Naomi Graetz

Shelach: Spying the Land, Liking It and Staying

Spies carrying grape cluster (from our stamp collection)
Spies carrying grape cluster (from our stamp collection)
Newly Weds June 9th 1963 (from wedding album)

This week marks my 50th blog—yes, I’m counting. When I’ve been able, I’ve tried to connect the parsha with something personal or political. And as the saying goes: “the personal is the political”, an expression which was popularized by the second wave of feminism in the 1960’s—around the time that we got married, 60 years ago to this day. The Sixties were a time when marriage was challenged and when I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) five years after it was published, it was a wake-up call to me—which at the time I ignored, since I was married with child!


The beginning of parshat shelach has God telling Moses to send some men to check out the land of Canaan. Moses sends heads of the Israelite tribes, singling out Joshua by telling him to “see the land, what it is like, what kind of people dwell in it, if they are strong or weak, few or many? Is the land in which they dwell good or bad, and what are the towns like, are they in open settlements or in fortresses? Is the land, fat or lean, with trees in it or not? And you shall be strong [וְהִ֨תְחַזַּקְתֶּ֔ם]ְ and take of the fruit of the land” (Numbers 13: 16-20). Why do they have to be strong, because it just happens that they are going during the grape harvest, when there are people guarding the vineyards and they might encounter opposition to their “taking (i.e. stealing) the fruit of the land” which does not belong to them (here).

And the representatives of all the tribes of Israel went and checked out the entire land from south to north, east to west. Two of the spies brought back a cluster of grapes, some pomegranates and dates on a pole (which later became the logo for touring the land of Israel).

After forty days they returned and gave their report. On the one hand they reported that the land was “actually flowing with milk and honey” (vs 27), BUT they added that there were strong people populating the land, including giants, Amalekites, Hittites and Canaanites. In other words, there were actual people living there. You could not just walk in and conquer the land without a battle.  But Caleb (like some of today’s politicians) will have none of that. He says “We will surely go up and take hold of it, for we will surely prevail over it” (vs. 30). With God on his side, we don’t have to worry if the people living there will protest being conquered. The majority of the spies argued that they should not go to the land and they further badmouthed the land by saying that it “is a land that consumes those who dwell in it” (vs. 32), and there are lots of strong and big people living there. As Robert Alter writes in his commentary:

The land flowing with milk and honey, then, is seen in these words as a kind of death trap: even if the Israelites were to succeed in obtaining a foothold and themselves became dwellers of the land, it would “consume” them through internecine and international warfare.


The people on hearing this begin to complain (as they had been doing since last week’s parsha) and say they would be better off going back to Egypt:

And all the community lifted their voice and put it forth, and the people wept on that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and against Aaron, and all the community said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness would that we had died. And why is the LORD bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our women and our little ones will become booty. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said one man to another, “Let us put up a head and return to Egypt” (Numbers 14:1-4).

Joshua and Caleb bravely confront the complaining Israelites, the “protesters” and for their efforts Joshua and Caleb are assaulted and but for God’s intervention, they would have been pelted with stones. God as usual is very angry and Moses has to intervene. But in the end, two generations worth of Israelites are punished for their “sinning”, which is a betrayal of God, a lack of trust in the Deity (the Hebrew is actually their whoring–zenuteichem). The entire nation has to suffer for years by wandering around in the wilderness until they all drop dead except for Caleb and Joshua.


Of the sixty years that my life partner and I have been married (as of June 9th 1963) more than 40 have been spent in this contentious land. Actually FIFTY-FIVE!!! We have lived here all our married life, except for four years (since we were also students here in 1965). We have seen the wonderful, the good, the bad and now even the ugly. I can totally sympathize with those who said we were better off in the old country. We came here full of patriotism in 1967. We lived in Jerusalem and saw it being built up. At the time we thought it was wonderful. After the Yom Kippur War, it was fiscally irresponsible that we did not return to the U.S. Yet, not only did we stay, but we moved to Omer, to a place which we had never known. We saw that the land was wonderful—it had a country club, people were friendly, there were no scary giants to frighten us. We fit in marvelously and built a community. Of course, there were downsides: a small grocery; no bank; a tiny post office and that was it, not even a cemetery. There was no traffic light to get out of town. But there were three! hairdressers and the not so big city of Beersheba (in 1974) was only seven to ten minutes away.

At the time, people who left Israel were called by the pejorative word, yordim, which is the opposite of those who make Aliyah. Going down the was considered being a deserter, instead of the desired state of going up to the land. Today it is a given that our children may leave to explore the world and then may not come back. Among our friends and acquaintances, it is the exception, not the rule. But if you think about it, having to wander around for 40 years, waiting for everyone to die, before you can enter the promised land, what a curse that must have been for the people living in that situation. They must have hated each other, their leaders and even their god. As we prepare to celebrate our sixty years of marriage, with its twists and turns, deliriously happy and devastatingly sad moments, we can look back at a life well lived. After the first 10 years of marriage in which we moved 10 times, who would have thought that we would live in the same town for almost 50 years.


Things have changed: when we moved here, I would smile at everyone I met; today so many new people have moved in that except for the regulars in the swimming pool and synagogue, I don’t know most people I bump into. We have lived in the same home, but except for one neighbor, all the homes on our street are occupied by new residents. Moving is the norm, staying is the exception.

One can say that of marriage as well. It used to be that divorce was the exception, but today about 50% of marriages end in divorce in the U.S. and 25% in Israel. Of course, a low divorce rate does not necessarily mean that people are happy. There are many factors that encourage people to stay in a bad marriage (children, economics, fear of the unknown, inertia). If one thinks of it, it is a miracle that 25% to 50% of married couples DO stay together for the long haul. So in appreciation of having stayed together for so long, I think it is appropriate to end this blog with the traditional blessing of sheh-hechiyanu:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment of being married for 60 years.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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