Yonatan Udren

Calev, Miriam, and the Language of Faith

“Calev hushed the people before Moshe and said, ‘Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it,'” (Bamidbar 13,30). 

The infamous sin of the spies; this week we read this tragic story, maybe the most tragic in the whole of the Torah, where the entire generation that left Egypt is decreed to die in the desert. 

What was the cause of this decree? Seemingly the propaganda spread by 10 of the 12 spies about the dangers of the land and the impossibility of conquering it whipped the nation into a frenzy of fear which brought them to tears and had them begging to return to Egypt. 

But was the report of the spies actually so treacherous? Or were they simply reporting what they saw, as Moshe instructed? 

The report of the spies starts with good news: they say that the land does indeed flow with milk and honey. And then they showcase the large and luscious fruits they brought back. But from there it starts to go downhill.

“The people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the children of the Anakites there” (Bamidbar 13, 28).

The report continues on the same theme. In short, we are militarily outmatched, and therefore no tactic will be effective enough to defeat them.

But the spies have not lied; they have reported only what their eyes have seen, just as Moshe instructed them. So what is so disloyal about their report? 

Let’s compare their report to the report of Calev. After the spies make their assertions, Calev gives a passionate but strange rebuttal: alo naale, let’s go! He continues in this manner a few passages later: Tova ha’aretz meod meod! This land is exceedingly good!

Calev’s retort does not relate to the facts on the ground, and makes no effort to refute their position; it’s almost as if  Calev and the other spies are speaking two different languages. The 10 spies are speaking the language of tactics and logic. But Calev is speaking the language of faith. 

“If the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us” (Bamidbar 14,8).

The problem with the report of the spies was not its veracity. It was not a fabrication, or even an exaggeration. They told it how it was. But because they told the story through the lens of logic and not through the lens of faith, they caused the nation to tremble. And this is why Calev does not deny their report; he only adds to their tale the perspective of faith, which the other spies have forgotten: If God wills it, then it will happen, no matter how bad things look. 

From here we see a powerful teaching about the nature of faith, a teaching taught by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman, the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. The path of faith is the path we take when there are no logical options. In times of tremendous darkness, and the rebbe knew those times all too well, when there is no other reasonable or logical option; that is when one walks the path of faith. In that dire moment, the person of faith realizes that their salvation is wholly in the hands of God.

But how did Calev defy the tremendous peer pressure in the moment? From where did he practice speaking the language of faith?   

I’ll answer that question with another question: Who is Calev’s wife? Though the text does not tell us directly, the Talmud teaches us (Sotah, 12A) that Calev is married to none other than Miriam. And on the same page where we learn of their union, we also hear a well-known midrashic tale about Miriam from her childhood in Egypt. 

When Pharaoh decreed that all the Hebrew boys would be thrown into the Nile, and only the baby girls would live, Miriam’s father Amram’s response, who was the leader of the Israelites at that time, was to divorce his wife and spare the lives of these unborn children. And all the other men followed suit.

But Miriam stood up to her father. “Your decree is harsher than Pharaoh’s decree. Pharaoh has only decreed against the boys; but you have decreed against the boys and the girls.” Miriam continues: “Pharaoh is wicked, and so it is uncertain whether his decree will be fulfilled, but you, father, are a righteous person, and as such, your decrees will certainly be fulfilled.”

So touched was Amram by Miriam’s argument of faith that he remarried his wife, as did all the other men. And were it not for Miriam’s plea to her father, Moshe would not have been born.

So even from her days of youth, we see that Miriam is fluent in the language of faith. In the darkest time, against all odds, when there is no salvation in sight, Miriam reminds her father that life must not only be viewed through the lens of logic, but also through the lens of faith.

So when we hear Calev’s voice ring out to the nation, saying, “if the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into that land,” we can also hear Miriam’s voice telling her father that against all odds, God will destroy the evil plans of Pharaoh. It is the language of faith that we turn to when rational explanations and logical assumptions are no longer available. Faith are the words we call out in the darkest of times, when no other option is available.

And so thanks to the lessons of Calev and Miriam, we arrive at the true sin of the spies. It was not because of a lie told; it was because of a truth forgotten. The simplest of truths was forgotten, that God exists, and that God’s desire supersedes all, no matter how illogical it may appear.

What do you think? Do you think faith begins where logic ends, or is there a way to bridge these two different languages?

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Brought to you by the RRG Beit Midrash Program, the spiritual home for Hebrew University students on campus.

Dedicated to the memory of Edward Druce, z”l on the occasion of his first Yahrzeit

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash, which offers a Jewish home away from home for English-speaking olim and overseas students in Jerusalem.
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