Of the sins that the People of Israel commit in the Bible, the most serious of all takes place in our portion of Shlach. The spies’ severe report directly causes the death of the desert generation. However, it is difficult to understand that the suggestion to establish such an ill-fated reconnaissance team came directly from the Almighty. What did God want the spies to actually report?
Rabbi Elchanan Samet suggests that the answer lies in the verb form used in the charge given by the Almighty: “Send, for yourselves, men who will seek out [vayaturu] the land…”[Num. 13:2]. Crucially, the verb tur appears no less than twelve times in this sequence, the very number of the members of the delegation itself.
Further analysis reveals that, in other Biblical contexts, the verb form tur is used similarly to the way it is used in our Biblical portion, as in, “[God] Who walks before you to seek out [latur] for you a place in which you may settle your encampment” (Deut. 1:33).
Even the prophet Ezekiel declares that “on that day I shall raise my hand for them to bring them out of the Land of Egypt to the land which I have sought out [tarti] for them. A land flowing with milk and honey, a most precious land for them among all the other lands” [20:6].
In contrast, in Moses’ retelling of the story [Deut. 1:22, 24], the people say: “Let us send men before us that they may check out [vayachp’ru] the land…and spy [va’yerag’lu] it out,” using two verb forms very different from the vayaturu used by God in our portion.
The power of the specific verb form tur used by God is even more clearly expressed in the very conclusion of this Torah reading, where we encounter that same verb form in a totally different but most revealing context.
The commandment to wear tzitzit [fringes] on the corners of our four-cornered garments includes a rationale: “…so that you not seek out or lust [taturu] after your heart and after your eyes which lead you to commit acts of illicit lust [zonim] after them” [Num. 15:39].
And when punishing the People of Israel, God once again makes reference to the sin of the spies as having been an act of illicit lust (z’nut), “and your children shall be shepherds in the desert for forty years, thereby bearing [the sin] of your illicit lust [z’nutekhem]” [ibid. 14:33].
God was not interested in a reconnaissance mission to scout out the land—or even in an intelligence delegation to assess the military practicability of engaging in an act of conquest. Perhaps that was what the people had in mind when they asked Moses to send men before them to check out the land, which probably meant to see by which routes it would be best to enter and which cities ought to be attacked first [Deut. 1:22–23].
The Almighty had a very different design in mind. God wanted to impress upon them the uniqueness, the chosenness of the land that He had picked for them, the land that would be their ultimate resting place, the land that was very good, which produced luscious fruits and full-bodied animals, the land whose produce developed strong and capable people. God wanted them to conquer the land with great anticipation and overwhelming desire [Num. 13:1–2, Nahmanides ad loc.].
The Bible refers to both the Torah of Israel and the Land of Israel as a morasha, [heritage] (Ex. 6:8; Deut. 33:4), which our sages linked to me’orasa, “betrothed” and “beloved”. According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, the conquest of the Torah of Israel as well as of the Land of Israel by the People of Israel require strong feelings of love for each.
And just as the rabbis of the Talmud command us not to marry a woman unless we first see her and know that we love her [Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 41a], so did God ask Moses to send a group who would give the kind of visual description of the Land of Israel to the People of Israel that would inspire them to love the land and even lust after it, in the best sense of the word.
God understood that such an emotional attachment was absolutely crucial if the People of Israel were to overcome the many obstacles involved in conquering the land, settling it, and forging within it a holy nation and kingdom of priests.
Alas, the people—especially the spies—did not understand the Divine command. Their sin was in misunderstanding the purpose of their journey; they took it to be a scouting enterprise rather than an inspirational foretaste of what waited in store for them after their conquest, a reconnaissance mission rather than an observer’s picture of a beautiful and luscious patrimony worthy of their love and sacrifice.
Our generation—so similar to the one that went from the darkness of Egypt to the light of freedom and stood at the entrance to the Promised Land—must do whatever is necessary to recapture and strengthen the love of the Land of Israel if we are to succeed in properly settling it and developing it into our haven of world redemption.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.