By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
June 8, 2002
In the beginning of the second year after the Exodus, the
people of Israel prepare to enter the land Hashem promised them:
And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying, “Send out men for you that they may explore
(V’YATURU) the land of Canaan which I give to the Children of Israel, one man
of every tribe of their fathers shall you send out, every one a prominent one
among them.” . . . And Moshe sent them to explore the land of Canaan, and he
said to them, “Go up from here in the south and climb the mountain. And see
what the land is like; and the people who live upon it, are they strong or
weak? Are they few or many? And what of the land in which they live: is it
good or bad? And what of the cities in which they live, are they open or are
they fortified? And what is the land like: Is it fat or lean? Is there
woodland there or not? And strengthen yourselves and take away some of the
fruit of the land .” (Bamidbar 13:1-2, 17-20)
We are well aware of the tragic end of this episode: The twelve men (known as
meraglim) selected for this mission return after forty days. Two of them bring
a favorable report while the other ten sow doubt about the nation’s ability to
conquer the land. The people are dismayed. Hashem decrees that the generation
of the Exodus would die in the desert, and their children would inherit the
land. So, the forty years’ wandering begins.
However, the question remains: Why does Hashem order Moshe to dispatch these
twelve men? Hashem has assured the people that He will facilitate the
conquest; why command them to send the meraglim as well?
Rashi, adopting the view of Chazal (Sotah 34b; Tanchuma 5), notes that the
people initiated the mission. In the recapitulation of these events, Moshe
And all of you drew near to me and you said, “Let us send out
men before us that they may search out the land for us . . .” (Devarim 1:22).
Therefore, says Rashi, Hashem’s words “Send out men for you”
means “by your [Moshe’s] consent.” This is not a command from Hashem. Instead,
Hashem is saying, “If you want to send them, you do so on your own
responsibility.” The people’s very request was the beginning of the tragedy.
Hashem allows the people to exercise their free will, but they will be held
accountable for their choices.
Rabbeinu Bachya (ben Asher ben Hlava, 13th Century), in his introduction to
this portion, says that “Send out men for you” is a command. He quotes the
verse from Mishlei (21:31): “A horse is readied for the day of war, but to
Hashem is the salvation” to illustrate Hashem’s instructions to mankind:
One must do all that is necessary and, through natural means, do all that is
in his power, and leave the rest to the hands of Heaven, because miracles take
effect only where nature is insufficient. The essential creation of man is
based on the attributes of nature. Therefore man must engage in actions and
inquiries that will serve as preparations to achieve his desires and to
fulfill the wishes of his heart. One who wishes to go to war against his
enemies should prepare weapons and horses and chariots for the day of war, for
if he does not prepare and rather relies on miracles he will be delivered into
the hands of his enemies. . . . And after he does all in his ability and tries
with all his might and does his preparations through natural means, it is not
fitting for him to be assured that he will arrive at his desired goal except
by the acts of Hashem, may He be blessed.
In the same way as Hashem commanded Noach to build the Ark,
although He could easily have saved Noach through natural means, here Hashem
commands the Children of Israel to prepare for war using natural means. Their
sin lay in thinking that success or failure was dependent entirely on their
According to Malbim (R. Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, 1809-1877), “Send out
men for you” is a command whose purpose was misunderstood by the people.
Malbim insists that these twelve men were not sent to spy (R-G-L, this verb is
not used at all in this passage). Instead, the verb T-U-R is used, meaning “to
explore.” One does not send twelve prominent men as spies; instead, one sends
two inconspicuous men (see Yehoshua 2:1). Spying is for the purpose of
spotting the weaknesses of the land for conquest; exploring is in order to
evaluate the land’s qualities for settlement, as Moshe instructs the twelve:
“And see what the land is like; and the people who live upon
it, are they strong or weak? Are they few or many? And what of the land in
which they live: Is it good or bad? And what of the cities in which they live,
are they open or are they fortified? And what is the land like: Is it fat or
lean? Is there woodland there or not? And strengthen yourselves and take away
some of the fruit of the land . . .
They were sent as explorers (TARIM), but their sin was that
they behaved as spies (MERAGLIM), as Moshe reports:
And they turned and ascended the mountain and they came as far
as the stream of Eshkol, and they spied (VAY’RAG’LU) it (Devarim 1:24).
Rav Joseph B. Soloveichik (1903-1993) teaches that, in the
same way as a man must see a woman before he betroths her (Kiddushin 41a), the
mission of the twelve explorers was to familiarize the people with the land so
they would grow to love it intimately.
We must learn from the errors of the twelve explorers-turned-spies and
increase the love of the people of Israel for Eretz Yisrael.