Parshat Shelach: The Ideal Confronts the Reality to Human Frailty

And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Send for you men and they will explore the Land of Cana’an that I am giving to Bnai Yisrael. You should send one person from each tribe of their fathers. Each should be a leader. (Sefer BeMidbar 13:1-2)

1. Two conflicting accounts of the incident of the spies

In the opening passages of the parasha, Hashem commands Moshe to send spies into the Land of Israel with the assignment of exploring the Land. The wording of Hashem’s instructions is odd. He tells Moshe to “send for you” spies. The words “for you” seem superfluous. What is the message communicated by this phrase?
Rashi responds to this issue. His solution for this problem is designed to also resolve an even more disturbing difficulty. The incident introduced by the above passages – the sending of the spies and the aftermath – is discussed another time in the Torah. Before his death, Moshe addressed the people. In this address, he reviewed the nation’s experiences in the wilderness with the objective of distilling important lessons from these events. One of the incidents included in this review was the sending of the spies. In his review, Moshe said that the nation approached him with the suggestion that they send spies into the Land before beginning their campaign of conquest. Moshe considered the suggestion, decided that it was appropriate, and acted upon it.[1] This is very different from the account provided in the above pesukim. In this account, Hashem direct Moshe to send the spies. Absent from this account is any reference to people’s suggestion or to Moshe’s assessment of the suggestion.

2. Rashi explains the accounts are not contradictory but complimentary

Rashi explains that the two accounts are complementary. The sending of the spies was initiated by a suggestion from the people. Moshe was unsure of the virtue or propriety of the proposal and sought Hashem’s guidance. Hashem responded that the suggestion was not completely proper. Nonetheless, He vested Moshe with the authority to decide how best to respond to the request. Moshe decided that it would be best to accept the nation’s suggestion and sent the spies. This explains the strange phrasing in the above passages. Hashem told Moshe, “send for you spies.” In other words, Hashem did not give Moshe a conventional command. He did not direct him to send the spies. Instead, Hashem told Moshe to himself decide upon the best course of action.[2] In other words, He told Moshe that if he sends the spies it will be as a consequence of his own decision and not of Hashem’s instruction.[3]

3. Rashi’s strange interpretation of the interaction between Hashem and Moshe

Rashi’s comments resolve the apparent contradiction between the two accounts of the incident of the spies. However, Rashi’s comments engender fresh and perhaps, even more troublesome problems. One of these problems lies in Hashem’s response to Moshe. Hashem did not fully approve of the suggestion that the conquest of the Land should be preceded by sending spies. Yet, He allowed Moshe to pursue the path he thought best. Surprisingly, Moshe disregarded Hashem’s negative appraisal of the suggestion and decided to send the spies. Why did Hashem not direct Moshe to reject the suggestion to send spies? Why did Moshe disregard Hashem’s distain for the suggestion and send the spies?

4. The nation’s motives and their appropriateness

Rashi provides a hint to the solution to this problem. He explains that Hashem judged the request to be inappropriate because He had assured the nation that the Land was wonderful and fertile. Hashem’s assurance should have sufficed to persuade the nation to embark upon its conquest. The request to send spies suggested an unjustified ambivalence regarding the virtues of the Land itself.[4]

5. Ideal confronts reality and Moshe’s assignment

Apparently, the people’s ambivalence created a strange dilemma. Ideally, the nation should have moved forward with the conquest of the Land. However, they were not prepared to advance. They were confused and undermined by their ambivalence toward the Land and their fears. Hashem’s negative appraisal of the nation’s request only communicated to Moshe that the people had departed from the ideal attitude and behavior. However, Hashem did not provide Moshe with direction regarding how to best respond to the nation’s resistance. This issue was left to Moshe to resolve. In other words, Moshe asked Hashem for guidance. Hashem responded merely that the nation had departed from the path that was intended for it. Moshe was charged with the responsibility of determining how best to address the nations less-than-ideal attitudes and behaviors.[5]

6. A parallel to Rashi’s thesis

It is interesting that after identifying the flaw in the nation’s character, Hashem assigned to Moshe the responsibility of responding to the crisis. This delegation of responsibility has an interesting parallel. The Torah is composed of 613 – Taryag – mitzvot. In addition to these commandments, the Sages are entrusted with the authority to create additional decrees and enactments. However, there is an important limitation to the authority assigned to the Sages. The Sages can only create laws that reinforce the Torah commandments and themes or safeguard the commandments from violation. They are not empowered to create a totally new or novel commandment.[6] This limitation suggests that the Sages are entrusted with the duty of insuring the observance of the Torah but may not alter it; they may not add to the Torah in any fundamental way. Sefer HaChinuch explains that the Torah is perfect. Therefore, any addition to the Torah can only detract from its perfection.[7] This suggests a troubling problem. The Torah is perfect. Any safeguard or reinforcement created by the Sages was not included in the Torah given to Moshe. Why is this safeguard or reinforcement not deemed as detracting from the Torah’s perfection?

It seems that the Torah is perfect – as an ideal. However, human beings have failings. The Sages are charged with the responsibility of adapting the ideal embodied in the Torah to the reality of human behavior and attitudes. A simple example will help illustrate this concept. The Torah prohibited cooking milk and meat together or eating the jointly-cooked product. This prohibition does not encompass poultry. In other words, the Torah itself allows poultry to be cooked in milk and consumed. The Sages instituted the prohibition against cooking poultry in milk or consuming the product. Why did the Sages create this prohibition? They were not motivated by a perception that the Torah prohibition is in some way imperfect or inadequate. They were not attempting to correct a perceived flaw in the Torah. Instead, the Sages were responding to a human failing. They observed that many people did not appreciate the halachaic distinction between poultry and beef. They could not completely reconcile the permissibility of poultry cooked with milk and the prohibition of beef cooked with milk. As a result, they became negligent in their observance of the Torah prohibition. The Sages intervened and enacted a prohibition against poultry cooked in milk. They responded to the confusion by eliminating its cause.

This example illustrates that the role assigned to the Sages is identical to that assigned to Moshe in responding to the request to send spies. Hashem identified the ideal. But he charged Moshe with the responsibility of addressing the limits of the people’s trust and courage. Similarly, Hashem gave us the Torah. It is the ideal compilation of commandments. However, humanity sometimes fails to embrace the ideal. The Sages are charged with the responsibility of responding to the reality of human failings and flaws.
[1] Sefer Devarim 1:22-23.
[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 13:2.
[3] According to Rashi, each account – taken alone – provides only a partial account of the events. Only when the two accounts are considered together does a complete description of the events emerge. Rashi does not explain why each account focuses on specific elements of the incident and omits other elements. However, it is helpful to consider the context of each account. Moshe’s review of the incident was delivered in the context of a rebuke. In this context, it was essential that Moshe identify the role played by the people in the decision to send the spies and the nation’s responsibility for the outcomes. Our parasha is not intended as a rebuke. Instead, it is a description of the development of the providential relationship between Hashem and His nation. In this context, the specific origin of the suggestion to send spies is not as important as the impact that the incident had upon this providential relationship.
[4] Rashi indicates that the nation’s suggestion to send the spies was motivated by ambivalence regarding the Land of Israel. This interpretation of the nation’s motives is reflected in the instructions that Moshe gave to the spies. In describing to the spies their assignment, he primarily focused upon studying and reporting on the fertility and wholesomeness of the Land. However, in Moshe’s review of the incident, he indicates that the nation’s request was based upon strategic considerations. The nation suggested that the spies provide intelligence to be used in formulating a strategy for conquest. Apparently, Rashi is suggesting a reconciliation between Moshe’s description of the nation’s suggestion and the actual instructions he provide to the spies. Rashi is proposing that the nation suggested sending spies for the purpose of collecting intelligence. However, the timidity and insecurity that is reflected in this suggestion was an expression of an underlying ambivalence regarding the Land itself.
[5] This insight is developed by Rav Yisroel Chait (TTL C-034). However, the material following this point is not drawn from Rav Chait’s remarks.
[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Mamrim 2:9. See also, Introduction to Mishne Torah (comments following listing of 613 mitzvot).
[7] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 454.