Free Agent


And G-d spoke to Moses, saying: “Send you men that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel. One man, one man, per tribe shall you send, each a prince among them…

Numbers 13:1-2

And you all approached me, and said: “Let us send men before us, that they may search out the land and bring us back word regarding the road by which we shall go up and the cities into which we shall enter.” And the thing was favorable in my eyes; and I took twelve men from amongst you, one man per tribe…

Deuteronomy 1:22-23

The commentaries reconcile these two accounts of the sending of the Spies by explaining that the initiative indeed came from the people of Israel. Moses then consulted with G-d, who said to him, “Send you men…” to imply: “Send them as dictated by your understanding. I am not telling you what to do. Do as you see fit.”[12] Thus, the Spies’ mission, while receiving G-d’s consent, was a purely human endeavor, born of the desire of the people and dispatched because “the thing was favorable” in Moses’ eyes.

The result was a tragic setback in the course of Jewish history. The Spies brought back a most demoralizing report and caused the people to lose faith in G-d’s promise of the land of Israel as their eternal heritage. The entire generation was then deemed unfit to inherit the land, and it was decreed that they would live out their lives in the desert. Only 40 years later did Moses’ successor, Joshua, lead a new generation across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. (Joshua and Caleb were the only two spies to speak in favor of conquering the land, and the only two of that generation to enter the land.)

Up until that time, G-d had imparted specific directives to Moses and the people of Israel virtually every step of the way. The case of the Spies was the first instance in which G-d said, “I’m not telling you what to do—do as you see fit.” Should this not have set off a warning light in the mind of Moses?

Indeed it did. Our sages tell us that Moses sent off Joshua with the blessing, “May G-d deliver you from the conspiracy of the Spies.”[13] So why did he send them? And if, for whatever reason, he thought it necessary to send them, why did he not at least bless them as he blessed Joshua? Even more amazing is the fact that a generation later, as the Jewish people finally stood ready (for the second time) to enter the land, Joshua himself dispatches spies(!) This time, there are no adverse results; but why did he again initiate a process which had ended so tragically in the past?

Obviously, Moses was well aware of the risks involved when embarking on a course of “Do as you see fit.” For man to strike out on his own, without precise instructions from On High and with only his finite and subjective judgment as his compass, is to enter a mine-field strewn with possibilities for error and failure. Yet Moses also knew that G-d was opening a new arena of human potential.


A most crucial element of our mission in life is the element of choice. Were G-d to have created man as a creature who cannot do wrong, then He might as well have created a perfect world in the first place, or no world at all. The entire point of G-d’s desire in creation is that there be a non-perfected world, and that we should choose to perfect it. It is precisely the possibility for error on our part that lends significance to our achievements.

The concept of choice exists on two levels. When G-d issues an explicit instruction to us, we still have the choice to defy His command. This, however, is choice in a more limited sense. For, in essence, our soul is “literally a part of G-d above”[14] and, deep down, has but a single desire: to fulfill the divine will. In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi: “A Jew is neither willing, nor is he able, to tear himself away from G-d.” When it comes down to it, each and every one of us desires only to do good, as defined by the will of G-d. The only “choice” we have is whether to suppress our innate will or to express it in our daily life.

Up until the episode of the Spies, this was the only choice offered the Jewish people. G-d provided unequivocal guidelines for each and every issue that confronted their lives. They had the choice to disobey, but to do so would run contrary to their deepest instincts.

The second level of choice was introduced with G-d’s reply to Moses regarding the Spies. When Moses heard G-d saying, “Do as you see fit,” he understood that G-d was opening another, even deeper and truer, dimension of choice in the life of man. By creating an area in which He, the creator and absolute master of the world, states, “I am not telling you what to do,” G-d was imparting an even greater significance to human actions. Here, and only here, is the choice truly real; here, and only here, is there nothing to compel us in either direction.

When we enter this arena, the risks are greater: the possibility to err is greater, and the consequences of our error more devastating. But when we succeed in discovering, without instruction and empowerment from Above, the optimum manner in which to “enter the Holy Land” and actualize the divine will, our deed is infinitely more valuable and significant.

The Self of Joshua

This was why Moses dispatched the Spies, though fully aware of the hazards of their mission, without so much as a blessing that they be safeguarded from the pitfalls of human endeavor. Were he to have blessed them—to have imparted to them of his own spiritual prowess to succeed in their mission—he would have undermined the uniqueness of the opportunity that G-d had granted by consenting that their mission be “by your understanding.” The entire point was that both Moses (in deciding whether to send them) and the Spies (in executing their mission) would be entirely on their own, guided and empowered solely by their own understanding and humanity.

The only one to receive Moses’ blessing was Joshua, who was Moses’ faithful “servant… never budging from [Moses’] tent.”[15] The unique relationship between Moses and Joshua is described in the Talmud with the following metaphor: “Moses’ face was like the face of the sun; Joshua’s face was like the face of the moon.”[16] On the most basic level, this expresses the superiority of Moses over Joshua, the latter being but a pale reflector of the former’s light; on a deeper level, this alludes to the depth of the bond between the greatest of teachers and the most devoted of disciples. As the moon has no luminance of its own but receives all of its light from the sun, so had Joshua completely abnegated his self to his master, so that everything he was and had derived from Moses.

For Moses to bless Joshua was not to empower Joshua with something that was not himself: Joshua’s entire self was Moses. Armed with Moses’ blessing, Joshua was truly and fully “on his own”—this was his essence and self, rather than something imposed on him from without.

Thus it was Joshua, who had successfully negotiated the arena of true and independent choice, who led the people of Israel into the land of Canaan. For the conquest of Canaan and its transformation into a “Holy Land” represents man’s entry into a place where there are no clear-cut divine directives to distinguish good from evil and right from wrong, and his independent discovery of how to sanctify this environment as a home for G-d.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Shelach, 5749 (July 1, 1989)[17]


Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[12]. Rashi on verse.

[13]. Rashi, Numbers 13:16.

[14]. Tanya, ch. 2, after Job 31:2.

[15]. Exodus 33:11.

[16]. Talmud, Bava Batra 75a; Rashi on Numbers 27:20.

[17]. Sefer HaSichot 5749, vol. II, pp. 536-540.


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Michael Mizrach
1 year ago

I am sorry, but I don’t understand your final conclusion: “For Moses to bless Joshua was not to empower Joshua with something that was not himself: Joshua’s entire self was Moses. Armed with Moses’ blessing, Joshua was truly and fully “on his own”—this was his essence and self, rather than something imposed on him from without.”

When you state, “Joshua’s entire self was Moses” and then add “Joshua was truly and fully “on his own”—this was his essence and self,” It seems like a contradiction. Joshua embodied his teacher Moses, so it was “imposed from without”. It was Moses acting through Joshua, not Joshua acting uniquely as Joshua.

Please clarify.

1 year ago

Thank for your comment, and for joining our show. Great question. Joshua embodied his leader and teacher fully, he wasn’t controlled by him.

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