Parshat Shelach: The Job of the Spies

“Send for you men. And they will scout the land of Canaan that I am giving to Bnai Yisrael. You should send one man from each tribe. Each of them should be a prince.” (BeMidbar 13:2)

Hashem commands Moshe to send scouts into the land of Israel. This group will travel through the land and return with a report.

These scouts return and deliver their report. They assert that Bnai Yisrael will not be able to conquer the inhabitants of Canaan. This report causes panic within the nation. Bnai Yisrael refuse to proceed.

Hashem punishes Bnai Yisrael. He decrees that the people will wander in the wilderness for forty years. The current generation will not conquer the land. Their children will posses the land of Israel.

In Sefer Devarim, Moshe reviews this incident. He adds some crucial information. The suggestion of sending this advance party originated from Bnai Yisrael. The people approached Moshe. Moshe received permission from Hashem to authorize the mission.[1]

Nachmanides raises an interesting question. What was the mission of these scouts? In Sefer Devarim, the people address this issue. They explain that the scouts will determine the best approach to the land. They will evaluate which cities should be first attacked first.[2] In other words, these scouts were to act as spies.

However, when Moshe charged the spies he expanded their mission. In addition to military information, they were to report on the fertility and quality of the land.[3] Why did Moshe make this change?

Nachmanides explains that Moshe knew that the spies would discover a rich and fertile land. He expected that they would report this finding to the nation. This would thrill the people. They would be eager to proceed with the conquest.[4]

This insight does not completely explain Moshe’s motives. Why did Moshe feel that this additional encouragement was necessary? Moshe had not originally intended to send these scouts. Bnai Yisrael suggested dispatching spies. How did this suggestion convince Moshe that the nation required reassurance?

Nachmanides’ comments provide an interesting insight into the entire incident. Moshe apparently, concluded that the request to send spies was motivated by insecurity. He knew that the spies would report that the land was occupied by mighty nations. The inhabitants lived in fortified cities. This information would add to Bnai Yisrael’s fears. Moshe sought to counter these concerns. He expanded the spy’s mission. This assured that they would also bring back a favorable assessment of the quality of the land of Israel. He hoped that the resultant enthusiasm would help Bnai Yisrael overcome their fears.

“These are the names of the people that Moshe sent to scout the land. And Moshe called Hoshea bin Nun Yehoshua.” (BeMidbar 13:16)

Moshe realized that the spies he had appointed were not completely suited for their mission. They lacked the confidence and self-assurance essential to conquest. He suspected that they would be intimidated and foresaw their discouraging report. He renamed his student Hoshea. He bestowed upon him the name Yehoshua. This new name contained Moshe’s prayer on his behalf. Hashem should rescue Yehoshua from the influence of the spies.

We can easily understand Moshe’s prayers on his student’s behalf. However, the alteration of Yehoshua’s name is more difficult to explain. Why did Moshe change his student’s name? What purpose was served by this change?

Maimonides explains in his Laws of Repentance that there are various behaviors that are associated with repentance. One of these is that the repentant individual changes his name. In adopting a new name, the repentant person is making a statement. He is a new person. He is not the one who committed the sins from which he repents.[5] This is not merely some sort of superficial gesture. Repentance requires a recreation of oneself. One must leave previous modes of behavior and thought and adopt a new life-style. The adoption of a new name encourages the development of a fresh self-image. This self-image is an invaluable asset in the attempt to build a new life. The important element of this analysis is that a person’s name can communicate a personal message. It is an effective vehicle for reminding its owner of one’s personal mission and identity.

We can apply Maimonides’ reasoning to Moshe’s change of Hoshea’s name. Moshe realized that his prayers might not be sufficient to save his student. His student must be reminded of the danger that surrounds him. He must appreciate this danger. He must also recognize his personal mission. This mission is to resist this influence and remain unsullied by the sins of the other spies. Moshe provided his student with a device designed to communicate all of these messages. This was his new name. This new name was designed to communicate a personal message. The new name recalled to its bearer Moshe’s prayers and the reason for these prayers.

“Is the land fertile or barren? Are there trees there or not? And be courageous and take some of the fruit of the land. And it was during the period of the ripening of the first grapes.” (BeMidbar 13:20)

Moshe provides the spies with instructions. Our passage is part of these instructions. One of the directives Moshe gives the spies is to bring back a sample of the fruit of the land.

Why did Moshe require the scouts to bring back this sample of the fruit? The most obvious answer is that he wished to provide a concrete sample of the fertility of the land. Hashem had told Moshe that the land was fertile. Moshe was sure that the fruit would demonstrate this fertility. Therefore, he asked the scouts to bring back a sample of the fruit.

There is another possible explanation for Moshe’s instruction to bring back a sample of the fruit. This answer requires an introduction. There is an interesting detail in our parasha that deserves some analysis. The Torah specifies that the scouts were sent from the wilderness of Paran.[6] This comment seems redundant. At the end of the previous parasha, the Torah tells us that the nation was camped in the wilderness of Paran.[7] It is obvious that the spies were sent from this location.

There seems to be a second redundancy in the same passage. The pasuk states that the scouts were sent from the wilderness of Paran “at the word of Hashem.”[8] The mention of Hashem’s acquiescence seems to be a second redundancy. The parasha begins with the Almighty granting permission to send the spies!

Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik Ztl suggests that the explanation for these apparent redundancies can be found in the end of the previous parasha. There the Torah explains that each journey of the nation and each encampment were undertaken at the word of Hashem.[9] As explained above, the last parasha ends with the nation encamped in the wilderness of Paran. In order for the camp to begin a new journey, the Almighty’s authorization was required.

Our parasha tells us that the spies were sent from the wilderness of Paran at the word of Hashem. This statement contains a message. The spies were beginning a journey from the existing encampment. Therefore, specific authorization was needed to break camp! In other words, the spies needed two separate authorizations. First, Hashem authorized Moshe to send scouts. This was an authorization of the concept. Second, a specific authorization was needed to undertake a journey from the established encampment.[10]

Of course, there is an obvious question. Hashem’s authorization is needed in order for the nation to undertake a journey. In our parasha, it is not the nation that is undertaking the journey. It is a group of scouts. Why do the scouts require a special authorization to leave camp?

The Gaon of Rogachov — Rav Yosef Rozin Ztl answers that the spies were not a separate entity, distinguished from the rest of the nation. They were not merely an advanced scouting party. They were the beginning of the nation’s journey into the land of Israel. The nation began its journey through sending the spies. With these scouts the nation began to leave its camp. Therefore, the specific authorization of Hashem was required.[11]

This explains an interesting comment in the Talmud. The Talmud is discussing the issue of agency. The Talmud is seeking a source for the rule that an agent can act on one’s behalf. The Talmud responds that this principle is derived from the incident of the spies. The spies acted on behalf of the nation.[12] Superficially, the discussion is difficult to understand. In what way were the spies the representatives of the nation? The above analysis answers the question. The journey of the spies represented the journey of the nation. Their departure from the wilderness of Paran was deemed the beginning of Bnai Yisrael’s departure. In this manner, the spies were the agents of the entire nation.

This also explains another issue. Moshe selected leaders from the tribes to be members of this group. Why did Moshe choose leaders of the tribes? Many answers are offered. However, the above approach offers a very simple explanation. These scouts were required to act as the representatives of the people. In order to fulfill this role, these individuals were required to be leaders within their respective tribes. Without this position, they could not be deemed as representatives of their tribes.[13]

This brings us back to our original question. Why did Moshe instruct the spies to bring back fruit from the land? Based on the above approach, an interesting answer can be suggested. Moshe was not commanding these spies to merely scout the land. He was commanding them to begin the process of possession. They were to represent the nation and assume ownership of the land. Moshe’s instructions to collect a portion of the fruit of the land can be understood in this context.

According to Torah law, land can be acquired in three ways. First, it can be acquired through payment. Second, ownership can be transferred through a document. Third, land can be acquired through chazakah. Chazakah means performing an action that demonstrates ownership. If a person wishes to transfer ownership of land to another person, the recipient can establish possession through demonstrating ownership.[14]

How does a person acquire a parcel of land through chazakah? What specific actions are regarded as demonstrations of ownership? One of the forms of chazakah is harvesting the fruit of the land. Through harvesting the fruit the person demonstrates possession.[15]

We can appreciate Moshe’s instructions. The spies were to initiate the process of possessing the land. He commanded them to perform an act of legal acquisition. They were to utilize chazakah. The harvesting of the fruit was an expression of this chazakah.[16]

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 13:2.

[2] Sefer Devarim 1:22.

[3] Sefer BeMidbar 13:19-20.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 13:2.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 2:4.

[6] Sefer BeMidbar 13:3.

[7] Sefer BeMidbar 12:16.

[8] Sefer BeMidbar 13:3.

[9] Sefer BeMidbar 9:15-23.

[10] Rav Shimon Yosef Miller, Shai LaTorah (Jerusalem 5753), volume 3, pp. 139-140.

[11] Rav Shimon Yosef Miller, Shai LaTorah (Jerusalem 5753), volume 3, p 141.

[12] Mesechet Kiddushin 41a.

[13] Rav Shimon Yosef Miller, Shai LaTorah (Jerusalem 5753), volume 3, p 141.

[14] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot

Mechirah 1:3.

[15] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot

Mechirah 1:16.

[16] Rav Shimon Yosef Miller, Shai LaTorah (Jerusalem 5753), volume 3, p 141.