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The Spies’ Terrible Mistake
What could have motivated ten of the twelve spies to insinuate fear into the heart of the nation and rip them away from their loving Father?

The Spies’ Terrible Mistake

Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak

Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender


Have you ever found yourself in an argument just for the sake of being right? At some point in the conversation you might catch yourself saying something ridiculous and realize that your position just doesn’t make sense. Are you too embarrassed to admit that you were wrong? Do you persist in the argument despite the fact that you’re wrong – just for the sake of being “right”?

It’s not easy to choose truth over ego gratification. However, the consequences of such indulgence may be dire. Arguing for the wrong position at the right moment may even change the course of history.

Parashas Shelach depicts the Jewish People encamped on the borders of the Land of Israel. The Almighty had promised them miraculous help in conquering the land from the cruel, depraved nations dwelling there. However, He had also commanded them to take normative military action. After all, the Almighty is modest and prefers to save open miracles for particularly special occasions.

As such, Moshe (Moses) decided to send out a hand-picked intelligence cell to strategize for battle in a conventional manner. The cell was composed of twelve of the finest leaders the Jewish People had to offer: “One man each from his father’s tribe...every one a leader among them...all distinguished men; heads of the Children of Israel were they” (Numbers 13:2-3).

Their mission? To “see the Land – how is it? And the people that dwells in it – is it strong or weak? Is it few or numerous? And how is the Land in which it dwells – is it good or is it bad? And how are the cities in which it dwells – are they open or are they fortified?” (ibid 18-19). This wasn’t the problem. The problem began when the spies came back.

The twelve men had toured the Land of Israel for forty days. Upon their return to the Jewish encampment, the spies brought back a sampling from the country they had just investigated. Carrying them two men to a bushel, the spies had carried back several enormous bushels of grapes on their shoulders for all the nation to see.

The nation gathered around in excited anticipation. What would be the fateful report? Their lives were about to change forever and every word that the spies uttered would colour their first impressions of the country where they were to build a whole new world for themselves.

“We arrived at the Land to which you sent us, and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. But – the people that dwells in the Land is powerful, the cities are fortified and very great, and we also saw there the offspring of the giant. Amalek dwells in the area of the south...” (ibid 27-29).

Had the spies lied? No, the words they said were technically truthful. They had seen powerful people and well-fortified cities. They had been sent to report on the Land and report they did. They did more than that, though. They added one seemingly innocent word that coloured the entirety of what they said in a negative, frightening slant: “But”, “But – the people that dwells in the Land is powerful”.  And it was that one word that revealed the mutinous intentions shading all the purposes that they had gone for.

The spies could have stuck to the facts: “The people that dwells in the land is powerful.” No undertones. No subtext. No unspoken messages. After all, the Almighty Himself had promised to help them conquer these nations. Who were they to be afraid? Any such judgments could and should have been left to the man who spoke with the Almighty “face-to-face”, Moshe. They did not need to tack on their own two cents.

But they did anyway and the meta-message came through loud and clear: We have no chance of conquering these people. We have no chance of successfully taking this land. Imagine the casualties... Failure, suffering, and death are all we’re walking into. Is that what you want?

And just to really drive the nail into the coffin, the spies added the finishing touches on their propaganda: “We also saw there the offspring of the giant” (ibid). This is not a normal situation – this is really frightening! And, “Amalek dwells in the area of the south” (ibid). Remember Amalek? The nation that viciously attacked the frail and weak of our nation as we left Egypt? The nation that hated us so much that even witnessing the ten plagues that the Almighty had brought down upon Egypt and all the miracles He did for us did not deter them? Yeah, those people. They’re also waiting for us in the Land.

The Almighty had developed a pretty incredible credit rating up until then what with redeeming the Jewish People from Egypt, giving them the Torah, and providing them with a paradise-like existence travelling through the desert. The fearful report of the spies aimed to undermine every iota of the trust, intimacy, and warmth that had developed between the Almighty and the Jewish nation. They were destroying the most important thing in the world: the love between the Almighty and His people. The behaviour they were choosing was no less than genuine evil.

But two members of the intelligence cell did not share those evil intentions. They knew that the Almighty would come through with His promises and that there was no reason to be afraid. They also knew that the insidious manipulation of the other spies had to be stopped.  As the other spies’ manipulative report drew to a close, Calev ben Yefuneh (Caleb son of Jephunneh) and Yehoshua ben Nun (Joshua son of Nun) made their way to the front of the crowd, declaring, “We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it!” (ibid 30).

The temperance of the people shifted. Perhaps they needed not fear? Perhaps, after all, they would be able to begin the wonderful new life that the Almighty had promised them?

But like frail flowers cut down in the bud, the ugly purposes of the other spies rose up to slash apart these delicate new hopes. Abandoning subtlety to the wind, the other spies snarled back, “We cannot ascend to that people for it is too strong for us!” (ibid 31). And with those words, the hopes of the people died.

“The entire assembly raised up and issued its voice; the people wept that night. All the children of Israel murmured against Moshe and Aharon (Aaron), and the entire assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why is Hashem bringing us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and young children will be taken captive! Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?’” (ibid 14:1-3). The trusting, warm relationship they had developed with the Almighty was gone.

It only got worse. “They said to one another, ‘Let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt!” (ibid 4). They were a boat drifting without a moor, throwing off the yoke of their leaders, straying into a chaotic existence within kith or kin to lead them home. They were like a baby walking over to stick her hand in an exposed electric socket and they would let no one stop them.

It was this night of weeping and rebellion that began the tragedies to colour Jewish life through history. We have wept on the very same date, Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, for countless tragedies again and again throughout our history. The generation of the desert had set a trajectory for mutiny against the Almighty and the leaders He had provided for them and the tragic consequences of that decision continue to play out to this day.

The burning question is: Why? Why did the spies do it? What could have motivated ten of the twelve spies to insinuate fear into the heart of the nation and rip them away from their loving Father?

The answer is embarrassing for the simple reason that we often do the same thing ourselves. They subconsciously wanted to retain their leadership positions. They were scared that if the nation entered the land they wouldn’t be the heads of the tribes anymore. They might have known that they were wrong, but they wanted to be “right”. They wanted to stay in the authority position. They wanted to “win”. But because of their incredible arrogance and terrible cruelty, they – and we – lost bigger than they could have imagined.

Choices have consequences. Choosing ego-gratification over truth can set the trajectory for a lifetime. It wasn’t worth it then and it isn’t worth it now. Being “right” isn’t important enough to throw away a relationship with another person, and especially not to throw away a relationship with the Almighty. They eventually regretted their poor decision. Let’s not make the same mistake.

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