Yoni Mozeson
FInding God's hiding places

Did God set us up for failure? – Midrash on Shelach – the 12 spies

The opening words of the Parsha seems to imply that God ordered the ill-fated spy mission.

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר הֹאֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ שְׁלַח־לְךָ֣ אֲנָשִׁ֗יםGod spoke to Moshe saying send spies…” (Bamidbaar 13:1)

However, the Midrash and the Talmud fill in the blanks. When Moshe was reviewing these events later on in the book of Devarim we see that it was the people who asked Moshe if they can scout out the land (Devarim 1:22)  despite God’s promise that it was a “good landאֶרֶץ טוֹבָה (Devarim, 8:7). Furthermore, upon closer examination, our Parsha starts out with God commanding Moshe שְׁלַח־לְךָ֣ which has the connotation of “send for your benefit.” In fact, there is an opinion in the Talmud that God allowed Moshe to decide about initiating this spy mission and Moshe should have realized that it had the potential to go terribly wrong. Ultimately it was a major moral failing of the ten spies who maligned the land that God had picked for us and the Jewish People who believed them.

Lack of trust in God’s choice

The Midrash sums up the underlying lack of trust with a parable:  A king chose a wife for his son. She was intelligent, mature, virtuous, and beautiful. However, the prince did not trust his father and insisted on seeing her first. The king realized that if his son does not trust him then his son had not achieved the level of character development and maturity that would make him worthy of marrying her. The king proceeded to show the prince the woman so that he will see she is everything he promised but he lets his son know that now he cannot marry her (Midrash Tanchuma Shelach, 5:1). Rashi spells this out in no uncertain terms that it is as if God said:
חַיֵּיהֶם שֶׁאֲנִי נוֹתֵן לָהֶם מָקוֹם לִטְעוֹת בְּדִבְרֵי מְרַגְּלִים, לְמַעַן לֹא יִירָשׁוּהָ “I swear that I am giving you room to fail because of the report of the spies so that you should not inherit the land.” (based on Talmud Sotah 34b and Midrash Tanchuma Shelach, 5).

Seeing the bad in good

The Midrash says that the spies all started out as honorable people. That’s why they were
referred to as “upright citizens” אֲנָשִׁ֗ים (Ibid, 4 on Bamidbar, 13:2). So what exactly went wrong? The Midrash pinpoints the nature of their warped perspective:
בַּנִּסִּים שֶׁהָיָה עוֹשֶׂה לָהֶם הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, בּוֹ הוֹצִיאוּ דִּבָּהThey slandered using the miracles that God performed for them” (Ibid, 7:1). For example, in each town that the spies entered, God arranged a plague so that everyone would be busy with funerals and not notice the spies. Instead of appreciating this, the spies labeled the country as אֶרֶץ אוֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ “ a land that eats {cause the deaths} of its own people. The same can be true of the oversized fruit. It is either testament to the miraculous output of the land or it is manipulated to bolster the “land of giants” narrative.  (Why then was this chosen as the symbol of the Ministry of tourism??)

This is a recurring theme in Jewish history.  The Hebrew word for miracle, נס“ness,” is also the word for test. Because every miracle is a test as to whether it was perceived as  a miracle or it can be explained away in a more rational manner. A contemporary example is the six day war. While some saw it as a clear, outright miracle, others attributed it to the superiority of the IDF.

Why doesn’t God shield us from painful consequences

Even Moshe seemed to know that something was amiss. That’s why he changed Hoshea’s name to Yehoshua. The extra letter “י” (Yud) representing God’s name was supposed to protect Yehoshua from the dangerous influence of ten of the spies (Midrash Tanchuma Shelach: 6:1). A commentary on Midrash Tanchuma (Be’er Mamorim) therefore concludes that the whole story can be summed up with one famous Talmudic dictum: בַּדֶּרֶךְ שֶׁאָדָם רוֹצֶה לֵילֵךְ בָּהּ, מוֹלִיכִין אוֹתוֹ Meaning – “in whatever direction we want to go, God leads us.” (Talmud Makkot 10B)

That’s a bit sobering and depressing. It means that God doesn’t micromanage our moral failings – not as a nation or individually. God isn’t the parent that protects their child from ever making a mistake. Just the opposite. When we’re courting disaster God says “go for it.” Learning from mistakes is a powerful way to grow. God didn’t whitewash the state of our faith. 

The Talmud in Sotah goes so far as to say that when the spies reported that inhabitants of the land are stronger than us, they actually meant stronger than God.* The fact that this generation wasn’t ready to settle the land was obvious. No one can ask “why did bad things happen to good people?”

The grasshopper syndrome

Midrash Tanchuma identifies another underlying character flaw exhibited by the ten spies which could very well be at the root of many of the Jewish People’s moral stumblings.  When
confronted with the giants the ten spies thought:  וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים  “in our own eyes we were like grasshoppers.” (Bamidbar, 3:33). God forgave them for that. However the spies went on to say וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶ  “and so we were in their eyes” (ibid). For this God could not forgive them. The Midrash explains:

וְכִי יוֹדְעִים הֱיִיתֶם מֶה עָשִׂיתִי אֶתְכֶם בְּעֵינֵיהֶם. מִי יֹאמַר לָכֶם, שֶׁלֹּא הֱיִיתֶם בְּעֵינֵיהֶם כְּמַלְאָכִים

Do you know what I made you (the Jewish People) in their eyes? Who would say that you were not like angels in their eyes? (Midrash Tanchuma Shelach: 6:1)?

When the giants looked at the spies what did they see? A nation whose God brought Egypt – the most powerful empire in the world -to its knees and parted the Red sea. (Approximately forty years later the people of Yericho (Jericho) were still terrified of the Jews**). A nation who is considered like God’s first born son through their acceptance of the Torah.  A nation to whom God promised the very same land these giants inhabited – which puts the giants on a collision course with Jewish destiny.

Yet the ten spies lacked faith which nurtured an Inferiority complex.*** They were convinced that they were perceived as grasshoppers and that the land of Israel was even too difficult for God to conquer.

The Jewish People heard the report and believed it. Ten grasshoppers turned into a nation of grasshoppers. Inferiority complex? (Except for the women whose faith was unshaken).

Now we have a better understanding of why God had to let the train careen off the rails. Shielding us from harm that we cause is not the way God runs the world. This is a message that is ubiquitous in Midrash. Jewish destiny – both as an individual and as a nation – consists of making mistakes and bearing the consequences. With the right perspective every downfall can become an amazing growth opportunity. Sometimes we need a stark reminder of the miracles that we are already blessed with.


  • *.כִּי חָזָק הוּא מִמֶּנּוּ״, אַל תִּקְרֵי ״מִמֶּנּוּ״, אֶלָּא ״מִמֵּנוֹ״  “they are stronger than us” actually means stronger than Him [God]” (Sotah 35A)
  • **Rachav shared the sentiment of the people of Yericho with the spies send by Joshua:׃  וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֲנָשִׁ֔ים יָדַ֕עְתִּי כִּֽי־נָתַ֧ן יְהֹוָ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְכִֽי־נָפְלָ֤ה אֵֽימַתְכֶם֙ עָלֵ֔ינוּ וְכִ֥י נָמֹ֛גוּ כׇּל־יֹשְׁבֵ֥י הָאָ֖רֶץ מִפְּנֵיכֶֽם 

She ((Rachav) said to the men, “I know that God has given the country to you, because the dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the  inhabitants of the land are quaking before you (Yehoshua, 2:9).

***We see that later on Moshe sent spies again:
וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח מֹשֶׁה֙ לְרַגֵּ֣ל אֶת־יַעְזֵ֔ר וַֽיִּלְכְּד֖וּ בְּנֹתֶ֑יהָ (ויירש) [וַיּ֖וֹרֶשׁ] אֶת־הָאֱמֹרִ֥י אֲשֶׁר־שָֽׁם׃

“Moshe sent to spy out Yazur, and they captured its suburbs and drove away the Amorites who were there (Bamidbar:21:32). Rashi comments that these spies did not want to repeat the mistake of the spies in our Parsha. Rather they said
 בְּטוּחִים אָנוּ בְּכֹחַ תְּפִלָּתוֹ שֶׁל מֹשֶׁה לְהִלָּחֵם “we believe in the power of Moshe’s prayer to fight.” They not only spied out territory of the Amorites, they themselves drove the Amorites away. My esteemed chavruta, Yisrael Eisenberg, deduced that had twelve spies kept their faith in God, they too could have surveyed the land but conquered the land of Israel on their own.

About the Author
(Almost 100 Midrash Video summaries can be found on my youtube playlist: After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.