Parshat Shlach (Numbers 13:1 – 15:41)

Rabbi David Stav 

The story of the sin of the spies, upon which the Torah greatly elaborates, is the lead story of Parshat Shlach. The nation sets out toward the Promised Land on the twentieth day of the month of Iyar, after a stay of nearly one year near Mount Sinai. The trip should have taken about ten days, by foot. Twelve tribal leaders are dispatched to the promised land with the mission of scouting out the territory.

Forty days later, they return to the camp with a rather complex report, which began: “We came to the land to which you sent us, and it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit” [Num. 13:27].

This was a wonderful land whose fruits were as sweet as honey. In contrast, their report regarding the people in the land is that they are “mighty” [ibid, v. 28]. The spies engage in a bitter argument amongst themselves over whether the nation stands a chance of subduing the denizens of this land. It was an ancient version of a debate between the intelligence gathering and intelligence evaluation units on how the data is to be interpreted – like a televised quarrel between department directors at the Mossad or in military intelligence.

Here, though, the debate is unbalanced. Ten of the spies took the position that the nation should not attempt to enter the land, while only two of them – Yehoshua Bin Nun and Calev ben Yefuneh – are resolved to completing the mission at hand. In the end, Hashem goes into a rage, entry into the promised land is delayed by forty years, the people are doomed to exhaust themselves wandering in the desert for many long years, and for most of the adults in the camp at the time, the right to enter the land was revoked altogether.

Over the generations, many commentators have tried to pinpoint the most infuriating part of the discussion recorded in the text. What specific event prompted such terrible divine anger? Was it their lack of faith in Hashem? Was it the fact that they spoke ill of the land? What exactly infuriated Hashem, driving Him to mete out such a harsh punishment? Is it not natural for twelve people to observe certain facts and disagree on how they are to be interpreted? Why should this have evoked such a harsh reaction and resulted in such a severe penalty, forcing the entire nation to wander in the desert for nearly forty years?

I would like to draw attention to one thought-provoking statement the spies made: “There we saw the giants (“nefilim”), the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes” [ibid, v. 33].

We still do not know who these “nefilim” were. Some say that they were called nefilim because the spies assumed they had fallen on them from the sky, because of their immense size. At any rate, according to Biblical tradition, in the prehistoric world, before the great flood, unusually tall people had populated the Earth, but only a few remained after the flood, and they settled in the Land of Israel. These were the nefilim the spies were describing.

If these were truly the ancient people that the Israelites would have encountered, it is understandable that the spies would see themselves as grasshoppers, compared to these giants.

The end of the sentence is a bit cryptic, though. What did the spies mean by “and so we were in their eyes”? How could they know such a thing? Who told them that this is how the nefilim perceived them?

The Midrash suggests that the spies reported that they had heard the giants talking among themselves, saying that they had noticed humanoid ants walking through the orchards. Yet this Midrash is difficult to accept as the simple meaning of the text, if only for the matter of the language barrier. It’s hard to believe that those giants would have communicated in a language the spies would have understood.

Moreover, why would a group of giants be so concerned over a few ants scattered among them? After all, they would only need to stomp on them once, and the “nuisance” would be dead in an instant. In fact, the Midrash comments on this, effectively putting these words into Hashem’s mouth: “Do you know what I have done before their very eyes? Who is to say that you didn’t appear to them as angels?”

In other words, Hashem is asking why they thought so little of themselves. Where did this sudden inferiority complex come from?

It turns out that this is the very root of the problem. If we see ourselves as grasshoppers, our enemies will surely see us as ants, or perhaps even more primitive organisms. If, however, we see ourselves as human beings who know what we are expected to do, with full resolve, our adversaries will understand that, as well. These days, the State of Israel fights a relentless public relations battle against people in some of the world’s most “enlightened” nations.

These are people who have no qualms about the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have been slaughtered, the millions of Africans dying of starvation, the oppression of the Kurds in Turkey, or the persecution of Chechens by the Russian, yet whatever happens in Israel seems to cause them so much heartache.

Without going into the antisemitism that has possessed these self-righteous, holier-than-thou hypocrites, the Torah tells us that they are not the source of the problem. The problem begins mainly with us, with what occurs among us. If we see ourselves as ants or grasshoppers, our adversaries will undoubtedly see us the same way, and will seek to do us harm.

But when we are clear about our self-perceptions, and believe that our cause is just, the nations of the world will accept this, and go along with it. I don’t know if a study of Jewish history could demonstrate a direct relationship between the nation’s internal faith in its course and the outcomes of its interactions with other nations, but one thing is clear: an enlightened reading of Parshat Sh’lach will cause us to consider this factor a crucial element toward understanding what has occurred with our people, and what is occurring to the Jewish People today.

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