And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan; and he said to them: “Go up this way by the south, and go up into the high land. And you shall see the land—what it is…”
One of the greatest tragedies of Jewish history was the debacle of “The Spies.” Fifteen months after the Exodus from Egypt, as the people of Israel camped in the Paran Desert poised to enter the Holy Land, Moses dispatched twelve men—each a leader and representative of one of the twelve tribes of Israel—to spy the land that G-d had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Forty days later the spies returned praising the fertility of the land and bewailing the military might of its inhabitants. “But the people who dwell in the land are strong,” they said, “and the cities fortified and very great; we saw giants there… We won’t be able to go up against these people, for they are mightier than we.”
The Spies incited panic among the people, who wept that entire night in terror and despair.
“Why is G-d bringing us to this land,” they cried, “to fall by the sword, and that our wives and children be put to prey? Why, it would be better for us to return to Egypt!”
That night of faithless tears became “a weeping for generations.” G-d delayed Israel’s entry into the Holy Land for more than 38 years, until that entire generation had died out and a new generation, more trusting of G-d’s promises, had grown up to replace them. When the people of Israel entered the land of Canaan, it was not Moses who led them but his disciple, Joshua, who was but a pale moon to Moses’ sun. Our sages point out that Moses’ achievements were all eternal: the Torah he transmitted to us transcends the vicissitudes of time; the Sanctuary he built was never destroyed (unlike the Temples built by King Solomon and Ezra in Jerusalem). If Moses had brought us into our land, we would never have been driven from it; if Moses had built the Holy Temple, it would never have been destroyed. Thus, all the travails and defeats of Jewish history are descendent from the night that Israel wept for lack of trust in the divine promise.
The Reality of Sight
Where did the Spies go wrong? Why did their mission, dispatched by Moses with G-d’s approval, fail so miserably?
Before their departure, Moses had instructed the Spies to observe the nature of the land, the quality of the soil, and the strength of its inhabitants. Of these they gave an honest account, reporting on these realities as they saw them. But Moses had prefaced his instructions with the injunction: “You shall see the land.”
Sight is more than a faculty, more than just another sensory tool. To hear, smell, taste or touch something is to “perceive” it, to collect data that informs us about its nature and characteristics; to see something is to experience it. When we say, “I saw it myself,” we are really saying: “This is a truth I have experienced absolutely. So there is no way that you can convince me otherwise. This is not something that has been ‘proven’ to me and which might therefore be ‘disproved’ with stronger, more compelling arguments and proofs. This is something I have seen. This, to me, is reality.”
“You shall see the land,” said Moses to the Spies. I am not sending you as mere gatherers of data; I am sending you as spies in the most literal sense of the word: as those whose mission is to see.
I am sending you, Moses was saying, to serve as the eyes of Israel: the eyes through whom the nation would achieve an absolute and unequivocal identification with their divine heritage; the eyes through whom they would experience its reality in a way that cannot be swayed by mundane data, however adverse or threatening.
This was where the Spies failed their mission. They traversed the land, examined and probed it, sniffed about and sounded it out, and analyzed the facts they had garnered. But they failed to see the land, and failed to bring back sight of the land to the people of Israel.
Before his passing, Moses pleaded with G-d: “Please, let me cross over and see the good land across the Jordan; the goodly mountain and the Lebanon.”
G-d did not allow Moses to “cross over,” but He did grant him his request to see.
“Ascend to the summit, and lift your eyes westward, northward, southward and eastward, and see with your eyes…. I have shown it to you so that you see it with your eyes, though you shall not cross over to there.”
Our sages tell us that every soul possesses a spark of the soul of Moses. Moses’ sight of the land empowers each and every one of us to “see” the holiness and perfection of G-d’s native home and make it an unequivocal reality in our lives.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Shelach 5711 (June 30, 1951)and on other occasions
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. Numbers 13:27-31.
. Ibid. 14:1-3.
. Talmud, Taanit 29a; see note 6 below.
. Ibid., Bava Batra 75a; Rashi on Numbers 27:20.
. See Talmud, Sotah 9a; Megalleh Amukot, Ofan 185; Ohr HaChaim on Deuteronomy 1:37 and 3:25; Ohr HaTorah, Va’etchanan, pp. 65, 93 and 2201; et al.
The reason that Moses’ work is eternal is that his every thought, word and deed was done in a state of utter attachment to G-d. Thus, the angel who appeared to Joshua to aid Israel’s conquest of the land said, “Now I have come” (Joshua 5:14)— “Now,” since in the days of Moses, when G-d proposed to send an angel to accompany them, Moses had insisted: “If Your own self is not going [with us], do not take us out of here” (Exodus 33:15; Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim 18).
(The difference between Moses and Joshua is alluded to by the Talmudic saying that compares Moses to the enduring sun and Joshua to the fluctuating moon, whose light waxes and wanes and, on the darkest of nights, is completely concealed.)
. The night following the return of the Spies was the night of Av 9—the day that saw the destruction of both the first and second Temples and numerous other tragic events in our history.
. See the following essay.
. Deuteronomy 3:23-25. “Lebanon” refers to the Holy Temple.
. Ibid. v. 27; 34:4.
. Tanya, ch. 42.
. Torat Menachem—Hitvaaduyot, vol. III, pp. 164-173.