Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shelah 5768/ June 21, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Between Human Endeavor and Religious Faith


Meir Roth


Doctoral student in the Department of Hermeneutics


The story of the spies is comprised of several individual episodes, each of which raises its own difficulties.   We want to present a comprehensive explanation that will tie the sequence of events together into a coherent picture both in terms of the underlying principles and the psychological insights. We will attempt to portray a story with its own internal logic.

Moses’ Leadership

One of the difficulties in this week’s portion is the question of Moses’ leadership.  Though it seems to the reader that Moses was acting at the Lord’s behest-- “Send men to scout the land of Canaan” (Num. 13:2)—Moses in Deuteronomy tells a different story (1:22-23):

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.

Combining these two accounts yields an enigmatic story that begs to be filled in.  According to the account of Deuteronomy, the initiative for sending the spies came from the people, who were eager to hasten their entry into the land.   Doesn’t this mode of decision-making attest to weakness in a leader? Why did Moses have to be drawn by a broad-based petition of the people into doing what any reasonable leader would be expected to do before embarking on a war of conquest—to request intelligence reports and estimations?  Would it not have been better for decisions about battle preparations to be made in a forum of leaders, such as the elders, and not in an Athenian-style democratic parliament? [1] Furthermore, in the wake of the episode of the spies, Moses passed responsibility for his personal punishment onto the heads of the masses:   “Because of you the Lord was incensed with me too, and He said:  You shall not enter it either” (Deut.1:37). [2]   Doesn’t a leader have to take responsibility for decisions that turn out badly?

It would be too simplistic to present Moses as someone with no backbone, incapable of standing up to the pressure of the masses, since the act itself of dispatching the spies was deemed proper not only by Moses by also by G-d, as stated in this week’s reading. [3]   Therefore we must seek a deeper explanation for the fatal mistake of sending out the spies that justified sentencing an entire generation to perish in the wilderness.

The Concept of War

In order to understand the moral and religious dilemma that faced the Israelites prior to their entry into the land, we must first clarify how they viewed war.  Until then the Israelites had experienced only two battles; the first was the battle of the Lord against Egypt at the Red Sea.  At that time they were commanded to do nothing but remain silent:   “The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!” (Ex. 14:14).  This verse can be interpreted as commanding them to refrain even from praying.   This battle was altogether in the realm of a miracle and there was no need even to cry out in prayer. [4]

The second battle was the one against Amalek.   Unlike the miracle at the sea, this battle took place with the participation of two opposing armies, Israel and Amalek.   It was further distinguished from the previous battle insofar as here prayer and faith were of primary importance in determining the outcome:  “Then, when Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed” (Ex. 17:11). [5]   This war was fought by combatants selected by Joshua, who served as captain of the forces.  Even though this battle, too, can be seen as miraculous, insofar as an ad hoc military force defeated or at least put to flight a well-seasoned army, nevertheless there is a decline in the level of the miracle in comparison to the battle against the Egyptians.  Not only did the Israelites have to take up the sword, but as far as we can tell there were also casualties on the Israelite side, whenever “Amalek prevailed (ibid.).”

Reality versus Miracles

At the beginning of Parashat Be-Shalah the Torah intimates that in the future, during the conquest of the land of Canaan, the military engagements would be progressively less miraculous than the preceding ones and would be likely to take a high toll.   We learn this indirectly from the fears of the Israelites as expressed in Be-Shalah: “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for G-d said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when the see war, and return to Egypt’”(Ex. 13:17).   From this we learn that the Israelites who left Egypt had been struggling with a difficult theological problem prior to solidifying their faith:  on the one hand, the Holy One, blessed be He, runs His world and guards over His creatures, and had even promised the land of Canaan to the generation of the Exodus; on the other hand, wars are the natural way of the world, and whoever prepares his army with better intelligence and weapons will have a better chance of winning the war quickly and with a minimum of casualties.

This is a familiar religious and moral dilemma in the Jewish tradition:  having faith and trusting in G-d, versus relying on human endeavor.  This dilemma also exists on the individual level; but on the level of the body public, a leader can forcefully draft all the national means in order to decide the battle.  Apparently Moses made it clear to the generation of Israelites who left Egypt that the battles facing them would be fought by natural means.  This is evident from the instructions that Moses gave the spies, to gather important strategic information. [6] In other words, it would be prudent to arm oneself with all the knowledge and strength that one could gather by natural means. [7]

Assuming that battles are fought by natural means, two dangers face a person whose considerations are based solely on the real world:  one danger actually lies in success.  The Torah warns us not to be swept away by success due to noble human endeavor:   “So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked” (Deut. 32:15).  But there lurks another, no less threatening, danger, namely the risk of failure.   Whoever weighs up the situation solely on the basis of concrete reality can become dispirited in the face of the balance of power that emerges from his analysis.  Apparently, the words of the spies were a realistic analysis by people who had been there and seen what they had seen.  So it turns out that the story of the spies presents a picture of how a war can be lost even before firing the first shot, when considerations of reality overshadow faith and vision.

The mood generated by the report of the spies was one of crying and despair throughout the night.  This wailing (Heb. bekhi) is what gave birth to the expression, bekhiya le-dorot, meaning ‘a tragedy for generations’.   However, in its original context of the spies, it meant unjustified wailing that led to many catastrophic events in subsequent generations, punishment being meted out measure for measure. [8]   After their initial response, the people were seized by panic which was quickly translated into unrest and then developed into outright rebellion:  “And they said … ‘Let us head back for Egypt’” (Num. 14:4).

Between Moses and the People

Even though Moses saw the request to dispatch spies in a positive light, there may have been differences of view between Moses and his people, which we can try to reconstruct.  For Moses, faith and human endeavor were more than inseparably combined; for him, each of these components had no independent existence whatsoever.   For the people, however, who experienced only the realities of life, human endeavor was all.  As recently emancipated slaves, lacking vision and faith, apparently they viewed war as a concept in which the only categories are weak and strong.  Their lives as slaves depended on passive survival, and presumably they had learned to admire physical force.   Therefore, when it was clear that the balance of power was against them, they sought to abandon the national effort and return to their cruel and enslaving, yet also fully familiar roots.   Perhaps now we can understand why Moses, before his death, called the people he had been leading to task.   In his view, the battles at the Red Sea and against Amalek should have taught them something about the need for vision and faith.  However, bitter experience taught Moses (and not for the first time) that miracles do not leave a lasting impression upon the people.

The Ma’apilim-A Change of Heart

The most surprising turn in the entire episode of the spies is the battle attempted by the people the following day.   After a night of crying, after the death of the ten spies who had “spread calumnies about the land,” and after the harsh tidings that they were doomed to perish in the wilderness, a new day dawned with fresh spirit.  This is described at the end of chapter 14 (verses 40-45):

Early next morning they set out toward the crest of the hill country, saying, “We are prepared to go up to the place that the Lord has spoken of, for we were wrong.”   But Moses said, “Why do you transgress the Lord’s command?  This will not succeed.  Do not go up, lest you be routed by your enemies, for the Lord is not in your midst.   For the Amalekites and the Canaanites will be there to face you, and you will fall by the sword, inasmuch as you have turned from following the Lord and the Lord will not be with you.”

Yet defiantly they marched toward the crest of the hill country, though neither the Lord’s Ark of the Covenant nor Moses stirred from the camp. And the Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in that hill country came down and dealt them a shattering blow at Hormah.

How can the fresh spirit moving the people be understood?   The new battle-cry can be seen as reflecting the will to correct the previous day’s feeling of incapacity, a sort of repentance for their sins.   Here we are dealing with more than just a change of mind by those who set out for the crest of the hill country.   A psychological explanation can be given here.  The new spirit can be seen as a response by people who made a sober assessment of the consequences of their actions.  Given their fearful and defeatist response the night before, they decided to do an about-face in their mental orientation, an internal repair on the level of reality.   Having been accused of lack of courage, they concluded that they had to be stronger in their human activity, they had to muster the emotional strength to meet the call of duty.   A group of brave warriors organized forthwith, prepared to set out for the crest of the hill country and take on the most dangerous of their foes, the Canaanites and the Amalekites, face to face.

What Went Wrong?

So what went wrong? Blindness led these people to their ruin.  Their one-dimensional response again made them fall into error.  They sought to atone for their lack of courage by acts of heroism bordering on reckless self-sacrifice. They were prepared to go to war without receiving any spiritual help and religious support.  The fighters in this battle only took into consideration the concrete reality without thinking about the spiritual aspect:  the side with more will-power than the foe will be the victor; the side that is prepared to make greater sacrifices will be the victor.   They entrenched themselves in their positions without having the wisdom to learn from recent and less recent history that without faith and without vision there is no value to self-sacrifice, however lofty it may be.  That was the reason for the long period of dwelling in the wilderness, as explained in the concluding verse of the Deuteronomic narrative about the spies:   “Thus, after you had remained at Kadesh all that long time, we marched back into the wilderness” (Deut. 1:46).


[1] Rashi views the expression, “Then all of you came to me,” as indicative of a general breakdown of order: He comments: “Children were pushing the elders and the elders were pushing the leaders.”  This depiction contains more than a hint of failure in the story of the spies, and perhaps explains the disaster that was later to befall them.

[2] It seems from the plain sense of the text that the sin of the spies was why Moses could not enter the land.  This question has been extensively debated by commentators.  See the article by Rabbi Ben-Zion Krieger, Bar-Ilan Weekly Torah Studies on Parashat Devarim, 1999.

[3] Although several commentators view the Lord’s consent as having reservations; see Rashi as well as Sotah 34b.

[4] Ibn Ezra’s brief remark on this is instructive:  You hold your peace is the opposite of the Israelites cried out.”

[5] Rashi refers us to the Mishnah in Tractate Rosh ha-Shanah 29a that sees Moses’ hands as an indication of the faith of the fighting men:   “Could the hands of Moses determine the outcome of the battle?  Rather, this is to inform you that as long as the Israelites looked upwards, making themselves subservient to their Father in Heaven, they would have the upper hand, and if not, they would succumb.”

[6] Commentators try to see in Moses’ instruction to the spies as reflecting a realist perception of the world, in which things proceed by the natural process.  Rashbam’s interpretation is in this spirit:  And see what kind of country it is – whether it is forested or bare; whether flooded with water and humid; for according to what you see of the country you shall prepare appropriate weapons of war, to chop down the forests and prepare the advance of your troops. For they were sure that [the Lord] would give them the land of Canaan, but not without effort; rather, by their battling for it.”

[7] Rabbi Dessler presents this episode from the opposite angle.   In his perception, human initiatives are a mark of weakness in the believer, and sometimes even an outright sin.   Thus he explains the sin of the spies as resulting from their endeavors, for they should have trusted in G-d alone. See E. Dessler, Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, vol. 1, pp. 187-195.

[8] “That was the night of the ninth of Ab.  The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them:   You cried bitterly for naught; now I shall give you something to bemoan for all time” (Sotah 29a).