Parshat Shelach (Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

Rabbi David Stav 

Parshat Shelach centers on the story of the spies that Moshe sent to survey the Land of Israel, to assess the quality of its fruits, and to “size up” its inhabitants. The Torah relates how the spies return from the Promised Land with its wonderful, oversized fruit, which convey a very clear message: this is a land flowing with milk and honey.

The imagery is all too familiar to us: two men carrying a giant cluster of grapes with a pole resting on their shoulders. This is what the verse says: “…and they carried it with a pole, in pairs…” (Bamidbar / Numbers 13:23). This image has come to symbolize the blessings over the Land, and has been included in the logos of Israeli wineries and tourist agencies.
Nonetheless, there was a small problem ­– quite minor, really. Conquering the Land of Israel was a challenge, because of the strong nations that lived there. To this effect, the spies said the following: “We cannot ascend to that people, for it is stronger than us!” (Ibid. 13:31). Not all the spies agreed with this assessment, though.
Calev the son of Yefuneh was insistent that “we shall surely ascend and conquer it…” (Ibid. 31:30). A heated dispute ensued, and the rhetoric grew more inflammatory until the spies finally declared that the Land “…devours its inhabitants” (Ibid. 31:32). The nation accepted the views of the majority of the spies, and complained about Moshe and his plan to take them to the Land of Israel. Yehoshua and Calev made a valiant attempt to persuade the nation that the Land was as good one, and that, with God’s help, they would manage to conquer it, but their efforts were in vain.
When the Jewish people lifted their voices and cried that night, in disapproval of the plan to enter the Land of Israel, God decided that all those who had discredited the Land would not merit the privilege of entering it, and this was the reason the people wandered in the desert for forty years, until everyone in that generation had died out.
Why was the nation punished so harshly? Is it not natural for humans to err in judgment and suspect that under the conditions that existed at the time, it would have been dangerous to enter the Land? Was the nation not correct to follow the majority opinion of the spies, who contended that entering the Land was ill-advised? Was God upset because the people didn’t have faith in Him?
One expression that appears in this portion might shed some light on this issue and help us to understand it: “The men who brought forth the evil report about the Land died…” (Ibid., 14:37). The Hebrew word for “evil report” – dibbah – frequently appears in this narrative, as if it were the heart of the problem. Why, though, should the Land care if someone discredited it? Was it a living, sentient being that could be injured through false reports?
In effect, the Torah seems to be teaching us a fundamental principle of proper behavior. We are permitted to argue and criticize, but we must not discredit. The Land won’t be harmed if we criticize it, but we will all suffer when this evil ventures forth. The air we breathe becomes polluted from an atmosphere of defamation and verbal filth.
The text may also be teaching us a more unpalatable concept: since the dawn of our existence as a people, there have been those among us who had had enough of the Land, and left no stone unturned in their quest to disconnect from it.
At times, a lack of security became their excuse, while others relied on various ideological justifications for their resentment of the Land. There were those who argued that we should assimilate into the nations, while others opposed moving to the Land of Israel, claiming that it was too hard to keep the mitzvot there, and so on.
The claims were as diverse as could be, but they all had one common denominator: “We are staying in the Diaspora.”
Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages, called this phenomenon a “travesty”, saying: “You have found the place of my disgrace, King of Khazar”.
Praying for the return to Jerusalem three times a day while remaining in Spain, Poland, or the United States is a disgrace. Psalm 106, which surveys the history of the Jewish People in the desert, states “and they rejected the desirable Land” (Tehillim / Psalms 106:24). Some of the claims against developing a connection with the Land of Israel may have some logical basis, but ultimately, those who cling to the Land will merit to see it, and their connection to the Jewish nation will span generations, while those who resent it will remain in the desert.
The Zionist movement is a natural continuation for the Jewish nation’s great sages (like the Vilna Gaon and his students), whose only wish was to reconnect to the Land of Israel. The path the Zionist movement took was indeed subject to a heated debate, in a variety of fields, but no one can deny the crucial role it played in establishing the State of Israel and settling the Land. In its own way, this movement was the best possible corrective experience for the sin of the spies.
Naturally, its achievements were anathema to all those who wished to continue resenting the desirable Land, but those who loved the Land, even if they disagreed with certain tenets of the Zionist movement to a greater or lesser extent, can always recall that the Land is “flowing with milk and honey”. And if we can remember who passed this inheritance on to us, and take care not to resent it, we will also merit to fulfill Calev’s prophecy: “We shall ascend, and inherit it”.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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