The Sidra begins with God’s command to Moses to send twelve important leaders to tour the land. Moses chose the Nesi’im, the leaders of each tribe for this task. This account, which tells us that God commanded the mission, contradicts the version that Moses gave to the next generation, in his farewell speech, 39 years later. In that speech he claimed that it was the people’s demand to organise the mission. Furthermore, he said that the Almighty had not been pleased with this demand. Indeed, He had wanted them to go up on the mountain and conquer the land immediately, without any fears. In his speech Moses was highly critical of the previous generation for defying God.
In the light of this contradiction, it seems that the mission went ahead because of the people’s insistence. Seeing how strongly they felt, the Almighty gave His consent. He commanded: ‘Shelach Lecha’. This was a concession and it accords with the religious principle that, when we disobey, God helps us, even though He thinks that we are wrong. God does not choose our path for us. He supports us in our choice.
Other commentators explain the contradiction differently. According to this week’s Sidra, God wanted a different kind of mission. Thirty nine years later, Moses criticised the people for insisting on a completely different type of exploration. God had wanted these men to tour the land of Canaan in order to reassure the people and give them confidence when they returned. He wanted to strengthen Moses’ leadership. He wanted the spies to convince the people that the land was conquerable. He expected the twelve spies to report the truth, that the people of Canaan were petrified of the Israelites. He did not expect the leaders of the tribes to act so wickedly and betray the position of trust that they had been given. On the other hand, the people demanded that the mission should take place in order to ascertain whether it was worth going ahead with the conquest of the land. Their demand already demonstrated a lack of faith. When the spies came back, they simply re-affirmed the state of mind and the negativity felt by the people, prior to their departure.
The spies left the camp and went northwards from the Sinai Peninsula to the Negev. From there they proceeded to the town of Hebron. Already at that time, this was an ancient and important town. It had large fortresses and was populated by a tribe of very tall people, who were known as Anakim. Some commentators think that the spies had already made up their minds to return with the negative report. This is why Hebron is mentioned; as this was the first place they visited.
However, the tour continued for forty days. At the end of this period, they returned to the camp. They began their report in great excitement and enthusiasm. They praised the land and its produce. They displayed its fruit, which they had carried back despite its heavy weight. Beginning with praise was a deliberate strategy to win the people’s hearts; so that they would readily accept their negative assessment which followed.
The first sin of the spies was that they did not give their opinion privately to Moses and Aaron, regarding the strength of the indigenous population. They made their assessments publicly, without any authority. This is in clear contrast to the behaviour of the two spies whom Joshua sent to Jericho thirty nine years later. We read this story in the Haftarah. Those two spies acted properly and reported their findings confidentially.
The twelve spies went on to emphasise that the conquest of
the land would be impossible. They deliberately mentioned the Amalekites first. They knew full well that the people would be particularly frightened to hear about them. The Amalekites were the first tribe to attack the Israelites when they came out of Egypt. They remained Israel's enemies for many years after the conquest and were famous for their ruthlessness and cruelty.
The spies succeeded in demoralising the people and began a concerted campaign to encourage a change of direction and a return to Egypt, under new leadership.
Only Joshua and Caleb stood firmly behind Moses. Although they were leaders of the strongest tribes, they were helpless in the face of the great panic which overcame the entire camp. We might ask: Why were the people at fault for listening to the majority opinion? However, had they listened carefully and had they been less prejudiced, they would not have accepted the majority opinion. They should have realised that the ten spies were lying, because they said things that simply did not make sense as well as being self-contradictory. At first they claimed that the inhabitants of the land were strong and numerous, but then they went on to say that the land ‘devoured its inhabitants’, i.e. it was impossible to exist there and, therefore, people died at a very young age. They concluded their speech by making the ridiculous statement that the people of Canaan were so tall that that the spies felt like tiny grasshoppers in comparison.
God was extremely angry with the people for the second time, within a short period. The first instance was after the sin of the Golden Calf. On both occasions God wanted to destroy the people, but Moses prayed on their behalf with very great passion. He said to God: Therefore, I pray, let my Lords forbearance be great, as you have declared saying, “the Lord! Slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting of punishment, but visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon children of the third and fourth generations”. Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to great kindness, as you have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.”
God answered Moses with the words: “I pardon as you asked.” These last two verses have become very famous. They are quoted on Yom Kippur, immediately after the Kol Nidre prayer.
However, God’s forgiveness was not granted fully. He said to Moses: How much longer will this people despise me? One commentator remarks that there are limits even to the patience of God. Man cries, “how long, God?” And God responds, “how long, man?” He accused them of trying Him ten times with their faithlessness and disloyalty. Rabbi Judah, the editor of the Mishnah, who lived in the second century CE, listed the ten instances when Israel tried God: Twice at the Red Sea; twice each with complaints about water, manna and quails; once with the golden calf and once in the wilderness.
The Almighty did not destroy our nation, but He decreed that that entire generation would die in the desert. Nevertheless, Moses prayer helped. He showed his compassion and allowed the sinful generation to raise their children and to encourage them to believe that they did have the strength and confidence to conquer the Promised Land.
God’s judgement that the rebellious generation would die in the desert, was issued on the ninth day of Av. It was the first of the five catastrophic events which befell Israel on this tragic day. The others were: the destruction of the first and second Temple, the destruction of Beitar, after Bar Kochba’s calamitous rebellion in the second century CE, and the subsequent ploughing up of Jerusalem by the Romans.