Behold, Hashem your G-d has set the Land before you. Ascend! Take possession as Hashem, the G-d of your fathers, has spoken to you. Fear not, neither be dismayed. And you came near unto me every one of you, and said: Let us send men before us, that they may spy the land for us, and bring us back word of the way by which we must go up, and the cities unto which we shall come. (Sefer Devarim 1:21-22)
1. Two accounts of the incident of the spies
Parshat Shelach provides the Torah’s first account of incident of the meraglim – the spies. A second account is provided in Sefer Devarim. In the second account, the incident is reviewed by Moshe in the context of his final address to Bnai Yisrael before they enter the Land of Israel without him. There are a number of differences between the accounts. One of the most fundamental differences is that in the account in Sefer Devarim, the impetus for sending the spies comes from the people. Moshe tells the people that the moment has arrived to conquer the Land of Israel. The nation responds by suggesting to Moshe that the conquest of the Land should be preceded by a scouting mission. The scouts will investigate the Land and discover the weaknesses in its defenses. The intelligence provided by the spies will be used to devise a plan for the Land’s conquest. In Parshat Shelach, the account begins with Hashem’s direction to Moshe to send the spies. No mention is made of the nation’s role in initiating the ill-fated mission.
Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra and others explain that the two accounts are not contradictory. They merely begin their presentations of the events from different points. The account in Sefer Devarim begins from the very beginning of the incident. The account in Parshat Shelach begins from a later point in the incident. The people have come to Moshe with their suggestion and Moshe has asked Hashem to guide him in responding. The account begins with Hashem’s response to Moshe. Hashem tells Moshe that he may send the spies.
2. The appropriateness of sending spies
The commentators dispute whether the nation’s request was proper. Nachmanides maintains that the request was completely proper. Bnai Yisrael was poised to wage war against the nations living in the Land. A strategy for conquering the Land needed to be developed and this required intelligence regarding the defenses to be overcome and knowledge of any other physical obstacles that might interfere with the campaign. Furthermore, the Land would be conquered through a series of campaigns. Therefore, it was necessary to determine which areas should be first seized. These areas would form the staging ground for further campaigns and the produce of the territory initially captured would be required to sustain the people until the conquest was completed.
Malbim disagrees. He argues that the normal rules of warfare did not apply to Bnai Yisrael. They should have understood that their conquest of the Land of Israel would not be through the strength of their armies or the wisdom of their military strategy. Instead, they would conquer the Land through miraculous means. Hashem would conquer the nations of Cana’an and not the armies of Bnai Yisrael. The suggestion of the nation to send spies represented a failure in the people’s trust in Hashem.
And it came to pass, when the Ark set forward, that Moshe said: Rise up, Hashem, and let Your enemies be scattered; and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee. And when it rested, he said: Return, Hashem, unto the ten thousands of the families of Israel. (Sefer BeMidbar 10:35-36)
3. Moshe’s vision of the conquest of the Land of Israel
Malbim’s position is supported by the two passages above. These passages, the Torah describes the first stage of the nation’s journey from the Wilderness of Sinai toward the Land of Cana’an. Bnai Yisrael left Sinai with the understanding that it would shortly arrive at the frontier of the Land of Cana’an and the conquest would begin. The cloud of Hashem’s glory preceded them and led them through the wilderness. Moshe declares that Hashem should rise up and that He should scatter the nation’s enemies. Malbim explains that the meaning of these passages is that Bnai Yisrael will not wage a traditional war employing a carefully developed strategy based upon sound intelligence. Instead, the cloud of Hashem’s glory will lead the nation into the Land of Cana’an and Hashem will conquer the nations of Cana’an just as He vanquished the mighty armies of Paroh.
However, Malbim’s interpretation of the dialogue between Moshe and Bnai Yisrael raises an important question. Why did the people not follow the cloud of Hashem and allow Hashem to scatter their enemies? Why did the people feel that it was necessary for them to send spies, gather intelligence, develop a traditional strategy, and wage a conventional war?
If you walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them, then I will give your rains in their season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. (Sefer VaYikra 26:3-4)
4. The Torah’s alternative reality
The above passages begin the Torah’s description of the blessings that Bnai Yisrael will enjoy in the Land of Israel in response to their observance of the commandments. This section of the Torah expresses a novel idea. The future of Bnai Yisrael in the Land of Israel will be determined by whether the nation observes the mitzvot. This means that prosperity and comfort, or scarcity and affliction will not be determined by natural material causes. Instead, a direct causal relationship will exist between the spiritual excellence of the people and its material wellbeing. In short, natural cause and effect will not apply.
These passages actually demand that Bnai Yisrael adopt a new and radical view of the physical world. They are to abandon the traditional view that material outcomes are determined strictly by material causes. This perspective is to be replaced by the radical alternative that the spiritual excellence of the nation is the fundamental cause affecting the material existence of the nation in the Land of Israel.
In fact, the laws of Shemitah and Yovel – the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years are essentially expressions of this idea. These two mitzvot are completely counterintuitive and even ludicrous from the perspective of a conventional material understanding of the world. Every seventh year is a Sabbatical Year. Every fiftieth year is a Jubilee Year. Observance of the Sabbatical Year differs from the observance of the Jubilee Year. However, both have an important law in common. During both it is prohibited to work the land of the Land of Israel. The abstention from working the land is acknowledgment that it is Hashem’s land and must be used as He prescribes. The Torah asserts that prosperity and comfort in the Land of Israel will be secured through the observance of Shemitah and Yovel. If these laws are disregarded, then the nation will experience poverty and anguish. In other words, not working the land will result in prosperity and working the land will bring about desolation and poverty!
What is the message of Shemitah and Yovel? It is that the Land of Israel is not governed by conventional cause and effect. It is governed by “a-material” cause and effect. The spiritual cause governs the material effect.
5. Imagining a different world
In order for Bnai Yisrael to accept Moshe’s assurance that the Land of Israel will be conquered miraculously and without waging a conventional war, the people needed to first accept the Torah’s radical revision of our perception of the material world. They were required to imagine a very different world. They were required to envision and embrace the proposition that material outcomes – conquest of the Land of Cana’an – would not be brought about through the familiar material means. Instead, Hashem would grant them possession of the Land in some miraculous manner that they could not imagine or grasp. In other words, they were required to use their imagination and perceive a deeper more fundamental reality than the familiar material reality. At this point, the people were not prepared to abandon the conventional perspective with the new radical one proposed by Moshe. Their imagination failed them. Therefore, they responded to Moshe’s directive, “Ascend, Conquer!” with “Let us send spies”.
1. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 13:2.
2. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 13:2.
3. Rav Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel (Malbim), HaTorah VeHaMitzvah – Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 13:2.
4. Rav Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel (Malbim), HaTorah VeHaMitzvah – Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 10:35.