The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Bemidbar: Trials & Tribulations in Times of Transition, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.

Parshat Shelach: Why Send Scouts in the First Place?

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone

RSR Head Shot Gershon Ellinson credit

“And God spoke unto Moses saying, ‘Send out men for yourself to spy out the Land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel; of every tribe of their fathers shall you send a man, every one a prince among them.’” (Numbers 13:2)

As the portion of Shelach opens, we read how God commands the Israelites to send ahead men to spy out and explore the Land of Israel.

And we know the tragic results of this “spy” mission. The report, which emerged from ten out of twelve, was a negative and discouraging one, which only served to divert the Israelites from their God-given mission of the conquest of the land of Israel. Hence the agonizing question which this portion evokes is: Why did God command the sending of scouts in the first place? Why risk a rebellion in the ranks by requesting a committee report which may well go against the divine will to conquer and settle Israel?

A totally different perspective, not only as to why God commanded Moses to send out the scouts but much more profoundly as to how God operates in the world and why, is to be found in a remarkable interpretation given by Rabbenu Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin (1823–1900), a great Hasidic master, in his commentary on the Torah, called Pri Tzaddik. He points out a striking analogy between the incident of the scouts and the gift of the second tablets which came as a result of the sin of the Golden Calf, both conceptually as well as textually: in both cases the Almighty saw the necessity of involving – even to the extent of establishing a partnership with – the people, the nation of Israel.

In what way were the second tablets an improvement on the first tablets which Moses smashed, and which God congratulated him for smashing (Exodus 34:1, Yevamot 62a)? What was “built into” the second tablets which would be more likely to prevent a fiasco of the proportion of the sin of the Golden Calf, which occurred only forty days after the gift of the first tablets? The fact that the first tablets had been “written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18), and were in actuality the very “script of the divine,” whereas the second tablets were “hewn out” by Moses (Exodus 34:1) and thereby were created as a result of human involvement, suggests the difference: the first tablets were the product of divine creativity alone; the second tablets involved human cooperation, setting the stage for rabbinical interpretation, decrees, and enactments which are such a major portion of what we call the “Oral Law.” The Oral Law not only accepts but requires the direct participation of rabbinical leadership, and even the involvement of the masses of committed Jews (Pri Tzaddik on Exodus, Ki Tissa 3, and on Numbers, Shelach 2).

Of course, we believe that the major principles and salient laws of the Oral Torah were also given by God. However, the sages of each generation must actively interpret the Torah and often plumb from its depths great innovative concepts necessary for the needs of that generation. Indeed, in a stunning Talmudic passage, the rules of rabbinical exegesis can even cause the Almighty Himself to accept a decision of the majority of the sages, causing Him (as it were) to cry out “My children have conquered Me” (Bava Metzia 39b). The very words with which God commands Moses to “hew out” the second tablets, “psal lekha” (Exodus 34:1), also contain a nuance: you, Moses, have the authority and the obligation to determine whether an activity or object is pasul (improper and invalid). The sages are given the power to add decrees and enactments (gezerot and takkanot) to the body of the Torah, many of which – such as lighting candles on the eve of the Sabbath and festivals, the kindling of the Chanukka menora, and the reading of the Purim Megilla – have become major expressions of our Torah commitment and lifestyle (Deut. 17:8–11). Moreover, no such decrees or enactments can become part and parcel of the Torah of Israel without the endorsement of the majority of the committed people who have the right of acceptance or rejection. The masses of committed people, the hoi polloi or hamon ha’am, have also initiated customs throughout the generations which assume the status of Torah law (minhag Yisrael din hu, the customs of Israel are law).

All of this suggests a Torah which is not the product of ossified paternalism – as divinely perfect as such a Torah might be – but is rather the result of a living partnership between God and His people. Apparently, the Almighty believed – after the tragic trauma of the Golden Calf – that only a Torah which would involve the active participation of the Israelites could survive the seductive pitfalls of idolatry and immorality.

Fascinatingly enough the phrase “psal lekha” (Exodus 34:1) parallels the words God uses to command the scouts, “Shelach lekha,” send out for yourselves, in the beginning of our portion. God apparently understood that a mission as important as the conquest of Israel could not take place without the enthusiastic approbation and active participation of the people.

Of course, opening up the process – be it Torah interpretation or the appointment of a reconnaissance committee – is fraught with danger. But it was a chance that God understood had to be taken if He desired His nation to be more than marching robots. He didn’t want us to receive a Torah on a silver platter or to be brought into the Promised Land on eagles’ wings; He realized that despite the inherent risk which came from involving the people, excluding them would be a more likely prescription for disaster. Just as a wise parent and a sagacious educator understand that children/students must be “involved in the process” so that hopefully they will continue the path even after they achieve independence, the Almighty set the stage for our continuous devotion to Torah and our third return to Israel – despite our many setbacks – by insisting on the participation of His people!

One might also argue that in the words of Rabbenu Tzadok lies the pivotal reason for the ten scouts’ rejection of Moses’ goal as well as for God’s higher plan for his people in history. Throughout the Egyptian and desert experience, God had acted in a thoroughly paternalistic manner, as it were, bringing about miracle after miracle and providing food, shelter, and protection for the desert wanderers. In effect, the Israelites were in a “Kollel for the masses,” with the divine Rosh Yeshiva providing manna (they didn’t even have to go to the bank to cash the Kollel checks), housing, and directions as to their comings and goings, with a cloud by day and a fire by night. They didn’t have to work and they were spared the major battles against the Seven Nations. Is it any wonder that the majority of the tribal princes wished to prolong this rarefied, ethereal Kollel-desert experience and rejected the responsibility-ridden decision-inducing war-perpetrating entrance into Israel?!

God, on the other hand, expected the Israelites to enter a new phase in their development, to begin to become engaged in directing their own destiny, in accepting the challenges and confrontations involved in conquering a land, irrigating the swamps, fertilizing a desert, forging a society. And God also saw that the response He received after all His steady support and committed care was kvetching and complaining, carping and criticizing – no real appreciation, and certainly no mature acceptance of responsibility. And so God commanded the reconnaissance mission as the next stage of Israel’s development, the stage in which the members of this covenantal people must begin to stand on their own feet, make their own decisions, take responsibility for their failures, and – with the divine guidance to be found in the Torah and the divine guarantee that not only will they never be destroyed but also that they will eventually prevail – direct their own destiny.

Rabbenu Tzadok goes on to teach that when the scouts were initially commanded to “be of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land” (Numbers 13:20), this was an allusion to the initial fruit which brought disaster upon humanity, the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. The problem with the Garden of Eden was that everything had been provided by the Almighty; had we remained in Eden, there would have been no risks, no challenges, and no real involvement. The repair (tikkun) for this primordial transgression – a transgression which was really inevitable given the paternalistic reality of the situation – is the human production of fruit in partnership with God in the Land of Israel. We can only return to the Garden of Eden if we ourselves remake the world into an Eden with our own blood, sweat, and tears, with humanity assuming the risks and overcoming the obstacles.

The scouts were not yet ready for the challenge. Are we? What can greatly help us in our decision-making is the knowledge that God believes in us and has faith that we can and eventually will do it! And the first step is for Jews of the Diaspora to come home – to the only Jewish homeland. As for those of us living in Israel, we must especially strengthen ourselves, and take from the fruits of the Torah of Zion with an open and cupped hand, always ready to give out what we have; hence we must truly become a kingdom of priests who will export God’s ways and God’s will to all corners of the earth. What Rabbenu Tzadok is teaching is that we dare not wait for the Messiah; the Messiah is indeed waiting for us!

Shabbat Shalom

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