Parshat Shelach (Numbers 13:1 – 15:41)


Parshat Shelach features the story of the twelve spies dispatched by Moses to scout out the land. The story ends tragically, when, after forty days, the spies return and cast heavy doubts on the nation’s ability to conquer the land from its present rulers.

In response, the nation cries out: “Why does God bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt? They said to each other, ‘Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!’” [Num. 14:3]. Consequently, God decreed that the nation would remain in the desert for another forty years before entering the Land of Israel.

One question with which generations of Torah scholars have grappled is the motive for the spies’ sin. How could such important dignitaries have failed their mission, undermining the trust that was placed in them?

At the beginning of the parsha, the text describes the spies “as heads of the nation of Israel… and these were their names”. Not sufficing with simply stating that they were leaders, the Torah specifies their names, as well. And if that were not enough, after listing the names of all twelve spies, it repeats and summarizes that “these are the names of the people that Moses dispatched to scout out the land, and Moses called Hoshea Bin Nun, ‘Yehoshua’”.

It is unclear why the Torah deemed it important to mention the names of the spies, who had just been introduced to us. Even if there is a compelling reason for mentioning their names, why were they mentioned twice, both at the beginning and at the end, and what did the fact that Moses changed Hoshea’s name have to do with it?

If we take a closer look at the names of the spies, we notice that some of them – such as Setur or Nachbi – never appear anywhere else in the Tanach. Our Sages debated whether these were their real names, or monikers they were given after they had sinned that hinted to their resounding failure.

Some rabbis said that “a person must always ascertain that the name he has chosen to call his son is worthy of a righteous person, since at times, a name can be a positive or negative factor, as we have found in the case of the spies with the name Shamuah [the name of the spy from the tribe of Reuven], which indicates that he did not listen to the word of God.”

This Midrash implies that a name with a negative connotation given to a child at birth will affect that child’s deeds later in life. Conversely, the Talmud states, in the name of Rabbi Isaac: “This is a tradition in our hands, from our fathers, that they were given their names in reference to their deeds”. In other words, in this view, the Torah gave them their names after the sin and its aftermath.

Presumably, it would be very difficult to accept the notion that a name given to an individual at birth could influence that individual’s behavior later on, particularly in light of our absolute faith in a person’s freedom of choice and capacity to tell right from wrong. Yet if we revisit the verses quoted above, we see that they strengthen the claim that these were indeed their original names.

Otherwise, if these were just pseudonyms they were given as adults, why would the Torah have bothered to stress, on two occasions, that these were their names?

It seems that the Torah was trying to direct our attention to the spies’ unusual names by emphasizing that Moses changed Hoshea’s name to Yehoshua, as if to say that Hoshea’s name needed to be changed so that he wouldn’t be adversely influenced by the spies because of his name. Indeed, our sages inferred that Hoshea’s name change was designed to imply that the name would save him from the spies’ devices, leading us to assume that he needed some kind of “correction” to his name.

This view, which places such importance on the name itself, ostensibly runs contrary to one of the most basic Jewish precepts – our belief in absolute freedom of choice. If the name given to an individual by his or her parents carries such a heavy weight, why protest that individual’s decisions? After all, wasn’t everything preordained by the name the individual’s parents chose?

A name, like any other ambient factor, cannot force a person to behave in any particular way, but a person’s name embodies the expectations of his or her parents or society. A person who is raised in a supportive society that strengthens its members and drives them to succeed will believe in his or her abilities, and will keep growing and become stronger.

Conversely, if a person’s name implies a meager measure of faith in that person’s prospects, the individual will have a hard time overcoming the obstacles in his or her path. A name will not force a person to make certain decisions, but it can or may define the set of expectations emanating from that person’s surroundings.

When Moses saw the names of the spies, he understood that their parents had not placed much faith in their children’s abilities to grow and succeed (e.g. the name “Rafu” implies “rifyon”, slackness. The name “Gadi”, implies something as harsh and inflexible as a “gid”, a tendon. And this is only a small sampling of a wealth of interpretations our rabbis had for the names of the spies).

Here, Moses calls all of this into question. By renaming Hoshea “Yehoshua Bin Nun”, he was declaring that we can change and break free of the shackles of our names, i.e. our environment, has imposed on us. We need not be bound by what our environmental conditions dictate.

The Torah repeats the names of the spies, as if to frame the names as we would a photograph, implying that the spies were bound and limited to the confines of this frame. The spies viewed their names as a fence that delimited the extents of their own abilities.

The sin of the spies could be a lesson for us, teaching us that we must ‎‎not limit ourselves and our children through names and characteristics that would make it harder for ourselves and our progeny to break free from these boundaries later on. It teaches us that having faith means, among other things, freeing ourselves from our names and labels.

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