Recently I was accused of portraying some of the people in the Torah with insufficient reverence. This week I’m going to attempt to right that wrong.

Am Yisrael want to spy out the Land of Israel in preparation for its capture. Moshe seeks and receives Divine approval. Hashem directs him to send twelve spies, one from each tribe. What happens next is well-known: the spies return from Israel after forty days and convince everyone that capturing the land is a suicide mission. Hashem punishes the people with a forty-year sojourn in the desert and He kills all the spies except for Yehoshua bin Nun and Calev ben Yefuneh, the two spies who stood up against the other ten.

The spies are perhaps the most vilified men in all of the Torah. The Midrash does not have nice things to say about them. For instance, they had unpleasant names, like “Nachbi the son of Vofsi”, suggesting that they were destined for ugliness from birth. They died a most horrible death: their tongues grew until they touched the ground and became infested with worms[1]. Commenting on the verse [Bemidbar 13:26] “[The spies] went and they came to Moshe and Aharon…”, Rashi quotes the Talmud in Tractate Sotah [35a]: “Just as their return was with evil intent, so was their departure [on the journey] with evil intent.” It appears that Moshe was fully aware of their evil intent. The Torah tells us that Moshe changed the name of Hosea the son of Nun to “Yehoshua” by adding the letter yud from Hashem’s name. Rashi, quoting the Talmud in Tractate Sotah [34a] explains “[Moshe] prayed on [Yehoshua’s] behalf, ‘May Hashem save you from the counsel of the spies.’”

And yet. It seems ludicrous to assert that Moshe would send a bunch of evildoers to perform such a critical task. These particular men were destined for failure. Wasn’t there anyone else who was more fit for the task? The truth is that the Torah seems to explicitly vouch for their integrity. After identifying the spies, the Torah tells us [Bemidbar 13:3] “All of them were men of distinction (anashim); they were the heads of the Children of Israel”. Rashi, commenting on the use of the word “anashim”, teaches that “Whenever [the word] “anashim” [is used] in Scripture, it denotes importance. At that time, they were virtuous.” What are we meant to understand? Were these people virtuous or were they villainous? Were they good for the Jews or were they bad for the Jews?

Let’s try answering this question by taking a closer look into the selection of the spies. While Hashem explicitly commands Moshe to take one spy from each tribe, it is unclear how the individual spies were selected. Did Hashem choose them by name? Perhaps it was Moshe. Or perhaps each tribe had its sort of “Who Wants to be a Spy?” I suggest that the latter method was used. In Parashat Shelach Hashem tells Moshe [Bemidbar 13:2] “Send for yourself men that shall spy out the Land of Canaan…  One man you shall send from each tribe, each a Prince”. The word “tishlachu” – “you shall send” – is in the plural, as if to say “the entire tribe shall send”. The recap of the episode in Parashat Devarim [1:23] can be interpreted in the same way: “I took from you twelve men, one man from each tribe”. Again, the word “you” is in the plural. While this verse can be interpreted as “I chose twelve of men from among you”, it can also be interpreted as “I took the twelve men that you gave me”. So it is definitely feasible to suggest that each tribe chose the candidate that it felt was best fitting for the task, and then Moshe gave his approval to each of them.

What kind of men would the people choose for such a mission? They would most likely choose military leaders, preferably with experience in battle. Yehoshua bin Nun had routed the Amalekites, the first nation to attack Am Yisrael after the exodus. He was a war hero. Calev ben Yefuneh eventually leads Am Yisrael to capture the ancient city of Hevron[2]. He is a future war hero. It is safe to assume that the other spies had similar backgrounds and tendencies. These were the people that liked guns, went to Military School, and tended to use long acronyms. These were the right men for the mission.

Unfortunately, their strong point was also their weak point. One week before Moshe dies he begs Am Yisrael to remember that their military prowess is not theirs, but, rather, Hashem’s [Devarim 8:11-18] “Beware that you do not forget Hashem… lest you say to yourself, ‘My strength and the might of my hand have won for me these battles. You must remember Hashem, for it is He that gives you strength to make wealth’”. Moshe is cognizant of this tendency from Day One. When did Moshe change Hosea’s name to Yehoshua? If he changed it only when the spies were chosen, as it appears in the Torah, then why is it “Yehoshua” who defeats Amalek, and why is it “Yehoshua” who waits for Moshe at the foot of Mount Sinai when the rest of the nation are worshipping a Golden Calf?[3] The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh suggests that the Torah refers to Hosea as Yehoshua even before his name is changed as an act of respect for Moshe, who will change his name in the future. Luleh mistefineh, I suggest that Moshe had already changed his name when he went to fight against Amalek. Moshe was afraid that Hosea would suffer from an inflated ego after his impossible victory. By calling him Yehoshua, he was reminding him that it was Hashem who saved him. When Yehoshua was sent out with the rest of the spies, Moshe reminded him why he had changed his name in order to strengthen his resolve[4].

When Yehoshua and Calev hear the words of their fellow spies, how the Land of Israel is a fortress manned by giants, they tell the people [Bemidbar 14:7] “The land… is extremely good”. Then they make another point [Bemidbar 14:8-9]: “If Hashem wills it and brings us to the Land of Milk and Honey, He will give it over to us. Do not rebel against Hashem!” These two points are separated, such that their first point lies at the end of the third aliyah, while their second point lies at the beginning of the fourth aliyah. Why didn’t our Sages wait until the end of their brief speech before ending the third aliyah? I suggest the following scenario: Yehoshua and Calev try to answer the spies on their own terms: “Yes, capturing the land will not be easy, but we believe that it is possible and that it is worth the risk”. However, their words are not accepted by the people. “Ten military experts say that the risk is too high, while two of them believe that the risk is acceptable. Ten against two – you lose”. It is then that Yehoshua and Calev change gears: “With Hashem on our side, risk is irrelevant.” The people hear this and they react adversely [Bemidbar 14:10] “The entire nation said to stone [Yehoshua and Calev]”. In summary: the good guys are not so good, the bad guys are not so bad, and this story could have happened yesterday.

In fact, it did. My uncle, Mel Borenstein, told me about a critical error made before the Camp David accords in 1978. Menachem Begin had directed Moshe Dayan, his Foreign Minister, to stake Israel’s claim on Judea and Samaria on the basis of security, even though Begin fully believed that Israel had religious and historical claims on the lands. This strategy has proven to be untenable. For every General that states that the State of Israel cannot survive without Judea and Samaria there is another one who says that we can, and our claim is jeopardized. We must not be ashamed or afraid to invoke our one true claim: This is the land that was promised to our forefathers by Hashem. He has given it to us, and we’re not about to give it back.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] This death was so ugly that when we learned the story of the spies in Grade School, our Rebbe forbade us from looking at that Rashi. Of course I looked at it, and I was summarily punished.

[2] Thanks to my son, Elyassaf, for reminding me of this important point.

[3] See Shemot [17:13] (Vayachalosh Yehoshua) and Shemot [32:17] (Va’yishma Yehoshua).

[4] Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein, writing in the “Torah Temima”, offers some proof to this thesis, suggesting that the wording “May Hashem save you from the counsel of the spies” was originally “May Hashem save you”. I have looked high and low for a Midrash that corroborates this, but so far unsuccessfully.