Jewish leadership’s first epic fail: Parshat Shelach

Parshat Shelach recounts one of the biggest disasters in Jewish history — the Jewish people’s initial rejection of the Land of Israel. The land of Israel was the place God chose for the Jewish people to introduce the concepts of monotheism and moral, ethical behavior to the nations of the world. Our entry into the land was supposed to represent the culmination of the promises HaShem had made to the Avot and Emahot. He had redeemed us from Egypt, and now the final step remained, that of giving us the land He had promised us. Yet we managed to turn our triumph into an enormous tragedy, and rejected our own inheritance. Twelve of our most esteemed leaders, hand-selected by Moshe because their mission was too big to fail, were the ones chosen to first enter into the Land – and ten of them rejected it.

In the first verse of the parsha, God tells Moshe to “Send for yourself men who will scout [v’yaturu] the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel. One man each from his father’s tribe you will send, every one a leader.”

What is it that these twelve leaders hand-selected by Moshe were being asked to do? The infinitive “LaTUR,” means to search out, scout. Use of the shoresh Taf-Vav-Resh is used primarily in Sefer Bamidbar and primarily in relation to this particular narrative of the 12 leaders. When this shoresh is used outside of Bamidbar, it is done so in the context of “searching out enlightenment or wisdom,” for example in Kohelet 7:25, it is used “lada’at v’latur u’vakesh chachma,” “to know and search out and ask for wisdom.”   In Bamidbar, however, the main use of “LaTUR,” “to search” is to describe the task given to the twelve leaders.

The leaders’ task was NOT to investigate whether they would be able to defeat the land’s current inhabitants and dwell there successfully. Rather, the twelve were being asked to evaluate how they were to implement their instructions from God to take the land and dwell there in His name.

Moshe gave them specific features to evaluate that would assist in helping plan how to best plan their entry into the land:

18. You shall see the land – what is it, and the people who inhabit it; are they strong or weak? Are there few or many? 19. And what of the land they inhabit? Is it good or bad? And what of the cities in which they reside are they in camps or in fortresses? 20. What is the soil like is it fat or lean? Are there any trees in it or not?

Rather than fulfilling their responsibilities as given to them by Moshe, ten of the twelve leaders came back with a tale of woe – sure, the land was wonderful and fruitful, but the inhabitants were enormous and would defeat them.

A good analogy for what happened:  You buy a house, sign the contract, and make arrangements for your furniture to be sent along. You send in a group of your most trusted friends, who have agreed to help you move, to look at the house on your behalf and help you decide where to put everything. You ask them to assess what type of remodeling work needs to be done and how to prioritize it. Instead, they come back to you and tell you it was a terrible idea to buy the house, it’s an awful house, you shouldn’t move in, you won’t be able to cope with how awful the house is, it needs too much work – and you should arrange to send your things back to your former dwelling (which would be impossible due to the condition of your former property and your relationship with its current occupants.) However, in the case of Shelach, the ten leaders who related negative things about the Land of Israel betrayed not a friend, but Moshe’s trust, God’s commandment, and their entire people.

In his commentary on Tehillim, Rashi explicates that the night the ten men gave their negative report was later to become Tisha B’Av. Because as Am Yisrael had wept without cause on that day, it would become a day of weeping throughout the generations due to the destruction of the batei mikdash and resultant dispersal and tragedies throughout Jewish history.

The mefarshim give several opinions as to the exact nature of the leaders’ failure, which can be grouped into three categories:

  • The leaders failed at their primary task when they lost focus on implementing God’s will and substituted their own opinions and goals for God’s;
  • Instead of providing inspirational and positive leadership toward helping achieve a difficult task, they used their newly-elevated position to sow negativity and dissent and lead people astray;
  • They were more concerned with their own self-image and perceived power than the fulfillment of their appointed task.

Whatever the exact nature of their aveira, the failure of ten out of the twelve leaders to fulfill their mission had immediate and terrible consequences. Am Yisrael, a people already struggling with the burden of recovering from slavery and long wandering, received despair and negativity instead of hope and inspiration, and were misled into the terrible sin of doubting God and rejecting Him. The ten leaders who gave a negative report were killed by plague. Am Yisrael was almost destroyed by God’s wrath, and saved only by the desperate pleading of Moshe and Aharon. That generation of adult male Jews was deemed unworthy to enter the land, and the entire nation spent the next 40 years wandering the desert.

There is a fascinating shift in Shelach – a fundamental change that happens somwhere between the first and last sentences of the parsha. Shelach begins with LaTur as an explicit, positive mitzvah, a command given by God: “Send out for yourself people to scout (v’yaturu) out the land.”  Yet the parsha closes with LaTUR being used as a negative commandment: v’LO taturu, “and you shall NOT explore.” How did this word “LaTUR”, “explore,” go from a positive to a negative commandment – a very unusual if not unique phenomenon, within the same parsha?

The answer to this question is that there are two different types of “latur.” The first type is the positive commandment given at the beginning of the parsha- when we “explore” how to correctly implement God’s commandments. A concrete manifestion of this type of “latur” is demonstrated by torah she’b’al peh – the concretization of generations of Jews struggling to do the best they can to understand the exact nature of the mitzvot in order to implement them correctly.  Even on an individual scale, this type of searching out – in which our mission to fulfill HaShem’s commandments is primary, and we are working out how, not whether, to do it, is the ideal for religious observance according to the Torah. When we follow this model and engage in this type of process, we are able to be holy unto God.

The second, prohibited type of “latur” is almost the exact opposite – when we substitute our own best judgment, the product of our own vision and gut feelings, for HaShem’s commandments.  Instead of trying to figure out how to best fulfill mitzvot, we explore ways to use God’s commandments to rationalize and justify our behavior. In Parshat Shelach, God warns us that when we  rely on our own best judgment instead of the mitzvot as our primary motivation, we go astray,  literally make ourselves zonim, “whores,” after our own desires, and by so doing deny our relationship with Him.

HaShem is so concerned that the Jewish people not fall into this serious transgression of the second type of “exploring,” that parshat shelach closes with the mitzvah of tzitzit to prevent its recurrence:

39. And it will be fringes for you, and when you see it you will remember all God’s commandments and do them – do not scout [v’LO taturu] after your hearts and after your eyes because you go astray after them. 40. In order that you shall remember and do all My commandments and you will be holy to your God.

HaShem (via Moshe) explicitly commanded the first type of “LaTur” in Shelach, and the 12 leaders were selected to fulfill this positive mitzvah. However, ten of the twelve leaders instead engaged in the second, prohibited form of “LaTur.” In the case of Parshat Shelach, we see from the events of the parsha that the damage done to Am Yisrael by  ten of Moshe’s special hand-picked leaders was so pervasive, that all that could be done is to wait for the people who were contaminated by their failed leadership to die. The people who were influenced by these leaders were deemed unfit to enter the land, because when this proscribed type of “latur” is committed by Am Yisrael’s leadership, the resulting impact is so negative that it cannot be undone.

The generations of Jewish scholars, rabbis, and leaders who have engaged in task of struggling to understand and implement HaShem’s will as expressed in the Torah have engaged themselves in a task that is filled with kedusha. But they sit on the edge of a precipice– on the one side, there is the process of trying one’s best to understand the nature of mitzvot and perform them correctly. On the other side is the risk of forgetting that it is the task itself that is holy, not the performer of the task.  As the ten leaders learned in Parshat Shelach to their sorrow and to the detriment of all of Am Yisrael, being engaged in a holy task doesn’t mean that everything you say will be correct.

I once asked a local rabbi for the sources he was using to render a particular decision – not to challenge him, but in order to better understand both the halachic issue and his ruling. His response to me was that he didn’t need sources – that as a holder of smikha , authority directly transmitted from Moshe at Sinai, his decision needed no support from additional sources. This attitude can unfortunately be found in many rabbinic circles today.

When a rabbi assumes that any decision he makes is correct because he is a rabbi, that assumption is a direct Torah violation according to parshat Shelach. When rabbis believe that any behavior they choose to engage in is correct,  the results include (but are not limited to) rulings that oppress converts in direct violation of Torah law, rulings that prohibit women from driving, and acts that clearly violate laws of appropriate sexual and ethical conduct.

Rabbinic leaders deserve the respect and support of all of Am Yisrael – but we must never forget that they are still human. Even the leaders of the generation who experienced matan torah, heard HaShem’s words with their own ears, and were appointed directly by Moshe, made an epic mistake which had terrible repercussions for themselves and all of Am Yisrael. The lesson we must take to heart is that all humans, even the most venerated and well-intentioned, sometimes make decisions based on their own hearts and eyes, and not on God’s commandments.

The model of Jewish leadership as envisioned by Moshe and God was one of positive leadership – inspiring others by positive example to follow the mitzvot. The model of Jewish leadership provided by the ten leaders in Shelach – one that was strongly rejected by God –  was a model of people abusing their power by substituting their own judgment in the place of God’s, and using their position to condemn and judge.  It is our responsibility to make sure that the Jewish leaders we revere, select, and choose for our communities and religious institutions reflect the Torah’s vision of Jewish leadership.

About the Author
Jennifer Kotzker Geretz grew up in Pensacola, Florida and currently lives in West Orange, New Jersey with her husband, Rabbi Daniel Geretz, and her children. Jennifer is a first year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Maharat, the first and only institution in the United States to ordain Orthodox women as clergy.
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