Israel Drazin

Examining Rashi: The spies and the reluctant hero

The Torah is usually obscure. It leaves the interpretation of the text to readers. It challenges them to think about their reading, discover its meaning, and improve themselves and society. Rashi does not take this approach. He fills his commentary with Midrashim, interesting parables not even hinted at in the Torah. The following are examples from Numbers chapters 13 and 14.

Numbers 13 states God told Moses to send spies to Canaan to prepare for the entry of the Israelites, but Deuteronomy 1:22 has Moses saying the idea came from the people. The rabbis offer various ideas to reconcile the difference. Relying on Midrash Tanhuma, Rashi states the word lecha, “you,” in shelach lecha, “you send” denotes if you want to send spies as indicated in Deuteronomy 1, go ahead and do it, but it is not a good idea. But this is not the plain meaning of the word. Lecha does not imply “you decide” elsewhere. When God told Abraham to leave his country in Genesis 12, lech lecha, God was not saying, “Go if you want to go.”

While Rashi follows Rabbi Akiva’s view that God never repeats the same idea, he inconsistently does not try to explain the repetition in 13:2, “[send] one man, one man.”

Rashi contends that the Torah tells the tale of the spies after the account of Moses’ sister Miriam criticizing Moses because both stories show that people are punished for improper talking.

He notes the use of the term anashim, “men,” and writes, “Whenever anashim is mentioned in the Bible, it denotes distinction, and at that time [when the spies were selected, these men] were honorable. Rashi does not notice that anashim is also used to describe evil men.

Numbers 13 is the first time Joshua is mentioned in the Bible. Verse 16 states Moses changes his name from Hoshea, which means “save,” to Yehoshua, adding the letter yud. This results in the name in Hebrew beginning with yud hah, a word for God, and the name meaning “God saves.”

The Torah gives no reason for the change. Relying on a Midrash, Rashi writes, “He prayed for him. May God deliver you from the counsel of the spies.” What defect did Moses see in Joshua that prompted him to pray? Does such a prayer work?

Also, if Moses foresaw the spy’s evil report, why did he send them?

Why did the ancient rabbis invent this negative depiction of Joshua that he needed help from a prayer? Couldn’t they have interpreted Moses’ behavior to Joshua’s positively? Couldn’t they have said, “Moses saw a future leader in Joshua? He saw Joshua following God’s will. Therefore he added the Now Joshua’s name proclaims this man will save the Israelites by leading them to do God’s will.”

The ancient rabbis interpreted the tale correctly. Moses saw that Joshua had potential, but he was a reluctant hero, just like him. When God spoke to him at the burning bush in Exodus 3, Moses repeatedly told God he did not want the mission.

A careful look at the tale of the spies depicts Joshua acting similarly. It shows him tagging along, taking no active role. In Deuteronomy 1:36, we are told that God praised Caleb for his behavior during the spy episode, but not Joshua.

Just as Moses needed help, so too Joshua needed prayer. God had to assure Moses that his brother Aaron would help him.

There is nothing in the Torah indicating Aaron was reluctant. He was energetic. He gets no credit for this because the Torah prefers the reluctant hero. Aaron stepped forward and acted to help the people when they sinned with the golden calf. His action raised the question of whether he overstepped. Two of his sons followed in their father’s footsteps, were active in the Tabernacle, but overly so, and were killed. Aaron’s grandson Pinchus took the initiative and killed an Israelite tribal leader who acted improperly. Many rabbis criticized him for being over-zealous. Rabbis invented a legend that Pinchas lived for generations and assumed the name Elijah. Elijah was so overzealous when he criticized fellow Jews that God took him away to heaven in a flaming chariot. Moses was also punished for overacting when the people demanded water. He, like Elijah, died in the wilderness and could not fulfill his desire to enter Israel. In short, the Torah likes the reluctant hero.


Isn’t the Torah telling us that it is natural for most humans not to want to assume an active role, but they should do so? This is the Torah’s premier message. We should not be passive. We should not sit back and “contemplate” or “believe.” We should act. The Torah is filled with While halakha is translated as “law,” it literally means “moving.”

Aristotle (384-322) defined virtuous behavior as the desirable middle ground between two extremes, The Golden Mean. He argued that deficiency or excess destroys virtue. He considered moderation a vital role in all forms of moral excellence.

He wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics, “The virtue of justice consists in moderation, as regulated by wisdom. Gentleness is the ability to bear reproaches and slights with moderation, not to embark on revenge quickly, and not to be easily provoked to anger, but be free from bitterness and contentiousness, having tranquility and stability in the spirit.”

Maimonides applied the Golden Mean to character traits and health matters in his eight-chapter introduction to Pirkei Avot, “The Ethics of the Fathers,” called Shemoneh Perakim. He advised people to develop habits that would help them avoid unhealthy excesses. He stressed the need for balance even regarding indulging in enjoyable things since neglecting them would most likely make one bitter and have a sense of failure. Commenting on a verse in Ecclesiastes 7:16, “Be not righteous overmuch,” he wrote in Mishneh Torah, Laws of Character Development and Ethical Ideas 3:1, “To avoid lust or envy, do not say I won’t eat good food, or marry. This is an evil way….One who follows that path is a sinner.”

In Guide 3:48, Maimonides states that the laws prohibiting vows in Numbers 30 are also to “train us in temperance.”

In telling us that Moses needed to pray for Joshua, the Torah says that being passive and being a reluctant hero is wrong. Proper behavior is the golden mean between the reluctant Moses and Joshua on the one hand and the over-acting Moses and Elijah at the end of their lives at the other extreme.

Why did Moses tell the spies first to investigate the Negev desert? Rashi relies on Midrash Tanhuma and writes, “This is the custom of merchants. They show their bad wares first and follow it with better wares.” Is this relevant? The spies reported nothing about the Negev.

Moses told the spies to determine if the inhabitants were strong or weak. Relying again on Tanhuma, Rashi gave them a sign. If they dwelt in open cities, they were strong and not fearful. It was a sign of weakness if they lived in a fortified town. This is not realistic. Even strong nations built fortifications.

Moses also told the spies to check what the land produces, whether there are trees, and bring back a sample of the fruits of the land. Rashi inserted the midrash of the Babylonian Talmud Baba Batra 15 that “tree” referred to honorable men who would protect the inhabitant because of their merit. This is not relevant. The verse is speaking about food. Also, the spies Joshua sent found a woman who helped them, whose merit did not save the city.

Verse 22 states that they, plural, meaning the spies, went up from the Negev and came to Hebron. The word “came” here in Hebrew is singular, as if saying he came to Hebron. The Torah often uses the singular for the plural and the plural for the singular. Nevertheless, the Midrash imagines a drama. Caleb left the other spies and traveled to Hebron, where the patriarchs and matriarchs were buried. He prostrated himself there so the other spies would not persuade him to give a bad report. Rashi inserts it in his commentary. This imagined episode is not in the Torah, and it raises questions. Why would Caleb need to go to Hebron to strengthen his resolve? Why didn’t he take Joshua along? What was Joshua doing? How does prostrating himself help him?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch states that the singular in 13:22 is used to emphasize that the twelve spies came to Hebron as a single unit with the intention of fulfilling their mission.

Relying on the Babylonian Talmud Sotah 34 and Ketubot 112, Rashi reports that Hebron had the most rugged ground in Israel “Therefore they set it apart for the burial of the dead.” Why is rough earth suitable for burial?

Neither Scripture nor Rashi says why the spies chose to bring a cluster of grapes – why grapes – to show the Israelites, but Rashi tells us that eight of the spies carried the bunch of grapes. One took a fig, and one a pomegranate, but Caleb and Joshua brought nothing.

Should we believe that one cluster of grapes in Israel was so large that eight men needed to carry it?

Relying on the Babylonian Talmud Sotah 34, Rashi notes that the Torah states the spies examined the land in forty days despite it being impossible to see the entire country then. He suggests that god performed a miracle for them.

Rashi took 13: 33’s the spies said, “We looked to our own eyes like grasshoppers,” literally. He wrote that the scouts knew this because they heard the Canaanite giants telling each other that ants were creeping about our vineyards that look like men.

Joshua was silent when Caleb told the Israelites that the ten spies were wrong, beginning in verse 30.

The ten spies asserted that Nephilim lived in Canaan. Despite no indication of this in the text, Rashi defines the term as giants so tall they covered over the sun’s rays

Seeing that Moses and Aaron disbelieved the ten spies, Israelites wanted to appoint another leader in 14:1-4. The Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 107 contents they wanted to rely on an idol, and Rashi agrees.

Verse 14:7 has the first active role of Joshua. It states that Joshua joined Caleb in telling the people the land was very very good.

Relying on the belief that living righteous people protect evil people in a city’s population, Rashi contends that Joshua and Caleb told the frightened Israelites who heard the report of the ten spies that we do not have to fear because the last of the righteous people in Canaan, Job, died.

Verse 14:10 states that all the Israelites were so incensed that they wanted to stone “them.” Rashi identifies “them” as Joshua and Caleb, but does not explain that scripture frequently exaggerates. We should not understand that every Israelite wanted to murder the two spies.

Perhaps to protect the two truthful spies, the “Kavod [the glory] of God appeared in the tent of meeting.” Rashi defines “the glory” as a cloud. Other commentators understand “the glory” as a human feeling of divine presence. As I mentioned in prior writings, post-biblical writings called “the glory” “Shekinah,” and this raised the mistaken idea in the mind of many that Shekinah was a being separate from God, a polytheistic belief.

While Abraham ibn Ezra, Rashbam, and others explain that we should not take God’s criticism of the Israelites in 14:22’s “you tested me ten times,” literally, Rashi accepts the Babylonian Talmud Erokhin 15’s list. Rashbam explains that using ten to imply many is frequent in the Torah, as in Genesis 31:7 and Leviticus 26:26.

In his commentary to 14:18, Rashi writes that when Moses ascended to heaven, he saw God sitting and writing about himself, that He was slow to anger.

How should we understand verse 14:18, that God punishes presumably innocent children for the misdeeds of their fathers to the third and fourth generation? Maimonides explains in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:48 that when the Torah states that God said or did something, it should be understood that God did not do it, it came about by the laws of nature. The Bible ascribes the act to God because God created or formed the laws of nature. In this instance, the Bible is saying that there are consequences in nature. If people misbehave it will often impact their children who will copy them.

How should we understand 14:36 “The men [Hebrew, anashim, which Rash wrongly maintained denotes righteous men] whom Moses sent to spy out the land and returned to make every [member of the} community murmur against him by bringing an evil report concerning the land died.” Isn’t this contrary to human nature that everyone, with no exception, accepted the report? In politics, for example, if a politician gets a fifty prevent approval rating, he is said to have done well. The answer is that the Torah usually exaggerates, as when it says that Moses spoke to all the people. Only some Israelites were misled.

How should we understand Rashi’s reliance on Babylonian Talmud Sotah 35 that God punished the evil spies “measure for measure…. They sinned with their tongues, so their tongues were lengthened down to their navel. Worms issued from their tongues and entered their navels”? Rashi, like Nachmanides, but not Maimonides, considered imaginative midrashic statement facts.

Similarly, this explains Rashi’s reliance on Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 118 that Joshua and Caleb received as a reward for their behavior the portion of land intended for the spies in Canaan.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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