This week’s parashat is taken from Numbers 13:1–15:41. Listen as David takes us through Parashat Shelach and unwraps the events surrounding the sin of the Ten Spies.
Follow along in the AUDIO PODCAST, and click on the play button below, reading along with the notes, as you listen to today's Parashat:
Let’s start with a very brief summary of the major event that occurs in this week’s parashah: Hashem instructs Moses to “shelach” (“שְׁלַח”), meaning “send forth” spies to spy out the Land of Canaan. The Nation of Israel is on the eve of entering and taking possession of the Land. Twelve distinguished men, 1 from each tribe, are sent out and returned – with 10 of them bearing a negative report, and the remaining 2 countering with a positive report. The people are swayed by the “majority report” and are ready to spring a cout d’état on Moses until Hashem intervenes. Hashem’s wrath is kindled and He is ready to annihilate the nation if not for the advocacy of Moses on Israel’s behalf. Hashem listens to Moses’ plea and holds back His wrath, but determines that the Children of Israel will not enter the Land for another 40 years – 1 year for each of the 40 days that the spies spent in the Land – until all of the current generation die off in the Wilderness.
And so we open up with Hashem saying the following to Moses in Numbers 13:2:
שְׁלַח־לְךָ֣ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְיָתֻ֙רוּ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֥י נֹתֵ֖ן לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
“Send forth for yourself men, and let them spy out the Land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel…”
The most obvious question is: Why the need to spy out the Land? If it was promised to the Children of Israel going all the way back to Abraham, could they not just waltz right in? Did they not have a covenant with the Almighty God of the Universe? The same Almighty God that freed them from their bondage in Egypt through 10 mighty plagues, and brought them through the midst of the Sea of Reeds?
The simple answer is: The Children of Israel did what any other nation would logically do – they sent select men to spy out the Land – to evaluate it from every angle, just as per Moses’ specific questions to them in Numbers 13:18-20:
“See the land – what is it? And the people that dwells in it – are they strong or weak? Are they few or numerous? And how is the land in which they dwell – is it good or is it bad? And how are the cities in which they dwell – are they in open cities or in fortified cities? And how is the land – is it fertile or is it lean? Are there trees in it or not?”
But that does not answer why Hashem instructed Moses to carry out this spy mission. Let’s analyze the first few words of Numbers 13:2. Hashem instructed Moses: “Send forth (שְׁלַח)… for yourself (לְךָ)… men”. Why say “for yourself” (לְךָ)? Would it not have sufficed to simply say: “Send forth men”?
The style of speaking here is as if Hashem was responding to a situation – as if there was already a preconceived plan, formulated by the people, to spy out the Land, and Hashem was merely giving them an open invitation to follow their preconceived plan.
Moreover, the language is not dissimilar to how Hashem spoke to Abraham in Parashat Lech Lecha, in Genesis 12:1:
“Go for yourself from your land…”
Similarly in Genesis 12, we are not given the preceding circumstances, but there was certainly something that occurred prior to this passage that caused Hashem to say this to Abraham.
If we look forward to Parashat Devarim, we read a different perspective in Deuteronomy 1:19-23:
“Then I [Moses] said to you, “You have come until the mountain of the Amorite that Hashem, our God, gives us. See – Hashem, your God, has placed the Land before you; go up and take possession, as Hashem, God of your forefathers, has spoken to you. Do not fear and do not lose resolve.” You approached me, all of you, and said, “Let us send men ahead of us and let them spy out the land, and bring word back to us: the road on which we should ascend and the cities to which we should come.” The matter was good in my eyes…”
So it was the people that initially requested this action to send spies into the Land, and “it was good in [Moses’] eyes”, meaning that Moses found the mission favourable, and finally, Hashem gave the approval to proceed with the mission.
As per Hashem’s instructions, Moses vetted the 12 men who were characterized as “distinguished” men, heads of the Children of Israel. Perhaps it is for this very reason that Moses was concerned and cautious. And it is at this point that Moses changed Hoshea’s name to Joshua in Numbers 13:16:
וַיִּקְרָ֥א מֹשֶׁ֛ה לְהוֹשֵׁ֥עַ בִּן־נ֖וּן יְהוֹשֻֽׁעַ׃
“And Moses called Hoshea son of Nun Yehoshua.”
Why did Moses single out Joshua for this unique event? Yes, Joshua was Moses’ servant, student and protégé. Yet, that doesn’t fully explain why Moses singled him out. Prior to this verse, we are told the names of each of the spies. If we evaluate the meanings of the names, an interesting pattern is revealed. We find that some of the individual’s names suggested questionable character traits – for instance, Sethur means “contradicted”, and Nachbi means “hidden”. Perhaps this was a reason for Moses to suspect that a plot was afoot. Nevertheless, he found it necessary to rename Hoshea (meaning “salvation”) to Yehoshua (meaning “Hashem saves”), by adding a “yod” (י) letter to his name. This name change speaks volumes – Moses felt that Joshua needed a new name to empower him against any such plot. [Note: This is similar to Hashem changing the name of Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah (by adding a “heh” (ה) letter to both of their names). As an aside, the “yod” (י) and “heh” (ה) are two of the letters that make up the Ineffable Name of Hashem (“Y-H-V-H”).
However the plot occurred, it was either that:  All of the spies left with good intentions but that 10 were corrupted along the way; or  That there was deceit planted from the start amongst some of them by others in the Camp looking to supplant Moses’ leadership (think forward to next week’s parashah and Korach’s revolt). Whatever the reason, there was ultimately a plot that was schemed, and bottom-line: Hashem allowed it to happen.
We already saw special treatment by Moses for Joshua, but what about Caleb – the second spy – that returned with a favourable report? Perhaps Moses suspected him as being a part of the plot and counted him along with the others. One meaning of his name is “like the heart” meaning he could be swayed one way or another. It says later in Numbers 13:22:
“They ascended in the south and “he” arrived at Hebron, where there were Ahiman, Shechai and Talmai, the offspring of the giant.”
Who is “he” referring to? None other than Caleb, to whom Hashem said in Numbers 14:24:
“Because a different spirit was with him and he followed after Me wholeheartedly, I shall bring him to the Land to which he came, and his offspring will drive out its inhabitants”.
We just read that Caleb arrived at Hebron – what is so significant about Hebron? Or rather, the question is – what was at Hebron that led Caleb to risk his life to go there? The Cave of Machpelah, the burial tomb of Abraham (and Sarah), Isaac (and Rebekah), and Jacob (and Leah). At this point in the history of the Children of Israel, this was the only real, tangible connection they had to the Land. It was a place of remembrance – a powerful reminder of their heritage, and the Covenant made by Hashem with Abraham hundreds of years earlier. Caleb went there to find strength – he went out of his way, risked his life to connect with his ancestors and rekindle the purpose and drive to carry out this mission, and to remember why he was there.
Let’s return back to the opening verse. The verse continues to say: “let them spy out the Land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel.” Hashem referred to the Land of Canaan as His to give. This points to the ultimate test here from Hashem: The spies needed to recognize that the Land was a gift from Hashem. The Land was beyond the ability of Israel to conquer – Israel could not take the Land by any natural means. It was only by the mighty hand of Hashem that they could accomplish this, and they had to recognize this. They had to look beyond what they saw with their eyes – powerful people, fortified cities, and giants – and recognize that they were going to inherit the Land only through the almighty power of Hashem who was going to give them the Land.
When the spies returned at the end of the 40 days, they reported in Numbers 13:27-28:
בָּ֕אנוּ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֣ר שְׁלַחְתָּ֑נוּ וְ֠גַם זָבַ֨ת חָלָ֥ב וּדְבַ֛שׁ הִ֖וא וְזֶה־פִּרְיָֽהּ׃
אֶפֶס כִּֽי־עַ֣ז הָעָ֔ם הַיֹּשֵׁ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְהֶֽעָרִ֗ים בְּצֻר֤וֹת גְּדֹלֹת֙ מְאֹ֔ד וְגַם־יְלִדֵ֥י הָֽעֲנָ֖ק רָאִ֥ינוּ שָֽׁם׃
“We arrived at the land to which you sent us, and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. But [“efes”] – the people that dwells in the land is powerful, the cities are very fortified and large, and we also saw there the offspring of the giant.”
Everything in this statement was accurate of the Land – from the produce of the Land to the powerful people, to the fortified cities, to the giants; however, the 10 spies added the word “efes” (“אֶפֶס”, “but”).
This is why Caleb interjected and said in Numbers 13:30: “We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it!” However, it was after this that the 10 spies elaborated on the impossibility of conquering the Land, feeding fear into the hearts and minds of the Children of Israel. At this point, the people responded in despair and said in Numbers 14:2: “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, or would that we had died in this wilderness!”
With this statement, the Children of Israel sealed their fate in the Wilderness. Hashem said to Moses in Numbers 14:11:
“To what point will this people anger Me, and how long will they not have faith in Me, despite all the signs that I have performed in its midst? I will smite them with the plague and annihilate them, and I shall make you a greater and more powerful nation than they.”
This is a near-repeat of what happened at Mount Sinai when the people sinned with the Golden Calf. In a similar fashion, Moses stepped in, interceding and advocating on behalf of the people, and pointing out to Hashem that such an act would be a desecration of His Name amongst the nations.
At this point, Moses said in Numbers 14:17:
וְעַתָּ֕ה יִגְדַּל־נָ֖א כֹּ֣חַ אֲדֹנָ֑י כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּ֖רְתָּ לֵאמֹֽר׃
“And now – may now the strength of my Lord be magnified as You have spoken, saying…”
This is a powerful opening line for Moses’ petition for mercy from Hashem. The use of the word “now” twice can be explained as an allusion to repentance (teshuvah). The second use of the word “now” (“נָא”, pronounced “na”) is what stresses that the magnification of Hashem's Name could occur only “now”, after the sin of the spies – that Hashem should accept the repentance of the Jewish people. Why? Because there is a much greater level of sanctification of Hashem’s Name when the wicked better their ways, more so than when the righteous persist in their righteous ways. In other words, Moses was saying that Hashem’s Name would be magnified more greatly through their act of repentance after having committed such a rebellious act against the Almighty.
On a deeper level, perhaps Moses was looking beyond just this generation and well into the future when he spoke these words. Moses used the title “Adonai” (“my Lord”) here, perhaps alluding to the future Messiah. This could be used in conjunction with Psalm 110:1: “Hashem declared to “my Lord”, “Sit at My right hand while I make your enemies your footstool.” Perhaps Moses was pointing to a future redeemer that would be a greater point of salvation. More on this later.
Hashem listened to Moses’ plea and responded in Numbers 14:20: “I have forgiven them in accordance with your words.” However, he continued in Numbers 14:32-34, “But your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness. Your children will roam in the wilderness for forty years and bear your guilt, until your carcasses shall cease to be in the Wilderness.”
Moses advocated on behalf of the people, but his advocating could only go so far. It is as though the people condemned themselves by their own mouths when they said in Numbers 14:2: “would that we had died in this wilderness!”
The people reacted by mourning exceedingly. Was this mourning genuine? It doesn’t seem so. The next morning, they said (Numbers 14:40): “We are ready, and we shall ascend to the place of which Hashem has spoken, for we have sinned.” However, Moses warned them that Hashem was not with them, yet they proceeded, and were beaten back by the Amalekites and Canaanites. They had not learned their lesson. They were attempting to once again take action into their own hands.
Nevertheless, Hashem still consoled the people by saying these words in Numbers 15:2: “When you will come to the Land of your dwelling places that I give you.” Hashem’s promise to His people still stood; however, it would not crystalize for another 40 years.
Throughout the Wilderness thus far, the people lacked substantial faith in Hashem, they had such short-term memories after all that Hashem had done for them in bringing them up out of Egypt. I think of the beautiful Song of the Sea, as the people sung after their great salvation along the shore of the Sea of Reeds, and in particular this one line (Exodus 15:11):
מִֽי־כָמֹ֤כָה בָּֽאֵלִם֙ יְהוָ֔ה מִ֥י כָּמֹ֖כָה נֶאְדָּ֣ר בַּקֹּ֑דֶשׁ נוֹרָ֥א תְהִלֹּ֖ת עֹ֥שֵׂה פֶֽלֶא׃
“Who is like You, Hashem, among the gods? Who is like You; glorified in holiness, awesome in praise, producing wonders?”
The Children of Israel had just witnessed such a mighty act of salvation, and they responded in praise to Hashem. However, between the Sea of Reeds and this week’s parashah about the 10 spies, this praiseful sentiment was not sustained. Why? Because of their short-sightedness.
With this test of the spies, Hashem let them go through with their plot. He said, “Perhaps they will return from the Land and speak with one voice of the goodness of the Land to which I am giving them.” Rather, they lost sight of Hashem. Once the spies were no longer in proximity to the Camp, the influence of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and the guidance of Moses their leader, the real testing began. The only ones to stand firmly in Hashem were Joshua and Caleb.
In the Haftarah, Joshua sent out a spy mission of his own in their first conquest in the Land, that of the city of Jericho. He did not send 12 men, but rather only 2. He surely took a page out of the experience here. What was the result? The two men returned with favourable reports and confidence, grounded in their faith in Hashem. And it was shocking that those in the Land were still living in fear of the Israelites, and this was 40 years later!
So, what are we to take from this week’s parashah? Just like the spies, we venture into unknown territory each and every day as we leave the safety net of our homes and congregations. It is much easier to proclaim that Hashem is our Almighty God and that our faith is unwavering when we are in the company of like-minded individuals. The true testing begins when we leave that safety net. What do we have to remind us who we are connected to? Joshua found strength in the new name that Moses gave to him. Caleb found his connection at the Cave of Machpelah. These were reminders to the two men that they were connected to Hashem. This gave them strength to stand up to the negative report of the other 10 spies.
As for us? We have Yeshua HaMashiach – the promised Messiah, the “greater point of salvation” as I referred to earlier on. He may not be physically here with us, but he is our connection to Hashem – it is through him that we are saved. What is the meaning of the name “Yeshua”? “He will save”. We have been saved through him, through the self-nullifying action of his death.
Moreover, what did Yeshua say to his disciples prior to his death? We read in Luke 22:19-20:
“He took the bread, made a berachah (blessing), and broke it. He gave it to them and said: ‘This is my body, which is given on your behalf. Do this in my remembrance.’ He did likewise with the cup after the meal, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out on your behalf.’”
Yeshua gave his disciples (and us) emblems to remember him by, infused with deep symbolism of his great act of self-sacrifice, so that we may be reminded of what he did for us and to replicate him in our everyday lives until he returns once more. Throughout his life on earth, Yeshua perfectly mirrored Hashem; and only by replicating Yeshua can we accomplish the same. Only then can we face obstacles in our lives and recognize that through Hashem, we can be victorious!
Just as Joshua and Caleb found those connections that helped to keep them focused on Hashem, may we remind ourselves each and every day of the great salvation that we have attained through Yeshua HaMashiach, whether through the thought of what Yeshua did for us through his self-sacrifice, or through the emblems of the bread and wine that we can partake of in remembrance of him. All for the purpose of drawing us into closer connection with our Heavenly Father. As a result, may we stay focused on the missions of our lives, serving Hashem and Hashem only with all of our hearts, minds, strengths and resources.