Parshat Shelach: It would have been more appropriate to send women as spies

Rabbanit Renana Birnbaum is the Director of the Claudia Cohen Women Educators Institute and OTS’s Conversion Institute for Spanish Speakers

The spies understood their roles differently than what Moses had intended. What was the goal of their mission, and was it even necessary? What are the benefits of female leadership?

Parshat Shelach is a tragic story. Moses sent spies to the land of Canaan before the planned conquest by the people of Israel. Ultimately, this escapade ended in disaster, and doomed the nation of Israel to wandering in the desert for forty years. The entire generation of the desert never merited to enter the land of Israel.

Several questions emerge from this story. Why were the spies dispatched to begin with? Was all of this truly necessary? What was their mission, and what fell by the wayside? What kind of mission was it? Was it just an intelligence-gathering mission or a purely military operation? Or did in envision something entirely different?

As soon as we begin reading this story, we see that Moses’ intention, in dispatching the spies, was at odds with the state of affairs within the nation. Both sides were well-intentioned, but they were misaligned.

Moses wanted to dispatch the spies in order to forge a connection between the nation and the land, as echoed in the words of our sages: “A man must not sanctify a woman before having seen her.” Moses wanted to cause the spies to feel love for the land, and to find it appealing. That would become a driving force for the future conquest. The princes of the tribes regarded the land as a commodity. They didn’t feel they needed to work hard to acquire it, as one would need to toil to win over the heart of a woman. Moses’ goal was to evoke a feeling of love for the land and bolster the faith of the princes in the land.

This faith needed to be created. The people of Israel, through their desert sojourns, had become habituated to a miraculous existence. Once they enter the land of Israel, Moses wants to re-educate the people to live a natural life. There, they would need to work and create, faithful that when Hashem’s intervention was necessary, He would be there. They would lead normal, natural lives, infused with faith in Hashem. Surprisingly, the princes, who had experienced Hashem’s wonders, had little faith. “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we,” they concluded.

Some people interpret the word meraglim, spies, as being connected to the word margaliyot, pearls; meraglim would recognize the pearls they they would find along the way. Moses sent these tribal princes on an internal mission of reflection, meant to connect them with his thoughts. Moses thought that before they would enter the land, they would need to face danger, temptations, and challenges, and use their free choice to complete their mission. The deeper meaning of their mission was the faith entrusted in them, as people with intrinsic and extrinsic strength, to aspire to fulfill the will of Hashem, and have faith in divine providence.

Moses’ mistake was that they weren’t ready yet for this.

Though the emissaries that Moses sent were respectable dignitaries, they didn’t understand the intent of their mission. They thought they were going on a classic espionage mission to evaluate whether the land could truly be conquered, and whether they were able to do it. Notably, they suffered from low self-esteem: “and we were like locusts in their eyes…”  When a person doesn’t believe in himself, he feels that others perceive him as a locust. This is a subjective perception that stems from a lack of self-confidence. Actually, it was the spies themselves that saw themselves as locusts. This leads us to the conclusion that a person’s role and important status aren’t enough to guarantee faith in Hashem. They didn’t believe in their own abilities.

Some commentators believed that it was their positions that sabotaged their missions. They were actually concerned they would lose their status as princes once the people enter the land. They preferred to preserve their status and social footing in the desert, so they were in no rush to enter the land. According to these commentators, the conclusions they reached from their tour of the land weren’t just the result of a lack of faith. They were also influenced by other considerations which led them astray. Moses had apparently realized that the princes’ motives weren’t pure, and that they stemmed from interests and personal gain, and that is why he wanted to reform them, by sending them on this mission.

The author of the Kli Yakar, in his commentary on the story of the spies, says the following: “Hashem said to Moses – it would have been better to have sent women [as spies], since they love the land, and would never speak ill of it.”

Why did the Kli Yakar believe that women would have an advantage over men when it comes to love for the land of Israel? When trying to understand what the Kli Yakar meant by saying that women wouldn’t speak ill of the land, I recalled a study on female leadership published in the eleventh edition of Eretz Aheret (2002), which stated as follows: “Male leadership focuses on the job. Men criticize and rule things out without a second thought. Their mode is rational-aggressive. In contrast, women lead differently. Women tend to lead with a more “social” style. They focus on creating a pleasant environment and provoking the enthusiasm of those they lead. They are unwavering in their faith, and less rational. They work on strengthening self-worth.”

This is perhaps what the spies, who were tribal princes, lacked: the interactive and personal facet of leadership, the ability to lead an open and inclusive dialogue on the process toward the goal at hand, to release tension, and to make sure that everyone in the group finds his or her place, and understands the power of sharing in achieving the goal and maintaining faith in attaining that goal.

I am a big believer in the women’s abilities to lead, and I am convinced that this type of leadership is one that includes others and causes them to grow. Women, who are fond of the land, would never speak ill of it.


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