Parshas Sh’lach Lecha; The Sin of the Spies
Our sedra mainly deals with the sin of the spies. Let’s start by pointing out several questions or difficulties; some arising via the wording of the psukim and some in concept. It will all be best understood with a thorough reading of the psukim themselves.
Firstly, as Rashi tells us (13;2) it was not HaShem who ordered the spies to be sent; rather He merely acceded to Bnei Yisrael’s request (as told in Devarim 1;22). Several questions can be asked on this; why are the psukim written to imply that HaShem indeed did order to send the spies (‘And HaShem spoke to Moshe saying send for you people to spy out the land…’)? And more deeply, if sending the spies was a bad idea, why did HaShem agree? And if the sending was a lack of emunah in HaShem having said that Eretz Yisrael was a good land, (as told by Rashi 13;2) why not punish us there and then? Lastly, why does it use (13;2) the seemingly unnecessarily vague phrase of that we should send ‘kol nesi vahem’ (‘every prince in/amongst them‘); say ‘send the Nasi of each tribe? ’
The central question, however, is what exactly was the sin of the spies; the gemarra (bava basra 121a) says that because of this sin, HaShem did not talk with Moshe for 38 years, and HaShem wanted to wipe out the entire nation (14;12). What exactly was the sin and why was it so bad? To make matters worse, though Rashi (13;2) and the pasuk 13;32 imply that the sin was one of lashon hara against Eretz Yisrael, (‘and those who spoke derogatorily about the land died…14;37) there are other psukim which seem to say that the sin was lack of faith in HaShem being able to conquer the land (13;31 ‘we can’t go up’) and HaShem Himself (14;11) says ‘how far will they not believe in Me.’ So which sin is it, lashon hara or lack of emunah in HaShem’s Abilities? Moreover, given that these were 12 great people, heads of tribes, how could they have sinned? And the story continues…
Rashi (13;16) points out that Moshe davened for a yud to be added to the name of Yehoshua (before the spies were sent) so that he should be saved from the spies’ counsel. But if Moshe already knew that the spies were to sin, why did he send them? (A must-see is the ‘Chofetz Chaim al haTorah’ 13;16 for the differences between Calev and Yehoshua’s tactics and why only Yehoshua needed davening for.) Additionally, after the spies begin their report upon returning to the Jewish camp (13;27) it says that ’Calev quietened the people’ (13;30) - since when had the people started speaking; only the spies had been telling their report? To make matters worse, in Devarim (1;25) it says that the spies said that ‘the land is good,’ but here (13;32) they clearly say that it was ‘a land that swallows those who live there?’
The final questions come from what happens after the spies give their report. The people cry (14;1) at the report, thinking that they will all die in trying to conquer Eretz Yisrael. Moshe then gains forgiveness for them, with the punishment of them not entering the land (14;13-25), and HaShem says ‘I have forgiven according to your words.’ But immediately afterwards, in the next paragraph in the Torah, (14;26) it says that HaShem is angry at Bnei Yisrael and adds a punishment that they will all wander round for 40 years (as opposed to us going into the land now, just leaving the sinners behind). What is this paragraph if HaShem has just forgiven us? And in the haftarah we read that Yehoshua (later leader when about to enter the land) sends two spies to Jericho, who shelter in a harlot’s house. Why risk repeating the same sin in sending spies? And why go to a harlot’s home of all people?
All the above questions need to be answered in one way or another. My suggestion is the following. It has some good points, but also things which are not so clear, but all we can do is try. And parts I have heard from others. Here goes… The spies had a very important but difficult job. They knew that going into the Land of Israel would mark the end of a direct miracle-relationship with HaShem (no more manna, etc) and the end of their positions as princes. So, the decision to send the spies (whilst not a holy, spiritually lofty idea) was not integrally bad; it just ‘raised the stakes’ - it gave the opportunity for the spies to display a massive Kiddush HaShem by confirming the goodness of the land, facilitating entry into Israel, and giving their positions/kavod back to its Source; HaShem. This explains the phrase ‘kol nesi vahem,’ which literally means ’each Nasi in them,’ (and the pasuk implying HaShem’s command) since perhaps HaShem really did command something; He did not command the sending of spies, but did order ‘kol nesi vahem’ ie that if they were sending spies that every last part of princedom within the 12 should be sent, for this was the goal of the mission - to give back the kavod to its Creator. Thus Moshe knew that possibility of sin existed; it could only be a voluntary Kiddush HaShem if there was an option to do otherwise, and so Moshe davened for Yehoshua not to be persuaded by the option of sin. In fact, this was the origin of the sin of the spies; they wanted to hold onto their kavod as well as keep this miracle-reliant relationship between Klal Yisrael and HaShem. And in the haftarah Yehoshua atones for the sin by sending his spies successfully into Israel (and he makes sure they are proven, worthy, great spies; Calev and Pinchas). So too do they go to the home of a harlot to display that they were not bound by the kavod which was the downfall of the ten spies.
Now on to the second part - the actual sin (as opposed to just the reasons for it) and its punishment. What exactly did the spies and Bnei Yisrael do wrong? The spies start off by saying that the land is ‘flowing with milk and honey,’ then go on to say ambiguous things about the strong nations around the land (13;27-28). It is here already (even before they say clearly and negatively that the ‘land consumes its inhabitants’ in 13;32) that Calev needs to ‘quieten the people’ (13;30) because they already made up their minds. Sometimes we hear what we want to hear, and Bnei Yisrael wanted to hear negative things about the land, and so heard them from the ambiguous words even before the real negativity started. Thus, Moshe says in Devarim (1;25) that the spies said that the ‘land is good,’ because the sin started there already; Bnei Yisrael heard negativity from even these statements. The fact that Bnei Yisrael were looking for this negative report showed the real reason for their idea to send spies; it was now a lack of emunah in HaShem’s abilities to conquer the Land of Israel.
However, the sin does not stop at a lack of emunah. As mentioned above, there was another element in the sin - that of lashon hara against Eretz Yisrael. The fact that there were two sins helps us understand the differences between the two paragraphs regarding the punishments in perek 14.
The essence is that psukim 11-25 are about the sin of emunah whilst the separate paragraph of psukim 26-38 concern the sin of lashon hara against Eretz Yisrael. This is why HaShem initially wanted to wipe the entire nation out for the sin of emunah (12) and why that paragraph starts off with ‘how long will they not believe in Me’ (11) whilst the other paragraph speaks of the people who ‘spoke badly,’ (37) for this regards the sin of lashon hara. So too in the first paragraph do we receive the measure for measure punishment that since we showed a lack of emunah of HaShem taking us into the land, we were banned from entering the land (23). And notice that Calev’s reward alone is mentioned in this paragraph, since Calev was the one who alone spoke out against the spies for saying that the nations are too strong (13;29-30) and insisting that ‘we can go up (to the land)’ - he fought against the emunah sin. (the real lashon hara only came after Calev said his words). But the second paragraph mentions Yehoshua and Calev (38) since they together speak out against predominantly against the lashon hara sin (6). But the second paragraph is about the sin of lashon hara, and the punishment here is death in the desert and the years of wandering around. [Thus, Rashi (Bamidbar 26;64) points out that the women did not die out in the desert for the sin of the spies since they loved the land - by implication thus that the punishment of dieing out was because of lashon hara against the land.] This is why there is an abrupt change between the paragraphs, with HaShem’s anger after having seemingly forgiven us; because He forgave us for the emunah sin, but now this paragraph is about a different sin; that of lashon hara. The reason why the punishment here is seemingly so harsh is because of the gravity of the sin of lashon hara that lashon hara drags back previous sins and makes one get punished more stringently for those too. Thus, via the lashon hara Bnei Yisrael did not just get punished for this sin, but in essence for parts of the previous sins too; HaShem says (14;22) ‘they tested Me ten times,’ (referring to the ten sins Bnei Yisrael did in the desert) since they now get punished for the complete unit of ten past sins due to this lashon hara. This might also be the explanation of a complicated Rashi (14;33) which says that when Bnei Yisrael sinned at the golden calf, HaShem decided the decree of wandering around for 40 years in the desert, but waited until the sin of the spies to utilise it. The point is, according to the above, that the lashon hara dragged back the deserved punishments for past sins.
If the attempted answer is not good, then at least the questions hopefully gave food for thought.
Have a great Shabbes,

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