Rachel Peck

Israel-Gaza War 5784: Shelach Lecha – An Evil Report

This week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, contains the well-known story of the spies sent to scout the land of Canaan. Our portion tells us that, despite the land producing fruits so plentiful and large that the spies need double crossbars to carry them back to the camp, they gave an “evil report.” (Numbers 13:32) They told the children of Israel that they could not take the land, for “…it is stronger than us…and we were in our eyes like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.” (Numbers 13:31, 33)

Yet if such a report were issued by today’s spy agencies, it would be criticized for numerous contradictions: “…a land that devours its inhabitants it is! All the people that we saw in it were people of great stature.” (Numbers 13:32)

How could the Canaanites be powerful, yet destroyed by the land they inhabit? Indeed, two dissenting spies, Yehoshua and Calev, promised that “our bread are they” (Numbers 14:9)—the Israelites, like the land, would devour their enemies. But the people persisted in believing that they were so pitiful, they could not possibly conquer.

Their misjudgments brought disastrous consequences. Crying out that it would have been better if they had died in Egypt, they insisted that they wanted to go back there. Forgetting how G-d took them out with great miracles, rescued them at the Reed Sea, and caused His presence to dwell among them, they demanded to know why He was bringing them to this new land only to fall by the sword.

Hashem in turn decreed that none of this faithless generation would live to reach the land He promised them. Only their children would see and possess it.

At this new threat, they again panicked. They changed their minds and mustered to fight, their initial reluctance turned to rash bravado. Moses warned them that G-d was not with them and they should not go through with this plan, but they disregarded him. And, in an initial skirmish, they were badly defeated; as the text says, “struck and pounded until Hormah.” (Numbers 14:45)

Are there parallels here to today’s war against Hamas? The ancient Israelites disregarded Yehoshua and Calev’s encouraging report. And Israel’s senior intelligence officials, despite an extensive surveillance network of watchers at the Gaza border and eavesdroppers on Hamas communications, ignored reports of Hamas training for an invasion and taking hostages. While the other ten Biblical spies inflated the strength of their enemy, Israel minimized that of theirs. Those in charge terribly misjudged both the intentions and capabilities of Hamas.

Now, post-October 7th, Israel insists it is fighting an existential war against a genocidal foe. Like the Canaanites, Hamas is seen as both weak and powerful. And in war, perceptions can be as important as reality. But contradictory perceptions cloud judgment. What is the reality?

Hamas surely would like to commit a genocide, but they lack the ability to do so. While amassing an impressive arsenal of small arms and rockets, they are far weaker militarily than Israel. (Hezbollah, with vastly superior arms to Hamas’, and Iran, which is close to nuclear breakout, are another story.) Yet Hamas does have the capability to inflict enough death, destruction, and terror to disrupt Israel’s society and economy, and the right of Israelis to enjoy the fruits of their land.

However, over the years, Israel has restrained itself. They have aspired to manage rather than defeat Hamas, Hezbollah, and the terrorists of the West Bank with occasional bombing or minor incursions in retaliation for rockets and terror attacks. They practice “mowing the grass,” while at the same time providing tax monies to the Palestinian Authority and water, electricity, and work permits to Gaza.

Israel knows it is stronger than Hamas. Its restraint has come not from believing itself weak, but from a combination of being a more humane actor and international pressure that ignores Hamas and acts as if Israel is the bully in the room. But the reasons do not matter. Acting like a grasshopper encouraged the enemy to imagine it could bring Israel down, despite the disparity in strength.

October 7th was more than a humanitarian disaster that saw the greatest murder of Jews in one day since the Shoah. It was a humiliation that made Israelis, despite their numerous military victories over the years, feel like grasshoppers. For hours the terrorists rampaged through kibbutzim and music festivals, murdering and raping with impunity and taking hundreds of hostages. The depth of their intelligence and planning contrasted with the total unpreparedness of Israel’s intelligence agencies and military.

Israel will be able to defeat Hamas on the battlefield, if the U.S. stops limiting arms deliveries and insisting that Israel put the needs of Gazan civilians ahead of those of their soldiers and citizens. October 7th, like Hormah, was a demoralizing setback. While crushed at Hormah, the ancient Israelites went on to take Canaan (spoiler alert!).

To win this war, Israel will need to defeat not only Hamas brigades, but West Bank terrorists, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Iranian head of the snake. Then there is the problem of Jew hatred and nihilistic ideology in the Palestinian population, along with grayness around final borders and the status of a Palestinian entity. Thoughtful planning, creative thinking, and directed intentionality are needed. Without them, even the strongest military with the most valiant soldiers—and Israeli soldiers are valiant and right now supremely motivated—ultimately will fail to achieve comprehensive victory.

May we see such a victory over our enemies, not just for today or a few years, and not only for the current generations, but for their children and children’s children. On October 7th, we experienced Hormah. But we can still take Canaan.

About the Author
I was born in Washington, DC, and raised in the suburbs, but now reside in the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. I am a retired editor and proud Zionist. I can also be found at
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