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16.06.2020 17:06    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah shabbat parashah bamidbar shelach  
From Scouts to Spies

The men whom Moses sent to survey the land are described throughout this week's reading as scouts.  Never are they called spies, nor are their actions referred to as spying.  We quote:  "Send men to scout [Heb. la-tur] the land of Canaan" (Num. 13:2); "Those were the names of the men whom Moses sent to scout the land…Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan" (Num. 13:16-17); "They went up and scouted the land" (Num. 13:21); "they returned from scouting the land" (Num. 12:25); "Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted…'The country that we traversed and scouted'" (Num. 13:32); "And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Yephuneh, of those who had scouted the land…'The land that we traversed and scouted'" (Num. 14:6-7); "corresponding to the number of days…that you scouted the land" (Num. 14:34); "As for the men whom Moses sent to scoutthe land" (Num. 14:36); "Of those men who had gone to scout the land, only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Yephuneh survived" (Num. 14:38).

After forty years in the wilderness, when only Joshua and Caleb were left of the generation that had left Egypt, when it had become evident how they had carried out the mission assigned them, their actions were described as spying:  "They made for the hill country, came to the valley of Eshkol, and spied it out" (Deut. 1:24).  What does scouting signify, and how is it different from spying?

To seek out a place

The action of scouting (Heb. la-tur)[1] in relationship to the exodus from Egypt is associated with the Holy Ark:  "They marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days.  The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord traveled in front of them on that three days' journey to seek out (la-tur) a resting place for them" (Num. 10:33).  This verb also occurs in connection with the pillar of fire and cloud that guided the people:  "who goes before you on your journeys—to scout the place where you are to encamp—in fire by night and in cloud by day, in order to guide you on the route you are to follow" (Deut. 1:33).  These verses describe both their function and their purpose:  "And the Lord's cloud kept above them by day, as they moved on from camp.  When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say" (Num. 10:34-35).  The Ark of the Covenant, the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud lend expression to divine guidance of the Israelites along their way.  The role of the people whom Moses sent was to continue this action of scouting with a view to finding a fixed resting place for the Israelites in the land of Israel.

What caused these scouts, who were supposed to find the Israelites' fixed resting place in the land, to turn into spies?  After all, the Holy One, blessed be He, had commanded Moses to send scouts (Num. 13:2-3).

"Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them."  So Moses, by the Lord's command, sent them out from the wilderness of Paran, all the men being leaders of the Israelites.

"By the Lord's command" indicates that this was to be according to the mission designed for them by the Holy One, blessed be He.  The verses that follow specify additional tasks assigned them on their mission (Num. 13:17-20):

When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, "Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is.  Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?  Is the country in which they dwell good or bad?  Are the towns they live in open or fortified?  Is the soil rich or poor?  Is it wooded or not?  And gather yourselves strength and bring back some of the fruit of the land."—Now it happened to be the season of the first ripe grapes.

Moses' words can be further clarified according to what we are told in Deuteronomy (1:22-24):

Then all of you came to me and said, "Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to."  I approved of the plan, and so I selected twelve of your men, one from each tribe.  They made for the hill country, came to the wadi Eshcol, and spied it out.

The Holy One, blessed be He commanded the people who were selected go and scout the land, but an additional request came from the people: that this opportunity be used to reconnoiter the land, to check out the routes leading to it and the nature of the cities in which they were soon to dwell.  "I approved of the plan"—for on the face of it this seemed a perfectly reasonable and logical request; G-d's mission could also be used to serve natural human needs, for ultimately they would have to enter the land and dwell in it.  The men were requested to bring back factual information:  "the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to."  Moses further expanded on this, requesting additional details about the land:  the nature of the people living there, and more; but all this was solely for the purpose of knowing how to prepare themselves and not to pose the question of whether or not it was worthwhile entering the land.  The men were not asked to give their assessment of whether or not the Lord's command of entering the land could be fulfilled.

Moses' words, "Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, and see," could be interpreted as giving geographic instructions, for from where they were situated the route towards the Negev and the hill country went up and northward; but one could also view these words as exhorting them to take a spiritual direction:  not to fall because of what they see and not to fear, but to go up spiritually, too, and constantly bear in mind the higher objective of their mission.  "And gather yourselves strength and bring back"—bringing some of the fruit of the land back to the Israelite encampment is not in itself difficult, yet Moses used the expression, "draw strength…and bring back [fruit]."  In other words, do not be confused by what you find or discover along the way, but be strong and keep in mind the main point of it all.

"We shall surely overcome it" or "We cannot attack that people"

The intermingling of a divine, heavenly mission and a human mission was apparently what led to the well-known outcome.  The initial responses of the men were to relay data about the condition of the land and its inhabitants, delivered from a negative point of view regarding the land.  This indeed corresponded to the tasks of the mission called for by the people.  Caleb, however, understood that next they would offer an overall assessment of whether it was worthwhile and advisable to enter the land, and such an action would undermine the very purpose of the mission which the Holy One, blessed be He, had assigned to those same scouts.

Caleb's remarks continued the Moses' message to all the men prior to setting out for the land of Israel:  "Go up…and gather yourselves strength."  The situation is described thus:  "Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, 'Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it'" (Num. 13:30).  "Before Moses"—in line with what Moses had said:  go up and gather yourselves strength in the land.  But the other men sent on the mission rejected this:  "But the men who had gone up with him said, 'We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we" (Num. 13:31).  Indeed, they went up and came to the land, but the message they conveyed to the Israelites was that they would not be able to go up, because the peoples dwelling in the land were strong.

Caleb emphasized the ability to establish a hold on the land whereas the others spoke of their ability to overcome the people there.  They were not speaking of the same thing.  The discussion shifted to assessing the feasibility and advisability of entering the land.  The action of scouting to which end they had been sent—to find a fixed resting place in continuation of the functions of the Ark and the pillars of fire and cloud—was not mentioned at all.  It was then that "they spread calumnies…about the land…one that devours its settlers" (Num. 13:32); "The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night" (Num. 14:1).  The reconnoitering, which should have been secondary (taking advantage of the fact that men had been sent to scout the land), became the more important and more highly considered action, thus leading to the people's great sin.  The reconnaissance, in and of itself, does not come under criticism, for it was proper and laudable, as Nahmanides comments (Num. 13:2):

The Israelites, like anyone who sets out to conquer foreign realms, thought to send men ahead to get to know the roads and approaches to the cities, and after they returned they would lead the army and show them the way…This is a proper recommendation for any conqueror, and even Moses himself did so, for it says, "Then Moses sent to spy out Jazer" (Num. 21:32), and likewise, "Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies" (Josh. 2:2).  Therefore Moses approved of the plan.

However, when spying, one must know the boundaries of the task.  Spies are to provide data and information, and even an assessment of the chances and dangers, but not to mix in their own political or moral world view, whose objective is to steer in a different direction, and certainly not when that direction goes against the Lord's command.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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