children of Israel (see Shabbat 32a), and so decided that all that generation would die in the desert because it had let itself be carried away by the counsel of the spies.
In everyday life, it is easy to check if one behaves with true humility or partakes of the harmful trait of pride, a trait that should always be fought. For example, suppose that the president of a synagogue notices that someone is sitting in his seat. If he is really humble, he will understand that this is nothing to get upset about. Consequently he will say nothing, for it is obvious that the newcomer did not know that it was the president’s seat (otherwise he would not have sat in it). The president will thereby demonstrate his wisdom and his moderation, and this will be accounted to him as if he had overcome a test. However, if the president insults the newcomer, he demonstrates just how weak his own character is, and how filled it is with pride and love of honor.
It was this that was the sin of the spies. On one hand, they were leaders and upright men, yet on the other hand they were weak in character, for they desired only honors, and they opened their mouths wide to speak ill of Eretz Israel, having learned nothing from Miriam. In addition, they showed themselves to be ungrateful towards the earth that nourishes men and they were severely punished for it.
When I was in Austria, I heard the following explanation from the Chief Rabbi of Austria, Rav Eisenberg: Moses’ great strength lay in the fact that, one the one hand, he knew how to fight the battles of G-d, as it is written, “The L-RD is a man of war” (Exodus 15:3), and on the other hand, he knew how to be the most humble of men when it came to matters of self.
It seems to me that one finds an allusion to this in the words, “The L-RD is a man of war. The L-RD is his name” (ibid.). At one point war is mentioned, and at another point G-d’s Name (which represents mercy towards created beings) is mentioned. Consequently, the spies should have learned from Moses how to conduct themselves with humility and mercy, yet in the end they learned neither from Moses nor from Miriam. This is what caused them to disappear from off the face of the earth, for it is only through devotion and victory in times of trial that Eretz Israel is acquired.