Shlach: The spies' temptation

Life Lessons from the Torah Portion 
Parshat Shelach (Numbers 13:1–15:41)

Moshe Kempinski

Judaism 70 ישראל מבט פנורמי
70 ישראל מבט פנורמי
צילום: PR

In the Torah portion of “Shelach- “ we read how Moshe sent twelve spies into the land to explore its strengths and weaknesses. Ten of these spies return with an evil report and only two, Joshua and Calev  (Caleb) , declare that “the land is very, very good”.

These "spies" or "scouts" were not ordinary people, as Moshe would not send ordinary people for such a mission .The text describes them as  men  who were of great spiritual stature;

"Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel. You shall send one man each for his father's tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst."So Moses sent them from the desert of Paran by the word of Hashem. All of them were men of distinction; they were the heads of the children of Israel."Numbers 13:2-3).

All the spies except for two , Joshua and Calev returned with an evil report of the land.

What is it that gave Joshua and Calev the strength to perceive what the others missed? It is clear that Joshua had the strength to avoid the pitfall , because he received a special blessing when his name was changed from Hoshea to Yehoshuah (Rashi, Sotah 34b).

Yet Calev( Caleb) , we are told had a "different Spirit”." But as for My servant Calev, since he was possessed by another spirit, and he followed Me, I will bring him to the land to which he came, and his descendants will drive its inhabitants out. (Numbers14:24).

What  gave him that different Spirit ? What made him different than the other “men of distinction”?


 We read of the entry into the land of the twelve spies;

They went up in, the south, and he came to Hebron...” (ibid 13:22).

Calev was the "he" who turned aside to pray at the caves of the Patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov. It is there in Hebron that that different spirit was sparked in him. It is not surprising then that it is that place that Calev receives as an inheritance “And to Calev they gave Hebron” (as his portion in the Land of Israel) (Judges 1:20).

Yet we must also explore what was it that led the other ten to so completely lose the power of discernment? What led these men to fail to see and perhaps to willingly cloud their vison? Furthermore why would this event have such eternal implications?

The sin of the spies was not another example of disobedience, it reflected a much deeper malaise. It was so impactful that the date upon which it happened remained a day of sorrow and danger throughout Jewish history.

The Torah tells us that ” all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night.” Our sages teach on that verse that this night was the 9th day of Av. Said G-d to them: You have wept without cause, therefore I will set aside this day for a weeping throughout the generations to come.(tractate Taanit 29b).The litany of disasters that occurred on the day throughout Jewish history is simply staggering.

Yet the impact was not simply relegated to a date in time. It actually reflected a psychological and spiritual flaw that would need to be remedied throughout the long journey of history.

That flaw was based on a weakness of vision. It was a failure in believing in their Divine destiny. Without a clarity of vision regarding the destiny of the Jewish people, they begin to flounder and fail. Without that vision we tend to get stuck and are very frightened of stepping forward into the unknown.

The Gaon of Vilna, wrote that it is the “sin of the spies” that will plague the Jewish people throughout the generations until the last days. “Many will fall in this great sin of, ‘They despised the cherished Land.’ Also many guardians of the Torah will not know or understand that thy are caught in the ‘sin of the Spies”….(Kol HaTor, Ch.5)

What then is the essence of that sin? What is the source of the weakened vision?

The Baal HaTanya ( Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladi) asks, "What led the other ten spies who were clearly chosen because of their spiritual greatness, to fail? Why would men of such great spiritual awareness not want to physically enter the land of Israel?”

He then explains that these men experienced the highest spiritual experiences that mortals can envision in their walk with Hashem through the wilderness.They experienced G-d’s great hand in Egypt and at the Red Sea and they heard the Divine voice at Mount Sinai. They lived in the desert but they drank from the miraculous well of Miriam and ate of the manna from heaven and were protected in their voyage by the very clouds of Glory.

Why would they want to leave all of that purely spiritual experience and lower themselves into a land where they would by necessity become involved with the physicality of reality. They believed that spirituality is best separated from the physical. Why would they want to leave what has become comfortable and familiar to venture into an unknown that is only defined by faith and hope.

As the Gaon of Vilna taught we are all plagued by the spiritual underpinnings if that sin.  Unto this very generation, most of humanity is comfortable with the world view they know and the patterns of life that they have become accustomed to.

They have stopped to yearn, and they have stopped to grow. There are times that the uncertainty and mystery of the future induces people to want to return to the miseries of the past simply because it is something they know; ” They said to each other, "Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!"”( Numbers 14:4)


The  sin that  the of the spies continues to affect us all. It leads our brothers and sisters in exile to talk of Berlin, Maghreb or Lakewood as the Jerusalem of the west. It is that lack of vision that keeps then chained to exile. It is that failure of insight that prolongs our wait for redemption on the “Peoplehood” level.

Furthermore it is that same sin that attempts to imprison each one of us in our own individual paths of growth and development. Hashem opens up opportunities and new gateways in our lives, and we tend to ignore or turn away. We would rather stay in the emotional stagnant places we have created and not take the leap into spiritual psychological and emotional turmoil of growth and possibility.

That is the challenge of our generation.

 We need to muster the strength, faith and courage to break the stranglehold of the "sin of the Spies” in our personal and corporate lives .Only in this way can we truly lay down  the groundwork for complete redemption to flourish .

"Yachol Nuchal Lo-We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it."( ibid 13:30)

LeRefuat Yehudit bat Golda Yocheved and Yehudit bat Esther