Shlach: The True Tale of the Spies

Scene: A tribal harvest-feast, in Canaan, c. 1380 BCE. Israelites of the tribe of Benjamin have celebrated with food, barley beer, wine, dance and song, thanking their Desert God, Adonoi, or He-Who-Is, for a bountiful harvest and large flocks of cattle, sheep and goats. The cooking-fires have died down, hearts are warm and bellies are full, and all are feeling well-content in the bounty granted them by a beneficent, if demanding, God.

As the desert night settles over their farms and fields, they settle around the fires to warm themselves, and call for a story from one of their Elders, Palti-el ben Rafu, of the Tribe of Benjamin, the only remaining member of the spying-party which Moses, their earliest and greatest leader, rabbi, and teacher, sent out to explore this strange and challenging land, some generations ago. As yet, these stories are still being passed down literally—orature, rather than literature, and it is important that their young people listen to the tales of their past.

Palti-El: Before I speak, give me a drop of that barley beer—you, Even-Ezer, you son-of-a-sheep, where are you hiding it?—thank you; no, don’t fill it up to the top; I am old, and am better served with the plain, cold water of this Israel, our native land, an inheritance from God, blessed be His Name! And where is Kessem, my littlest great-granddaughter? Ah, there you are, sweet little brown-eyed one; come, come sit by Savta, your great-gran’ther, and hear this story of how I carried the Great Bunch of Grapes over the Jordan River—bless me, how long ago was it?

A Voice from the back calls, “Ten years, Lord Palti!”
Other Voices object:
“What do you know?”
“ It was at least twenty rains—“
“I recall how the floods came, when my boy Sodi-el was but a babe!”
“Silence, All! We must hear the story,” etc.

So: Rabbi Moses was old, and he assured us that we would conquer, surely conquer the Land, for our Lord God would go before us, as He did at the Reed Sea, and shatter the stone houses of the Mighty Canaanites—

Voice: I wish He would, and welcome. My Canaanite neighbor throws trash from his Idol-Offerings over his fence into my yard.

Another Voice: Will you not be quiet? I told you before, to bring that complaint to the Philistine Chieftain in charge of your District! Silence!

–But we doubted; we were free in name, but slaves in mind, still, and He-Who-Is had threatened us, because we Doubted Him—this we heard from Moses, by way of Aaron (Elder Aaron was no young man, either; he could no longer go out nor come in, and his grandsons had to lift the heavier bull-carcasses of the offerings), by way of Joshua and Caleb—that we were doomed to wander in the Wilderness of scorpions and serpents, to toughen us up; that was what God said—but Moses agreed that we, princes one and all of our tribes
–(I was a prince, truly, younger then, and handsomer too; you needn’t giggle at me, from behind your hands, you young’n children, for these aged ears can hear your laughter, Shame!)
–Where was I? O yes; that we should spy out the land; yes, that was to be our task—and so, we packed matzos for the trip, and dried fruit in leathern bags, and crossed via the mountain-range, the better not to leave a trail; the Egyptians, y’see, had fortresses and sentry-posts and checkpoints all along the boundary-lines ‘twixt them and Canaan—and suspicious folks, they are, too, the Egyptians, always checking us innocent farmers, shaking us down, to make sure we weren’t bringing in any contraband—

Voice: tell us about the cities walled-up-to-the-sky, Great-Uncle Palti, and the Giants you saw!

Hm? What? Cities? Well, there were cities—not walled that high, I must admit; that was a story Shammua ben Zakoor, of the Reuben-tribe, cooked up in his head; those Reubenites—well, you can’t trust ‘em—they always have to make a big deal of everything, they do; they never liked being passed over to lead the People, their ancestor being the Firstborn Son, but what with Judah being the biggest tribe, and God choosing Levi to serve in the Mishkan-Sanctuary—it’s a family-tribal-thing with the Reubenites.
–(Moses said God made the Choice, but, betwixt you and me and tent-flap, I call it Politics, and Who Y’Know, not What Y’Know.)
And it only ended up by getting us all in trouble. Me, I agreed with Joshua ben Nun of Ephraim (a small tribe, that one, but still, my scrappy little Joshua managed to become Our Leader ‘til his death; a good and honest man, God rest his soul!) and Caleb ben Yefuneh of Judah, but somehow, the records weren’t kept, and it wasn’t ever written down in the final Report. It doesn’t figure anyway, because Moses tore it up; God was unhappy with what we said….

Voice: Why, Second Cousin Palti?

Hm? Why? Well, we were country bumpkins, d’ye see: a bunch of scapegrace slaves, herding goats and such, going up against a settled, advanced, farmer-folk, living in fortified cities—fifteen cubits or “up to the sky,” I believe the Report said, well, it didn’t matter; we had no way of storming any city. No ladders; nothing for a siege, not even a shovel to dig a ditch. Besides, they had iron weapons—wonderful metal, iron is, so strong and sharp, and we were still wielding ours of bronze, silly and soft—I tell you, there was no way we could beat them. We needed to use a—a—Trick! A Subterfuge, I believe it’s called, in the end.

Voice: And what did you do, Neighbor Palti?

Do? Well, we spies did all we could. But later, when Joshua led us, there was no such rigamarole as marching ‘round Jericho’s walls seven times and blowing shofarote, I can tell you, with “The walls come a’tumbling down.”

Nonsense. It was like the Conquest of the City of Ai, more like: we fooled the warriors and their king into an ambush; when they chased after us, they left the city gates open, the fools; one squad of our boys ran into Ai and set the city ablaze, and then, when our pursuers left off running after us, and turned round and gasped and gaped to see their beloved city and houses afire, we turned about, surrounded ‘em, and massacred ‘em all.

A bloodbath, ‘twas—I feel bad about it, to this day. They never had a chance….

Voice: But Ai is a thriving city today!

What? Is it? Well, perhaps it was a different city we sacked and burned—Beth-El, or Nachal-Roi, or some such. My memory fails me, here and there. It’s old, like me.

Voice: What about the punishment from God, the forty years of wandering in the wilderness?

Oh, that. Well, we shouldn’t have gone against God’s judgment, bad-mouthing the Land like that. But we never heard about the forty years, y’see: Moses kept it to himself. He believed that another few years in the wilderness would toughen us up, give us a better outlook, not on his leadership—poor man was getting too old, after all, and he was never much of a warrior; yes, I know, he killed that Egyptian, but that had been long ago, and he was angry, full of fight—

Moses wanted to make certain that the younger folks and babes born in the wilderness would be born into freedom, and follow only God and our brave Joshua. That was the main thing.

Any beer left? I’m dry, and tired. Story’s done. Bless you all, my children….

Voice: Thank you, bless you, Lord Palti. Nitza, Ish-Baal! Give us a song, while Divri and Achva play the drum and flute. A Harvest Song, All!

Now, everyone sing: Halleluya L’Adonai, Ki Tov—O Give Thanks to the Lord, for He is Good….

About the Author
David was born and raised on NYC's Lower East Side, and attended Hebrew Day School, Yeshiva Univ. HS, and Yeshiva Univ., where he learned English, Bible, and Jewish Education degrees. He attended the CUNY Graduate Center, and received both an MA and M.Phil. in English Literature, with a concentration in 17th Century, John Milton, and the Romantic Poets. David also received semicha/rabbinical ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion, Yonkers, NY. He has also attended the Hebrew College in Brookline, MA, where he received a Certificate in Advanced Hebrew School Administration. David serves Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach, FL; prior, he served pulpits in Warren, NJ, Fayetteville, NC, and Portsmouth, NH. He is married, with two grown children and a Shih Tzu. He recently published a book of his Torah stories, "The Torah Book: New Stories of Bible People & God."
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