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D'var Torah: Shelach L’kha

The Torah and haftarah passages for today relate the most famous spy stories in the Tanakh and, thus, in the history of the Jewish people.

The first, from the Book of Numbers, takes place during the second year of the exodus and deals with the first scouting of the promised land. God commands Moses to send one chieftain from each of the twelve tribes to search the land. When the spies return, ten give a pessimistic report to Moses and Aaron and spread falsehoods throughout the camp about the land and the strength of its inhabitants. Only two, the righteous Caleb and Joshua, say that the children of Israel, if the Lord is with them, can conquer the enemy and take possession of Canaan. The whole community reacts thoughtlessly, having no faith in God’s power and wants to return to Egypt. God becomes angry at his faithless people and threatens to disown and destroy them. Moses persuades God to pardon the people but the Lord does punish them. He condemns them to roam the wilderness for forty years and strikes down the ten faithless spies with a plague. When the grief-stricken people finally see the error of their ways, they defy God’s command and Moses’ warning and go up to fight, only to be terribly defeated because God is not with them.

The second story, from the Book of Joshua, takes place thirty-eight years later. The children of Israel, under the new leadership of Moses’ successor, are once again on the borders of the promised land. Joshua, like Moses, sends out spies. But this time the leader does so without a specific command from God. He sends only two and sends them secretly. This time the spies carry out their mission faithfully. When they return, they tell Joshua that the people of the land are weak with fear of the Lord. With this intelligence, Joshua leads the children of Israel across the Jordan. The now faithful people follow him without hesitation, destroy Jericho, and successfully begin their conquest of Canaan.

These two spy stories make us think about two related problems: (1) the problem of man’s faith in God, and (2) the problem of God’s relationship to man. In the Torah passage, the Israelites are handed their first great defeat outside the promised land, while soon after the haftarah passage, they gain their first great victory inside the promised land. Now, why do these stories have such different outcomes?

The most obvious explanation is that the people met defeat because they lacked faith in God and gained victory because they found faith in God.

Before the first spy mission, the children of Israel had strong reasons for being faithful. In Egypt, they had witnessed the plagues that forced Pharaoh to free them. During their escape they had seen the Red Sea open before them and seen it close over their enemies. If those events hadn’t been enough to build their faith, their participation in God’s revelation at Sinai would seem to have been enough to secure the faith of any people. Moreover, both before and after the giving of the Law, God continuously manifested his power by providing the Israelites with water, manna, quail, and a Divine cloud to guide them. Yet, despite all this, the people still displayed a complete lack of faith in the Lord. After each miracle, the children of Israel regressed into their former corrupt ways. They made a golden calf and bowed low to it. They repeatedly muttered about their situation and rebelled against Moses and Aaron. Ten of the spies gave pessimistic reports and the whole community believed them. If this chosen people, who had directly experienced so many miracles, could not have faith, then who could?

It must be remembered, however, that the people had been away from the fleshpots of Egypt and living under the Law for less than two years. Hundreds of years of slavery had made them weak and uncertain. Now that they were in the desert, they had lost the security of bondage and yet they did not know how to govern themselves. These people were still Egyptian slaves at heart. In their fear of the unknown, they longed for the evils they had grown accustomed to in Egypt. As Maimonides says, “Man cannot be expected suddenly to leave the state of slavery and toiling in bricks and straw and the like, wash his soiled hands at the spur of the moment, and fight with giants.” The truth of the matter is that directly after their emancipation, the children of Israel were not yet ready to be faithful and holy people. They had been corrupted by slavery and idolatry and had not yet been transformed into a free and powerful nation. Take, for example, the beginning of the Book of Numbers. A census is taken to organize the people into any army but it become clear that they are not yet ready and able to fight.

On the other hand, the condition of the Israelites at the beginning of the Book of Joshua is completely different. Near the end of the Book of Numbers, a second census is taken but now the people are a mighty and effective fighting force and they would win their first great victories on the borders of the promised land. How did this incredible metamorphosis come about? After the first spy story, God condemns the Israelites to wander in the wilderness for forty years. The Torah has very little to say about what happened during those four decades but Maimonides reminds us that, “It is well-known that a nomadic existence under spartan conditions breeds courage, and the reverse, cravenness. In addition, a new generation of people grew up who had known no humiliation and bondage.” The natural death of the entire first generation of adults who were slaves (save the righteous Joshua and Caleb) brought about the birth of an unscarred, uncorrupted, and thus, a new people. They had been raised from birth under God’s Law and had lived under the harshest conditions. This was a toughened and purified people with complete and utter faith in the Lord. Although this people still carried the title of “children of Israel,” they were by no means the same people who crossed the Red Sea during the exodus. In fact, since they were a new people, all of the males who crossed the Jordan had to be circumcised. After thirty-eight years of living in the wilderness under God’s Law, the children of Israel were finally faithful and holy enough to enter the promised land and conquer their enemies.

Now, what were God’s alternatives when He decided to force the Israelites to wander in the desert for forty years or until the first generation of adults had died off? If God is all-powerful, He could have simply transformed the children of Israel into a faithful, holy, and powerful people all at once. The community wouldn’t have had to endure thirty-eight years in the wilderness in order to be purified. God also could have driven out the Canaanites by Himself. The Israelites would not have had to fight against and conquer their enemies. They could have walked into the land and quickly settled down. On the other hand, if God is all-good, since He chose not to do these things, He must have thought it better for the Israelites and their enemies to endure these two terrible ordeals. That is, God must have though it would prove better in the long run for the people to reform themselves and conquer their enemies with His assistance.

If the above analysis is correct, it would seem that the outcome of the first spy story was part of God’s plan. Does the text of the Torah support this conclusion?

At the beginning of today’s Torah passage, God seems to command Moses to send the spies. Yet, when ten of the spies and the whole community respond faithlessly, the Lord seems to be shocked. But, if God is all-knowing, He can not in any way be surprised.

Perhaps God set up a test of faith for the people—a test He knew they would fail and wanted them to fail. But if this is the case, God appears to be unjust for He is deceiving not only the people but also His faithful servants Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and Joshua. It also appears to be unfair for God to punish the people for failing a test He knew they could not pass. Thus, if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, He seems to act unjustly and if He acts justly, it seem He can’t be all-powerful and all-knowing.

Deuteronomy contains a possible solution to this dilemma. When Moses repeats the first spy story at the beginning of that book, he says nothing about God commanding the spy mission. Instead, he says that the people themselves urged him to send out the spies and that he approved of the plan. Many commentators, including Rashi and Nachmanides, explain the first telling of the story in the light of the second. According to this interpretation, God does not command the mission but merely agrees to the plan. Thus, it is not God but the people who are responsible for the disaster. God merely allows the people to act on their free will.

Yet this solution leaves us with another problem. For if God is all-knowing, He knows that the people will be faithless and if God is truly all-powerful and has planned everything, then He must have caused them to be faithless. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, how can humans truly have free will? And, if humans have free will, how can God be truly all-powerful and all-knowing? If God knows all things before they happen, they can never come out differently. If humans have free will there can be no overall Divine plan. Whichever way we look at it, the Torah seems to teach that the relationship between God and man is, and always will be, a mystery.

How is our situation different from and similar to the situation of the Israelites in Numbers? On the one hand, they had witnessed God’s revelation and miracles while we can only read about those great events. In this respect, it seems that it was easier for them to be faithful than it is for us. On the other hand, God’s Law was new to them while we have lived under it for thousands of years. In this respect it seems it would be easier for us to be faithful than it was for them. Yet, perhaps, the similarities between the two situations are more important than the differences. They were faced with the temptation of returning to the fleshpots of Egypt. We are faced with the temptation of abandoning Judaism for the pleasures of modern life. They were confronted with the difficulty of understanding a mysterious God and thus were tempted to return to idolatry. God’s ways are no less mysterious today and science seems to make it just as difficult to believe in such a being.

It looks like the problems of human faithfulness and of God’s nature, which our people have pondered for centuries, will have to be confronted by every new generation of Jews.

—Gregory Austen Zinman
June 20, 1987

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