A See Change

Each year the story gets more arduous. What were the motivations of the spies? Were they in fact being faithful to their mission of keeping the people safe and preventing a campaign that may not succeed? The Chatam Sofer, the distinguished leader of the Jewish communities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the first part of the 19th century, offers a remarkable insight into the way the events unravel.

Expounding the curious verse, 14:4;

וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֑יו נִתְּנָ֥ה רֹ֖אשׁ וְנָשׁ֥וּבָה מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃

And they said to one another, “Let us appoint a new leader and head back to Egypt.”

He puts forward a staggering rationale for the spies’ desire to return to Egypt. When Moses asked Pharaoh to allow them to leave for three days in Shemot, 8:23, the Jews also believed this was the case. They assumed that the three days were allotted for the time needed to get to Sinai, receive the Torah and then return. Pharaoh would no longer enslave them due to the lessons learnt from the ten plagues and the calamity at the Red Sea. They calculated that the number of years of exile declared to Abram in the ברית בין הבתרים, had not in fact been fulfilled. The preeminent covenant where God prophesied to Abram that the nation born to him would be enslaved for four hundred years and afterward, they would be greatly blessed and then gain their own land. – “Only” two hundred and ten years had passed. Therefore, the time of their liberty had not arrived, for if that was the case, their enemies would be weak, and the country would be easy to enter into and not “defended” by fortifications. They thus reasoned that God desired too for them to return to Egypt as the Geula, the redemption was yet to occur. They further surmised that the shortness of food was due to the fact that they were not going to be in the desert for very long at all.

All this led them to believe that Moses was potentially derailing the divine plan, and together with Joshua and Calev, desired to become king and rule over the people. The call נִתְּנָ֥ה רֹ֖אשׁ, we need to appoint a different leader to ensure we return to Egypt, would appear to further corroborate their concern.The response of Moses and Aaron, falling on their faces, and that of Joshua and Caleb, renting their clothes reflects this profundity, an epiphany of the understandings that were worlds apart.- A tragedy of errors. Even when they exhorted the people and attempted to persuade them that this indeed was God’s plan, the community threatened to pelt them with stones, demonstrating the depth of the schism.

The angst of the drama occurs because through hindsight and ultimately the manner in which the story is relayed we are able to appreciate what the outcome was supposed to be. The perspective offered by the Chatam Sofer resonates all the more for us who are also living in unprecedented realities, experiencing events in real time where we have no idea how things will turn out, albeit having a sense of how they should. This is humbling, perhaps numbing but like the spies we too must have the agency and the courage to share what we are seeing.

Shabbat shalom

About the Author
Shalom Orzach is a senior educator and consultant for the iCenter and serves on faculty for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. He was a scholar on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows Program, following which he was the Executive Director for Jewish Renewal at the UJIA in England. Shalom is an acclaimed public speaker on contemporary Israel who brings extensive knowledge, humor and passion.
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