Parshat Shelach: Learning the Land and Learning Faith

Zion Rosner is a teacher at the Katz Oriya High School for Girls

%D7%A6%D7%99%D7%95%D7%9F %D7%A8%D7%95%D7%96%D7%A0%D7%A82In the Book of Bemidbar, the portion of Shelach Lecha describes one of the most dramatic events in the history of the Israelites in the desert. Moshe selects 12 distinguished men from each tribe of Israel – wise, righteous, and courageous – for the purpose of scouting the land of Canaan. This mission was undertaken due to the Israelites’ apprehension about entering the Promised Land, and Moshe hopes that the spies would reassure the people about the land, thereby reinforcing their faith.

The Mission: “Scout the land

Moshe sends the spies to explore the land and gives them specific instructions:

  • Examine the land: “And see the land, what it is.” They were to assess the quality of the land, whether it was good or bad.
  • Evaluate the inhabitants: “Whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, few or many.” They were to assess the strength and number of the inhabitants.
  • Inspect the cities: “What kind of cities they are that they dwell in, whether in camps or in strongholds.” They were to determine whether the cities were unwalled or fortified.
  • Assess the crops: “Whether the land is rich or poor.” They were to see if the land was fertile and had trees that bore fruit.
  • Bring back fruit: “And be of good courage, and bring some of the fruit of the land,” especially during the season of the first ripe grapes.

The Purpose of The Mission

According to the Ramban, Moshe had two main reasons for sending the spies:

  1. Preparation for war: As part of the preparations for the conquest of the land, similar to any nation invading a foreign land.
  2. Boosting morale:  Infusing the people with joy by showing them the goodness of the land and encouraging them before entering it.

The Ramban notes: “It is possible that Moshe, knowing that the land was rich and good, told them to take note of this so they could report it to the people, who would then rejoice and gain strength to ascend there with joy… so they could see with their own eyes the abundance of the land.”

The Spies’ Report

When the spies returned from their mission, they reported: “We came to the land where you sent us, and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and these are its fruit.” However, they immediately added: “Nevertheless [“efes], the people who dwell in the land are strong; the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the descendants of the giants there.” The use of the word “nevertheless” negates everything said before it, symbolizing the spies’ lack of faith in their ability to conquer the land.

Rashi interprets the word “efes” as something insurmountable: “But their wickedness was in the word ‘nevertheless,’ which indicates something impossible for man to overcome in any way.”

The Minority Opinion

Among the twelve spies, two did not concur with the majority: Calev son of Yefuneh and Yehoshua son of Nun. Calev proclaimed: “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” This statement reflects a profound faith in the capabilities of the Israelites as well as in Divine support. In stark contrast, the other spies declared, “We cannot attack those people; they are stronger than we are.”

The Outcome and The Lessons to be Taken

The spies’ words induced significant despair among the people, prompting them to yearn for a return to Egypt. This severe transgression resulted in the punishment of 40 years of wandering in the desert, ensuring that the entire generation of the wilderness would perish and not enter the Promised Land.

Our portion underscores the pivotal importance of speech and word choice, particularly when addressing a community. Moshe emphasized the goodness of the land and instructed the spies to focus on the quality of the soil, the crops, and the cities. His intention was to use this information to fortify the people’s faith and bolster their morale as they prepared to enter the Land of Canaan.

In contrast, the spies chose to highlight the difficulties and limitations they perceived in the land. The use of the word “nevertheless” [“efes”] in their report was significant, effectively negating all the positive details they had shared about the land. This choice revealed a lack of faith in both their own ability to conquer the land as well as in Divine assistance.  

Their focus on negative words and challenges transformed their report into one of despair, leading the people to a sense of hopelessness and despondency. The consequence was devastating: the people lost faith and resolved that they could not face the mission at hand, resulting in the severe punishment of 40 years of desert wandering.

The central message of our portion is unequivocal: faith, encouragement, and positivity are essential in guiding a nation toward its goals. When leaders like Moshe emphasize the good and the positive possibilities, they uplift the spirit of the people, providing them with the strength and courage to face challenges. Conversely, the use of negative speech and choosing to highlight the difficulties can break the spirit and lead to despair and failure.


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