Ari Sacher

‘Mangosteen, Grapes and Dates’ Parashat Shelach 5783

All right, I admit it. I am a criminal. Last week I was on a business trip to the Far East. About twenty years ago, my family discovered mangosteen, a tropical fruit that is nearly impossible to find anywhere but in Southeast Asia. It is delicious – like a cross between a tangerine, banana, and strawberry. On this trip, one of the locals that we work with took me to a neighbourhood market and he picked out some of the best mangosteen he could find. Of course it is illegal to import fruit into Israel, but, hey, this is mangosteen we’re talking about and so I threw caution to the wind. Fortunately, the customs workers were caught off-guard and I successfully smuggled the mangosteen home. It was delicious.

The Portion of Shelach contains a similar example of smuggled fruit, not into Israel, but, rather, out of it. Moshe sends twelve spies to reconnoitre the Land of Israel in preparation for its capture. He gives the spies their marching orders: they are told to bring back information regarding Israel’s topography, its inhabitants, and its defences. And then Moshe adds one additional instruction [Bemidbar 13:20]: “Take pains (v’hitchazaktem) to bring back some of the fruit of the land”. According to the Hizkuni[1], the reason that the spies had to “take pains” to smuggle out the fruit was that it was the beginning of the harvest season, the local farmers would be on the lookout for poachers.

Moshe’s request begs a question: How would samples of the local produce help an invading army capture the land? The local fruit must have been extremely important from a military standpoint because it becomes a recurring motif. During the course of their mission, the spies discover fruit that they absolutely must bring home [Bemidbar 13:23]: “They reached Wadi Eshkol and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes – it was carried on a pole by two of them – and from the pomegranates and figs.” According to the Talmud in Tractate Sotah [34b], the grapes were so large that they had to be carried on two poles by eight men. Another one of the spies took a large pomegranate and another took a large fig. When the spies return from their expedition, they pull out the fruit [Bemidbar 13:26]: “They made their report to [Moshe and Aaron] and to the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land. They told [Moshe]: ‘We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.’” What does the fruit bear so much weight?

Let’s take a closer look at the fruit that the spies bring back with them to base camp. The spies begin their mission in [Bemidbar 13:20] “the season of the first ripe grapes.” In Israel, grapes begin to ripen in the beginning of the summer. Our Sages in the Midrash put a finer point on it, asserting that the spies set out on the first day of the month of Tammuz, usually falling in June or July. The average high temperature in Israel in June can run anywhere from 27 degrees in Jerusalem to 34 degrees in the Jordan Valley to 39 degrees in Eilat. The last rain in Israel usually falls in April, meaning that June is dry and often quite windy. These are perfect conditions to dry fruits. Exposing figs to sunlight and moderate winds will dry them in seven to ten days. Making raisins out of grapes requires even less time. The upshot is that unless the spies sprinted back from the Land of Canaan, by the time they reached base camp they would have been carrying raisinets and fig newtons, not an impressive sight by any stretch of the imagination.

We can gain some traction by taking a closer look at the produce that the spies returned with and the produce that they did not return with. The “Seven Species” are the seven agricultural products – two grains and five fruits – listed in the Torah [Devarim 8:8] as being native products of the Land of Israel. The Seven Species consist of wheat, barley, olives, dates, figs, grapes, and pomegranates. Noting that Moshe asked the spies to bring back “fruits”, we can strike wheat and barley off the list. Olives grow in the fall, so there were likely none available to return to base camp. The rest of the fruits on the list – dates, figs, grapes, and pomegranates – would have been growing on the local trees. Why do the spies not bring back any dates? Anyone who has hiked around the Land of Israel can attest that the land is chock full of wild grapes, figs, and pomegranates. While wild grapes are typically more tart than cultivated grapes, the taste of wild figs and pomegranates is nearly indistinguishable from their cultivated cousins. Dates are another story. Dates are considered the oldest cultivated fruits in the world. Dates do not grow in the wild. Getting a date to grow from a date palm is labour intensive. Because neither birds or bees are attracted to its flowers, female trees must be hand pollinated in order to produce fruit. As the farmers were already on the lookout for poachers, there was no way that the spies could gain access to any dates to smuggle them out of the country. All they could bring home were grapes, pomegranates, and figs.

With this agricultural background in hand, I would like to propose an admittedly radical reinterpretation of the verses. When Moshe first informs the Jewish People of their impending release from Egyptian bondage, he tells them that they will be going to [Shemot 3:8] “A land flowing with milk and honey”. When the spies return to base camp with the shrivelled fruit, they tell Moshe [Bemidbar 13:26] “It does indeed (v’gam) flow with milk and honey and this is its fruit.” In the story of Purim, when King Achashverosh is told by his beloved Queen Esther that Haman has been plotting to exterminate her and her people, he storms out of the room in raw anger. After he has regained his composure, he re-enters the room, only to see Haman prostrating himself before Esther, pleading for his life. The king, thinking that Haman is making advances on his wife, exclaims [Esther 7:9] “Does he mean (ha’gam) to ravish the queen in my own palace?” By reflecting Achashverosh’s “ha’gam” into the spies’ “v’gam”, it could be posited that the spies were saying “Does he mean to tell us that Israel is a land flowing with milk and honey? Just look at this ‘fruit’!”

This hypothesis is substantiated by a verse three chapters down the road, in the Portion of Korach. When Korach leads a rebellion against Moshe, Moshe tries to appeal to Datan and Aviram, two of Korach’s co-conspirators. Datan and Aviram reject Moshe’s pleas outright, telling him, [Bemidbar 16:17] “You have not even brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards.” The standard understanding of the verse is that Datan and Aviram were citing the punishment of the Jewish People that resulted from their heeding the spies’ evil report to wander for forty years in the desert. Datan and Aviram were telling Moshe that because of his poor leadership, they would never enter the Land of Milk and Honey. I suggest that they were saying something entirely different: This land that you wanted to bring us into is actually a desert wasteland. We have been duped. There is no “land of Milk and Honey”.

Why, then, did Moshe direct the spies to bring back fruit if he knew it would dry up? The answer lies in the dates. The existence of the Jewish People in the desert was miraculous from dawn to dusk: they were fed by manna that fell from the sky, they were shielded from the elements by the Cloud of Glory, and their clothing suffered no wear and tear. Life in the Land of Israel would be very different. Miracles would still occur but they would be cloaked in nature. When G-d promised the Jewish People that the Land of Israel would flow with milk and [date] honey, He promised that them that while fruit left out in the sun would wither, they would learn to cultivate the dates and would be rewarded with bountiful fruit. He promised them that even if their meagre water reserves dried up, they would one day discover a way to desalinate water from the ocean. He promised them that if they dug deep enough below the ocean floor, they would discover enough natural gas to last for centuries. The Torah promises that G-d [Devarim 28:12] “will open for you that bounteous store… and bless all of your labour”. G-d will reward our toil, but toil we must.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yehuda ben Tzivia, Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, known as the “Hizkuni”, lived in France in the 13th century.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
Related Topics
Related Posts