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Unscrolled Shelach: Getting Off Easy

In the dreamscape of the Torah, certain figures seem to visit us again and again, donning different guises as they appear in new contexts.
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June 4, 2021
Moses and the Messengers from Canaan by Giovanni Lanfranco. Public domain.

In Parashat Shelach, Moses sends twelve men, one from each tribe, into the promised land to do reconnaissance before the conquest of the land. They are to note the quality of the soil, the types of flora, as well as the structure and size of the cities.

They leave on their mission as one, but return divided. At first glance, it seems that they are describing two different places. Ten of them tell of a ghastly, dangerous land. “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers” (Numbers 13:32). Two of them tell of a goodly, fruitful land. “The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land…a land that flows with milk and honey” (Ibid 14:7).

A closer look reveals that the difference between their reports is not what they saw, but rather whether or not what they saw had shaken their faith in God. The ten spies cop to the milk and honey, but focus on their fear of the residents of the land. The two spies acknowledge the residents, but trust that God will help them prevail.

Focusing on the pessimistic report, the Israelites are terrified and plead to go back to Egypt.

In all of this, there is something vaguely familiar. In the dreamscape of the Torah, certain figures seem to visit us again and again, donning different guises as they appear in new contexts. In the twelve spies, the spirit of Jacob’s twelve sons flickers uncannily as they unconsciously reenact an ancient story not their own.

In the story of the sons of Jacob in the Book of Genesis, ten of the brothers sell their father’s favorite, Joseph, into slavery. A slave in Egypt, Joseph manages to rise to a position of great prominence. When his brothers later come to Egypt to purchase grain during a famine, they don’t recognize him, and Joseph, now overseer of the land, pretends not to know them. Instead, he accuses them of being spies sent out to see the nakedness of the land.

The motif of “spying” or scouting out the land in Parashat Shelach instantly recalls Joseph’s accusation against his brothers. Further, the language used to describe the ten spies’ pessimistic report about the land (dibah) recalls the evil reports (dibah) that Joseph would bring to his father about his brothers when they were young. Finally, the archetypal number twelve is fractured in both stories into ten and two. Here, ten spies who proclaim the wickedness of the land and two who proclaim its goodness. There, ten guilty brothers who come to purchase grain and two brothers, Joseph and Benjamin, who are absent.

Centuries may have passed, but the echo of sibling strife from the Book of Genesis has not died out. In the open space of the desert, it reverberates and grows louder. Riven by this ancient conflict, the Israelites find themselves paralyzed on the cusp of the promised land.

God responds by decreeing that the Israelites will stay in the desert for forty years. In this time, an entire generation–all those who were so meticulously recorded in the Israelite census in Parashat Bamidbar–will perish and be replaced by a new generation.

It seems like a harsh decree, but to the Israelites, perhaps it was a bit of a relief. After all, it is always easier to leave the work of healing to the next generation. It is always easier to stay in the muck and mire of the wilderness than it is to march forward, bravely, into the promised land.

Considering this, perhaps God let them off too easy.


Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.

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