Table for Five: Sh’lach

Sin Of The Spies
June 27, 2024

One verse, five voices. Edited by Nina Litvak and Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

As for the agents whom Moses sent to scout the land, those who came back and caused the whole community to mutter against him by spreading calumnies about the land — those who spread such calumnies about the land died of plague, by the will of the Lord.

Num. 14: 36-37

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Associate Dean, Ziegler School at AJU

Moses sends twelve men “latur et ha-aretz,” to scout or more literally, “to tour” the Land. Ten return offer dispiriting reports. Tourists they left, and tourists they returned. They saw the land, but didn’t let it touch them, didn’t let it change them. They found no bond. They were only visitors, not owners, not inheritors. Fearful, they concluded they didn’t belong in or to this place and it would never belong to them. 

Joshua and Caleb heard a different message: “alu zeh,” rise up, become an oleh. Let the land elevate you, let the experience transform you, let this life moment move you. Go not as visitors or as strangers. This is your home. You are expected. Fight for this place. Root yourself here. 

We do not have to go far to be tourists. We don’t even have to take a trip. We meet people all the time who stand on the outside looking in, living separately and unaffected by the people around them or the things that happen. That report, says the Torah, is a travesty. 

Later, we are commanded to wear tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of our garments. “V’lo taturu,” “do not become a tourist” — don’t shrink in fear of the world as if you don’t really belong or are merely visiting or sightseeing. “Le’maan tizkiru” — in order that we remember that we belong, that we need not be afraid. Rather, we are each one of us needed to transform and mend the world.

Elan Javanfard
L.M.F.T., Professor & Author, “Psycho-Spiritual Insights” blog

The episode of the 12 spies provides us profound insights into the psychological concept of social influence. Social influence refers to the ways individuals change their behavior to meet the demands of a social environment. The damning report from 10 of the 12 spies did more than just convey their findings, it shaped the collective mindset of Bnei Yisrael. The Rambam writes that the spies received a measure-for-measure punishment for their crimes. They used their tongues to speak evil and had their tongues swell up to the point of death. Their punishment was far more severe than those who listened to them, as they used their power of influence catastrophically. 

The ten spies’ fearful and pessimistic perspective led to a widespread crisis of faith, highlighting how influential voices can steer the course of a community. Their words planted seeds of doubt in Bnei Yisrael. Positive, faith-filled perspectives can inspire and uplift, while negative, fear-based reports can lead to despair and destruction. The story of the spies provides us a cautionary tale that the opinions and beliefs of other people can be powerful influences. As we experience more marketing, social media, and peer pressure in this modern world it is important to think for yourself and question the information and ideas you encounter. We must choose to be comfortable being in the minority like Caleb and Joshua, rather than falling prey to the influence of others.

David Brandes
Screenwriter, world famous in Canada

What did the spies do that was so egregious to merit the painful death of plague? Why didn’t God empathize with the ex-slave’s insecurity? Was God demanding too much of them? This is how the great scholar Nechama Leibowitz answers the questions. 

From the beginning, the need to send “spies” to scout the promised land expressed the doubts in the peoples’ hearts. Moses charged the spies to report on the quality of the land and on information necessary to defeat the inhabitants therein. They reported back on three different occasions. 

First, they reported to Moses and the people that the land “flowed with milk and honey”; however, the inhabitants were fierce; and the cities strongly fortified. This upset the people. 

In response to Caleb’s efforts at encouragement, the spies gave a second report: “We dare not go because the inhabitants are stronger than we.”

The third response was directly to the people: “The land eats the inhabitants, and everywhere we saw giants.” This created “murmurings” among the people and completely undermined their faith in God’s project. 

The reports of the spies progressed from facts, to opinions, to fear-mongering. The climax of the spy’s transgression was when they said to Caleb: “… the inhabitants in that land are stronger than we.” Rashi, quoting a midrash, explains that the word we is: “… in reference to Him that is above,” i.e. God. The spies had lost their faith in God and infected the people with their doubt. It is this that God punished with such severity.  

Yehudit Garmaise
Journalist and student of Marriage and Family Counseling

Although the spies started out nicely by telling B’nai Yisroel that the land did indeed flow with milk and honey, they quickly pivoted into hysteria after they said, “effes,” which means “however …” 

We must listen to ourselves when we speak. When we sneak in “howevers” to our reports, we should see blazing red flags that warn us to choose silence instead of spreading negativity. The silence we must often choose, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks defines, “as the sound you can hear only if you are listening. In the silence of the midbar, the desert, you can hear the Medaber, the Speaker, and the medubar, that which is spoken. 

“To hear the voice of G-d, you need a listening silence in the soul.” 

The spies’ high self-regard, which might have come from their oft-repeated high status, influenced them to rely too heavily on their own distorted impressions. Their bitter complaints were so numerous that Hashem mentions their crime of “spreading calumnies” twice in this parsha. 

The spies’ negative speech not only revealed their lack of trust in Hashem, but their sad lack of trust in themselves, which we saw when the spies described themselves as “mere grasshoppers” in comparison to “the descendants of giants” they saw.  

Instead of giving in to our anxieties and vulnerabilities, we must always take pride in ourselves as a people whom Hashem conceived, far before creating anything else, as the tiny people who create a spiritual revolution by teaching the world about morality and G-dliness. 

Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe
Congregation B’nai Torah, Springfield, MA

We ask, why do we not today see the kind of open miraculous intervention in human affairs that we see in the Torah and the Prophetic writings as in the supernatural punishment of the Spies as indicated in the “… Plague … before G-d”? 

We can see G-d’s hand in the “garments of nature” if we look hard enough  — but one needs to look for it with the spyglass of faith. One common answer: In our people’s infancy we needed to see everything in a very clear and stark way. Just like all the basic skills we need to teach a small child. As we mature, we are expected to figure things out on our own as to how to live and indeed right and wrong. There are consequences — pleasant and unpleasant — for all our choices, but not necessarily immediate, or even in any one particular physical lifetime which is but a small part of the multiple journeys of our souls. In our People’s infancy we had to see the hand of G-d clearly and openly. In maturity we must seek it, using our minds and hearts. G-d desires that we find Him, as we are, in mind and body, in this physical world. G-d’s purpose in the creation of Humanity  — of which the Jewish people are to be the guide — is that we understand that G-d is One equally everywhere, even in a darkness that we must, by our efforts, illuminate with the light of our G-dly souls. 


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