Pinchas Goldschmidt

The Spies Were Failed Leaders – But Were They Also Heroes?

Photo by Aviv Ben Or on Unsplash

Among the biggest failures in leadership in Jewish history, the Spies – those 10 men who reported on the dangers of the Land of Israel – are held responsible not just for the wandering of the Jews in the desert for 40 years, but for the early deaths in the desert of an entire generation of the Exodus.

But the Spies do have one redeeming quality – the fact that there were 10 of them. It is that quality that has seen the Jewish people survive during the bitter years of exile. Since the destruction of the Temple, the synagogue has been the spiritual focal point for Jews. While synagogues serve many functions – from social to educational – their main purpose, of course, is for prayer.

Public communal prayer in Judaism requires a quorum of 10 – and we learn that from none other than the Spies! Those ten miscreants are called an “edah,” a congregation, by God – and the Rabbis extrapolated that term, along with other instances of it, to indicate that it is in a quorum of ten (better known as a minyan), that God “rests His spirit.”

It seems a bit dichotomous; surely there are better quality people than the Spies from which to learn such an important concept. But the fact that we specifically do derive it from them provides us with a powerful message, one that resonates with our people to this very day.

Many have asked what motivated the Spies. One well-developed theory tells us that it was because of their zeal to remain as spiritual as possible that they deliberately engineered a situation in which the Jews would remain in the desert, where they would continue to have Moses teaching them the Word of God directly from the source; where their incomes (in the form of manna) were provided for miraculously; and where the only activity they could really engage in was learning Torah. In the Land, of course, they would have to grow their own food and deal with the pettiness of day-to-day life. Better for us, they reasoned, to stay in the desert, where we could continue to bask in these spiritual delights.

Other commentaries explain that entering the holy land would entail the formation of a new leadership, and as we have seen nowadays in Israel, diaspora leaders are often eclipsed by a new indigenous leadership.

God, of course, did not like their way of thinking, and subsequently punished the spies (who died soon after they spread their report), along with the entire generation of the Exodus. But God did honor their legacy – as one that would steer the Jewish people during the many years that they would not merit to live in the Land. Theirs would indeed be a spiritual mission – one of outreach, to spread the message of the Torah to the four corners of the earth. The Spies, in essence, created a spiritual safe space for the future exiled Jews, one that would ensure that they could remain true to their faith – and remain true until they were ultimately redeemed.

In the parsha, God Himself pronounces this; when meting out His punishment, He states “But as truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord” (Numbers 14:21). Since when has the punishment of Jewish people brought glory to God? But seen in the context of how our sages and tradition have described the motivation of the spies, and their legacy, it fits right in. Jews who are unable to live in the Land also have an important role in tikkun olam, “perfecting the world” – and that is to spread the Jewish concepts of justice and mercy to all people.

However, this can be accomplished only if the Jews remain Jewish and have their own holy space—the synagogue— based on the concept of the minyan, of a quorum of ten, as provided by the example of the ten spies.

Unfortunately, in modern times, as Jews started to secularize and focus on Tikun Olam, many Jews forgot their own people. As the Song of Songs (1:6) tells us, “I was appointed to be the keeper of the vineyards – however, my own vineyard I did not keep.” As antisemitism has erupted in the universities and in the streets of the U.S. and of Europe in recent months, many Jews who were active in general humanitarian and social causes have seen their partners and co-activists in these activities descend into open antisemitic activity, demanding the elimination of the Jewish state and calling for a genocide of Jews. Many of the leading Jewish activists on social issues have felt that they were betrayed, and many are feeling lonely, rejected from activities they have long supported. For example, Rabbi Amiel Hirsch, a leading Reform Rabbi in the U.S., bemoaned the fact that so many young people who grew up in the movement’s synagogues have joined those open antisemitic demonstrations all over the US. We Jews should of course engage in bettering the world, but our responsibility must first be to our own family.

The minyan is perhaps the most important communal resource for the Jews in the post-Temple world of exile. This resource has been the main feature of the synagogue, the beacon that has lit Jewish life for the past 2,000 years. We shouldn’t forget that it was bequeathed to us by the original exiles, the Spies.

About the Author
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is the President of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) and exiled Chief Rabbi of Moscow. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is also the recipient of the Aachen International Charlemagne Prize in 2024.
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