‘The Giants’ Parashat  Shelach 5782

The Jewish People are nervous and so Moshe sends twelve spies to reconnoitre the Land of Israel in preparation for a war of liberation. Moshe gives the spies their marching orders and they set out on their way. The spies return with an evil report, claiming that the current residents are supermen armed with tactical nuclear weapons such that trying to liberate the land would be a suicide mission. G-d grants them their wish and they are allowed to remain in the desert until they die.

The spies begin in the south of the country and work their way northwards. Their first stop is the ancient city of Hebron [Bemidbar 13:22]: “They went up into the Negev and came to Hebron, where lived Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the descendants of the giant”. This verse contains a grammatical mismatch. On the one hand, it tells us that “They went into the Negev” using the plural conjugation of “va’yavo’u” and on the other hand, it says “[He] came to Hebron” using the singular conjugation of “va’yavo”. The Talmud in Tractate Sotah [34b] notices this mismatch and explains that only one of the twelve spies, Caleb the son of Yephuneh, made the detour to Hebron. The other spies bypassed the town, apparently in fear of “the descendants of the giant” that lived there. According to the Talmud, Caleb went to Hebron in order to pray at the graves of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that he not be enticed by his colleagues to be part of their evil counsel[1]. To reward Caleb for his decision, Moshe grants him and the Tribe of Judah the city of Hebron as an inheritance[2].

While the interpretation of the Talmud not only solves the grammatical mismatch but also explains why Joshua gave Caleb the city of Hebron, it is far from being the most simple interpretation of the verse. First and foremost, if it was only Caleb who went to Hebron, why doesn’t the Torah explicitly tell us “They went up into the Negev and [only] Caleb came to Hebron”? Further, the Torah contains similar examples of a singular conjugation being used to describe the actions of many people when these actions are performed in unison. For instance, at the Egyptian exodus, Pharaoh chases the Jewish People and they find themselves trapped between the rapidly approaching Egyptian Army and the raging Reed Sea [Shemot 14:10]: “Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold! the Egyptians were advancing (nose’ah) after them.” Rashi, noting that the Torah conjugates the word “advancing” with the singular “nose’ah” rather than with the plural “nos’im”, comments that the Egyptians advanced in unison “with one heart, as one man”. Similarly, when the Jews camp next to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the Torah relates how [Shemot 19:2] “Israel encamped (vayi’chan) opposite the mountain”. Again, Rashi, noting that the Torah conjugates the word “encamped” in the singular “vayi’chan” rather than the plural “vaya’chanu”, comments that the Jewish People were encamped in unison “as one man, with one heart[3]”. Why couldn’t the Talmud implement the same logic onto the spies and assert that they all went together to Hebron in unison “as one man with one heart”. That explanation would make an immense amount of sense: One of the organizations I work for brings U.S. congressmen to Israel on tours that are geopolitical in nature but also have a very strong biblical flavour. One of the first places we always visit is Hebron and the Cave of Machpela. As it is the city in which the forefathers lived, died, and were buried, Hebron can truly be considered one of the cradles of the Judeo-Christian[4] faith. Our visit to Hebron is always one of the highlights of our tour. Hebron would certainly have held an important place in the hearts of the spies. After all, they had just spent the last two centuries enslaved, beaten, and murdered only in order to implement Abraham’s prophecy of [Bereishit 15:13] “Your descendants shall be strangers in a land not theirs and they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years”. Returning to Hebron, the place where it all began, would have closed a cosmic circle. Hebron would have been the most logical place to begin their tour of the land.

In fact, a hypothesis very similar to this one is proposed by Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, who lived in Frankfurt am Mein in the nineteenth century. Rabbi Hirsch asserts that all of the spies went to Hebron “as one man with one heart”. Rabbi Hirsch brings the explanation of the Talmud that only Caleb went into Hebron but he disproves it. His reason is that after the spies return, they tell the Jewish People [Bemidbar 13:28] “We saw there the children of giants”. Seeing as the Torah testifies that the “giants” were located in Hebron, we must conclude that all of the spies must have visited specifically there in Hebron. Nevertheless, suggests Rabbi Hirsch, when they saw the giants that lived there, they became hysterical with fright. They were convinced that attempting to wrest the Land of Israel from these people would be hopeless and they were willingly ready to return to Egypt and their slave masters. Their visit to Hebron eventually led to their downfall.

I would like to take Rabbi Hirsch’s explanation a step further. After Joshua gives Hebron to Caleb, we are told [Joshua 14:15] “The name of Hebron was formerly Qiryat Arba, the great man (adam) among the giants.” Our Sages in the Midrash [Bereishit Rabbah 14:6] equate this “great man” who came from Hebron with our forefather, Abraham, who was “the greatest of the giants”. The midrash explains that Abraham was so great that he warranted being created before Adam[5]. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who served as “chariots for the Divine Presence” were giants among men. They irreversibly changed the world. The upshot is that the giants that inhabited Hebron were not physical giants, but, rather, spiritual giants. These giants attracted the spies to Hebron to return to their roots after years of exile in order to pave the way for their return home. And yet, these very same giants so frightened the spies that they wanted to return to the very same Egypt that had ruthlessly enslaved them. Why?

This year, our congressional tour visited Hebron on Memorial Day, a day on which Israelis commemorate our soldiers killed in battle along with civilians killed in terror attacks. It is a day that is fraught with emotion. When we entered the Cave of Machpela, I left the congressmen – I had listened to the spiel that they were hearing many times before – and I found myself in one of the small synagogues dispersed around the building. I picked up a siddur to pray and suddenly I found myself overcome by emotion. Hebron has a way of indescribably putting things into perspective. Hebron gives a person a G-d’s-eye view of Jewish history and this point of view can be daunting. I suggest that the spies experienced something very similar. When they return to the camp, they tell the people [Bemidbar 23:33] “We saw the Nephilim there – the Giants are part of the Nephilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” There, in Hebron, the spies saw a snapshot of Jewish History. They saw from where they had come and to where they were going. Comparing themselves to the forefathers, they considered themselves unworthy – like grasshoppers – and they pulled the eject handle. Visiting Hebron led to failure because it set too high of a bar. The spies had been worn down by years of slavery. They did not believe that they were capable of following in the footsteps of giants. The mistake of the spies was that they lacked the proper perspective. They were never meant to follow – as individuals – in the footsteps of giants.  They were meant to stand on the shoulders of these giants and – as one man with one heart –  to march to their redemption.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, and Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah.

[1] Caleb the son of Yephuneh and Joshua the son of Nun were the only two spies that did not return from Israel and report that “We’re all gonna die”.

[2] See Devarim [1:36] and Judges [1:20].

[3] Why Rashi uses the words “with one heart as one man” to describe the advancing Egyptians while he uses the words “as one man with one heart” to describe the encamped Israelites, is a topic for another essay

[4] This is an albeit problematic term, but one that resonates with the members of congress.

[5] The midrash explains that G-d created Adam before Abraham even though Abraham was a greater man because He was concerned that Abraham might fail in his task and there would be no-one to pick up the pieces.

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 2001 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.
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