Absolute Faith and Hard Truths

It is fascinating that we refer to the episode of the 12 Jewish leaders Moses sends to assess Canaan as “the story of the מרגלים.” At no point during the telling of the story, at least in the original account in Sefer Bamidbar, does the Torah refer to them as such. The word used in both contexts is “לתור.” The Torah uses the word “לתור” in two other places (Numbers 10:33, Deuteronomy 1:33), both of which refer to the ארון or G-d himself as going ahead of the nation to search for Israel’s next campground. This implies that “לתור” most likely means “to seek out” or “to explore.”

The Torah does use the phrase מרגלים elsewhere, however. In Parshat Miketz, Yosef accuses his brothers of being מרגלים three or four times (Genesis 42). Later, in Parshat Chukat, Moses sends people “לרגל” the Amorites (Numbers 21:32). In both cases, it is clear that the word “רגל” means to find out information that can be used to cause harm to an enemy. This root word seems to have a similar meaning when it is invoked in the preludes to Joshua’s conquests of Jericho and Ai (Joshua 2, 6, 7).

The Netziv (Ha-Emek Davar, Numbers 13:2) uses this evidence to specify the nature of the mission of those sent by Moses as scouts to Israel. The term “לתור,” which the leaders themselves use to describe what they were sent to do (Numbers 13:32 and 14:7), refers to an operation intended simply as a means of finding out information about their new home. However, as Dr. Erica Brown points out, in her book Leadership in the Wilderness (Brown, p. 124-127), the spies did not limit themselves to their task. They took it upon themselves to act as spies, revealing hidden “truths” about the enemy to the people, rather than giving them just the facts about their new home. They offered opinions about strategy and their likelihood of success, rather than just the information they were sent to retrieve.

It is, therefore, not surprising that when Moses retells the story of the spies, this shift in terminology between the intent of the mission and what the spies actually did is striking. Moses explains that the nation originally requested that people be sent before them “that they may search the land for us, and bring us back word of the way by which we must go up, and the cities unto which we shall come” (Deuteronomy 1:22). In other words, they only requested for someone to give them a sense of direction on their way to the Promised Land, not to assess whether they should continue forward. Instead, the spies did something very different: “they turned and went up into the mountains, and came unto the valley of Eshkol, and spied it out.” The words Moses uses are “וירגלו אותה.”

This analysis would lead one to conclude that the sin of the spies themselves was that they did not complete their mission as commanded. They took it upon themselves to offer opinions about what to do. They were shocked and afraid of what they saw, and they felt compelled to follow their instincts rather than trust Hashem (cf. Numbers 14:11). Even Joshua and Caleb, caught up in the hysteria that their colleagues brought upon the nation, offered their opinion of the land, to try to quell the people’s concerns (Numbers 14:7).

Both Dr. Erica Brown (133-136) and Rabbi Amnon Bazak suggest that Hashem places the commandment of tzitzit immediately following this story because tzitzit have a quality that would have prevented these Jewish leaders from making this mistake. The Torah describes the goal of tzitzit as ensuring that “ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם,” i.e., a person will not explore by following his or her passions or desires instead of following G-d’s command, despite them. Had the spies worn tzitzit and internalized their message, they would not have offered their personal opinions and would have just reported the facts. This theory is convincing, not only because of the commandment’s position in the text but also because of the employment of the word “תתורו,” which derives from the same root “לתור” used so often in the parsha.

There is a textual problem with this theory, however; it seems to contradict Caleb’s own view of the events. Forty-five years after Moses sent him as a spy to Canaan, Joshua is the leader of the Jewish people, charged with conquering the Land he once explored. Now in his later years, Hashem scolds him for still not having captured the majority of the territory (Joshua 13:1). Realizing he needs to get moving, the people cast lots and divide the land among the tribes, according to what they were promised. Caleb, claiming his promised reward of Hebron, approaches Joshua and recaps the story of their mission as follows:

Forty years old was I when Moses the servant of the LORD sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land; and I brought him back word as it was in my heart. Nevertheless, my brethren that went up with me made the heart of the people melt; but I wholly followed the LORD my G-d. And Moses swore on that day, saying: ‘Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance to you and to your children forever, because your wholly followed the LORD my G-d.” (Joshua 14:7-9)

There are two interesting linguistic points about Caleb’s description of the events. First, he says that he was sent “לרגל את הארץ,” precisely what the Netziv, Dr. Brown, and Rabbi Bazak all claim was their mistake, not their mission. Moreover, Caleb describes what he told the Jewish People as “ואשב אותו דבר כאשר עם לבבי.” He did exactly what his colleagues were criticized for doing, reporting information according to his heart’s understanding, rather than just cold facts! Instead, Caleb gives a different explanation of the other spies’ mistake: they mislead the people, while he wholly followed Hashem. Caleb believes that they were spies, meant to give an opinion about the land and the prospects of conquest. What matters is the slant of the opinion piece, not the fact that they went beyond their duties, as Moses seems to have felt.

Perhaps this is not a contradiction, however; Caleb and Moses could have different perspectives about the same event. Moses, who understood his own intention in sending the spies, is frustrated by their lack of vision as leaders, their straying after their own fears and desires instead of steadfastly maintaining their trust in G-d. In contrast, Caleb is himself among the spies. He sees nothing wrong in how they did their mission; they reported facts and assessed the Promised Land. They are supposed to offer their opinion about the facts. He believes that the spies’ mistake is not their lack of impartiality but rather the fact that they chose the wrong side of the debate; they sided against Hashem.

This view is supported by the Sefer Hachinuch (commandment 387). He writes that the commandment of “ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם” is not a warning against passion but against seeking out and learning the wrong type of information, the wrong opinions. The commandment not to stray “after your hearts” refers to the importance of staying away from heretical thought while “after your eyes” refers to a prohibition on thinking about the sins one deeply desires to commit. For the Chinuch, like Caleb, Tzitzit do not remind you to be impassionate and rational but rather to stay away from the wrong ideas and passions.

To me, it seems that the normative view is that of Moshe. As Dr. Brown points out, the Talmud recounts a story in which only tzitzit is able to temper the passions of a young man, previously determined to sin with a prostitute (Brown, p. 130-132). Moreover, when we popularly use the term מרגלים to refer to the spies, despite the term never appearing in the parsha, we are not simply describing their actions. We are accusing them of being מרגלים, spies, when they should have been explorers.

Especially in the information age, facts about what is happening in the world are daily becoming more and more easily accessible. It is nearly impossible to shield children from learning things that would have been deemed “adult” material only a few years ago. We can no longer completely filter the facts of world events to shelter young people from harsh realities.

The question is, how will we guide our children, in light of these tectonic shifts in information technology? Will we help them insist on the rigorous truth, instilling them with אמונה without sugar-coating reality? Will we allow them to ask questions to which we do not have answers, acknowledging the challenges while pushing forward? Or will we tell them not to listen to their doubts, push them to choose a particular perspective, and remind them to be resolute in their belief that Hashem will ensure that everything will be good in the end?

Bazak, Rabbi Amnon. “You Shall Not Explore After Your Heart and After Your Eyes….” Virtual Beit Midrash. Yeshivat Har Etzion, 2002. Web. 30 June 2016.

Brown, Erica. Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Numbers. New Milford, CT: Maggid, 2013. Print.

About the Author
Rabbi Jason Strauss is the rabbi of Congregation Kadimah-Toras Moshe in Brighton, MA and a Judaic Studies teacher at Maimonides School in Brookline, MA.