Biblical Espionage

Shelah Lekha | Tishah Be'av By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jun 24, 1995 / 5755 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

The story of the twelve spies is well-known and straightforward. As Israel approaches the Promised Land from the south, God instructs Moses to assemble a band of spies, one prominent man from each tribe to measure the strength of its inhabitants: “Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell, good or bad? Are the towns they live in, open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land” (Numbers 13:18-20).

After a stay of forty days, the spies return disconsolate. The land is well-fortified and the natives gigantic. In comparison to them, they report, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33). Despite the brave efforts of Joshua and Caleb, the people balk and rebel. They prefer to head back to Egypt, to settle for what they know, rather than venture an invasion. Their failure of nerve persuades God that this generation of redeemed slaves will never be up to fighting for its freedom. A steady diet of miracles has not produced a nation of adults both trusting and self-reliant. And so the Israelites who witnessed the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation of Sinai are condemned to die in the wilderness.

The Rabbis read this story more subtly. They caught the nuances of the Hebrew text lost in translation that point to a greater degree of ambiguity. In their hands, it becomes a tale of public advocacy to dispel a popular predisposition. Indeed they claim that, contrary to Moses’ intention, the spies went primarily to defame the land of Canaan. They entertained no thought of bringing back anything but a negative report.

According to the Rabbis, the idea of a scouting party originated with Moses and not God. In the preposition l’kha (for you), “Send men for your purpose to scout the land of Canaan” (Numbers 13:1), which is omitted in the JPS translation, they detected an initiative by Moses to which God consented. And a bit later, the Torah stresses that, “Those were the names of the men whom Moses sent to scout the land” (Numbers 13:16), as if the scheme were his alone.

To reinforce the point, the Rabbis chose for this week’s haftarah another spy tale, the sending of two men by Joshua to Jericho (Joshua 2:1-24). The juxtaposition of the two stories makes it quite clear that espionage does not require a troop of twelve men. Even the midrash speculates as to how such a large number of spies could have managed to avoid detection. A bit of divine intervention helped. Wherever they came, God arranged the death of an important citizen, so that the town would be absorbed in mourning and fail to notice the foreigners in its midst. When the spies returned to Moses with their preconceived fears intact, they listed the frequency of death as a telling part of their indictment: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers” (Numbers 13:32). Their bias blinded them to the miracles that had saved their lives. God had accompanied them on their journey; the land and climate were not inhospitable to humans.

In others words, the very size of the party sent by Moses suggests a motive other than espionage. The inclusion of one spy from each tribe amounts to an effort to change public opinion. There was not much enthusiasm for invading Canaan. The people that Moses had brought out of bondage had no stomach for adversity. Every hardship prompted them to indulge in fantasies of fleshpots once enjoyed in Egypt. They were always on the brink of turning back.

It is for this reason that Moses designed a mission into Canaan: to capture the hearts of his people to crown their redemption with conquest. The invasion was the first action demanded of Israel. Till then, God had served their every need. Freedom did not mean only the absence of oppression, but also the ability to conduct their own affairs. Had they possessed enough faith and self-confidence, no mission would have been necessary. God had assured the people often enough that the land belonged to them, that it was fertile and that they would not have to fight alone.

Illustrative of their state of mind is the arresting contrast between the two reports separated by a generation. When the two spies returned from Jericho, they reported only what they saw and heard, especially the heartening words of Rahab, their local accomplice: “I know that the Lord has given the country to you, because the dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you” (Joshua 2:9). As we have seen, the twelve spies focused on their feelings: “We felt like grasshoppers.” They could not hide their insecurity and self-doubts. Moses’ plan had utterly failed.

When the people responded to the spies’ report with dismay and spent the night crying, God decided to delay the conquest by a generation. The Rabbis identified that fateful day as the Ninth of Av. They imagined God as declaring: “These people have cried for nought. I shall give them reason to cry on this day for all time!” And in fact they compiled a list of five specific calamities that allegedly took place on the Ninth of Av, making of Tish’ah Be’av, the supreme day of national mourning, next to Yom Kippur, the only other twenty-four hour fast of the Jewish year. In addition to the decree that doomed the generation of the Exodus, Tish’ah Be’av came to commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the fall of Bar Kochba at Betar and the plowing under of Jerusalem at some unspecified time.

The spirit of this list, which arbitrarily assigns events, real and imagined, to Tish’ah Be’av, does not offend me as a historian, for this construct is not about historical integrity (i.e. accuracy in dating) but excessive mourning. Survivors of nearly a century of fruitless and calamitous uprisings against Rome, the Rabbis of the post-Bar Kochba era (second half of the second century), sought to prevent Judaism from turning into an unrelieved dirge. The calendar should not be overwhelmed by days of commemoration, with each national tragedy claiming its own special day. Sanity prescribed the need for no more than one long day devoted to the catastrophes of the past. As Yom Kippur came to voice the angst of the individual Jew regarding his or her own fate, so Tish’ah Be’av grew to embrace the fate of the nation, assimilating ever more disasters in a determined quest for balance.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Sh’lah L’kha have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.