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Reexamining the sins of the spies

Reexamining the sins of the spies

Shelach Lecha — Numbers 13:1-15:41

June 19: 8:13 p.m.

Parashat Shelach Lecha begins on a note of hope and ends in disaster. Not long after leaving Mount Sinai and coming to Paran, Moses sends 12 spies, one from each tribe, to scout the land of Canaan and bring back a report of the conditions the Israelites will find there.

The spies return after 40 days, bringing their report of the good land, but 10 of them insist that the Canaanites are too powerful for the Israelites to conquer. The people panic and, despite the encouragement of Joshua and Caleb, they rebel and declare once more that they want to return to Egypt.

God’s patience is finally exhausted and He decrees that this generation will die in the wilderness. It will be their children who will possess the land.

How did things go so wrong?

The Rabbis search the text for clues and they don’t have to look very far. The parasha begins, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people….’” However, this translation obscures an unusual feature of the Hebrew. “Shelach lecha anashim” is not simply “send men” but “send for yourself men.”

Rashi quotes the Tanhuma to explain the significance of lecha (for yourself):

[God says] “As for Me, I do not command you; if you so desire, send … I have told them that it is good. As they live, I shall give them an opportunity to err through the words of the spies, in order that they will not inherit it.”

This is the traditional explanation for the tragedy of the spies. The people lacked faith and therefore chose to rely on standard military tactics (reconnaissance) rather than God’s promise.

But there’s another explanation, an unexpected commentary of the type that makes Torah study such a joy. It’s from the Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Luntschitz, who served as the rabbi of Prague in the early 17th century. He looks at “shelach lecha anashim” and sees the problem in the word anashim (men). He writes:

Our Rabbis said, the men hated the land and were the ones who said, “let us head back for Egypt” [Numbers 14:4] and the women loved the land and said, “give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen” [Numbers 27:4, the story of the daughters of Zelophechad, five sisters who asked that they be given the share of the land that would have gone to their father who died without sons]. The Holy Blessed One said, “In My opinion … it would be better to send women who love the land for they will not defame it. But you, according to your opinion that they are fit and that they love the land, want to send men. This is the meaning of ‘send for yourself men’ — according to your opinion, men, but in my opinion it would be better to send women.”

So what was the problem? Was it lack of faith or male chauvinist piggery? You’ll have to decide for yourself.

Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.

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