9 Av: the first Hasbara-fail

Is Parashat Devarim fake news?

The Fast of 9 Av, which we observe this weekend, has its roots in the Sin of the Meraggelim, “those men that did bring up an evil report of the land” (Numbers 14:37). Jewish tradition (Mishna, Taanit 4:6) states that 9 Av was the date on which the Israelites who had left Egypt were condemned to wander and die in the desert over the course of forty years.

So it’s appropriate that on the Sabbath which precedes or coincides with 9 Av, we read Devarim, the Torah portion in which Moses retells the story; but shockingly, he barely mentions the Spies (Deuteronomy 1:25-28).

And they said, “Good is the land which the LORD our God does give us.”

Nevertheless you would not go up, but rebelled against the commandment of the LORD your God. And you murmured in your tents, and said, “Because the LORD hated us, he has brought us forth out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. Where shall we go up? our brethren have discouraged our heart, saying, The people are greater and taller than we; the cities are great and walled up to heaven; and moreover we have seen the sons of the giants there.

Aren’t those ten men (out of twelve scouts, excluding Caleb and Joshua) the ones responsible for the death of an entire generation of Jews? Aren’t they the ones who established 9 Av as a day of misery and misfortune, not only for the next nearly four decades, but the next nearly four millennia? Why do they get a pass?

Let’s t take a closer look at the original story (Numbers 13:27-33):

And they told him, and said, “We came unto the land where you sent us, and surely it flows with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. Nevertheless the people are strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great: and moreover we saw the children of giants there.The Amalekites dwell in the land of the south: and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, dwell in the mountains: and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.”

And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.”

But the men that went up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.” And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the Israelites, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eats up its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of the giant who come of the Nephilim: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.

The “evil report” comes only after Caleb’s interjection, which quite literally no one asked him for. The mission of the Meraggelim is to evaluate the land and its people geographically, militarily and agriculturally–not to decide whether it can be conquered. In their initial report, the Spies do their job; but Caleb cannot bear the suggestion that there is anything pejorative to say about the Promised Land. His intentions are honorable, but ultimately he steers the conversation off a cliff by raising the feasibility of conquering the land. Caleb is rewarded, but he is also one of only two “men of war” of the Exodus generation to suffer a full forty years of wandering. It is his companion Joshua, who remains silent initially but does rend his garments on that first 9 Av and join Caleb’s dissenting opinion, who becomes the national leader.

So it’s not surprising that Moses editorializes here. Strikingly, Caleb and Joshua’s protest in Numbers, “Good is the land, exceedingly so,” becomes the Spies’ report here in Deuteronomy: “Good is the land which the LORD our God does give us.” As Rashi notes (Numbers 13:3), all twelve Spies start out “kosher.” The Sin of the Spies, for Moses, is not about the ten evil Spies or the two righteous ones; it is about the catastrophe which befalls the people because they don’t know whom to trust: is the land good and impregnable or good and conquerable? The Spies’ consensus that the land “flows with milk and honey,” i.e. the only question they were supposed to answer, is quickly forgotten amidst plaintiveness, paranoia and panic.

This is a powerful lesson for everyone engaged in public advocacy, but especially for those of us who love Israel. It is hard to hear anything negative about the Promised Land; our first impulse is to leap to its defense. But when we overreact, shooting down any criticism as vile, cowardly, ignorant or bigoted, we may hurt more than we help. Good is the land, we should all agree. Now, isn’t it our sacred duty to make it better?

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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