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Self-Styled Spies

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Fourteen months after the Exodus, as the people of Israel were poised to enter and conquer the land promised by G-d to their ancestors, there occurred a tragic setback in the course of Jewish history.

Moses had dispatched twelve men—“all prestigious individuals, leaders of Israel”[1]—to survey the Holy Land and report back to the people on the nature of its terrain, its produce and its inhabitants. The spies brought back a most demoralizing account, causing the people to lose faith in G-d’s promise. As a result, that entire generation was deemed unfit to inherit the land, and it was decreed that they would spend the rest of their lives traversing the wilderness. Only forty years later did Moses’ successor, Joshua, lead a new generation across the Jordan River. (Joshua and Caleb were the only two of the spies to speak in praise of the land, and the only two of that generation to enter it.)

An old Chassidic saying says that a person lost in the forest was not instantaneously transported from a well-defined path into the thick of the forest. It all began with a slight deviation from the path, which led to a deviation of but several yards, which led to a deviation of many yards, and which ultimately deposited him many miles from his intended route. Life’s most tragic mistakes begin with the smallest of errors, which lead to graver errors, which are in turn compounded into mortal failings.

Where did these twelve leaders of Israel, hand-picked by Moses, go wrong? What was the initial deviation from their mission that led to their catastrophic sin?

Terms of Commission

The key is in the word “spies.” Throughout the Talmud and Midrash, the members of this ill-fated mission are referred to as “the spies” (meraglim); but there is no mention of this term in the Torah’s account of Moses’ sending them to scout the land. Instead, the term used is “surveyors” or “tourists” (tayarim): “Send men,” says G-d to Moses, “and they shall tour the land of Canaan”[2]; “And Moses sent them to tour the land”[3]; and so on throughout the account. It is only when Moses recounts the incident nearly forty years later in the book of Deuteronomy that he uses the term “spy.”[4]

Moses sent them as tourists, as a delegation charged to “see the land”[5]and report their findings to the people. It was they who reinvented their mission as the task to “spy” the land, to clandestinely appraise its strengths and weaknesses as a military target. This was completely unnecessary. G-d had promised them the land, and their victory over anyone who might challenge their right to it was assured. Their purpose was not to gather military intelligence, and certainly not to ascertain the feasibility of conquering it; it was to accord the people of Israel a view of the Holy Land which would motivate them in their new challenge to achieve the transformation from a people leading a spiritual existence in the desert[6]to a people creating a G-dly society upon the land.

Not only was spying the land unnecessary—it also cut off the self-styled spies from their source of integrity and empowerment. The law is that “A person’s agent is like the person himself”[7]; as agents of Moses they were literally extensions of his being, virtual “limbs” of the most perfect human being ever to walk the earth.[8] But the law also states that “An agent who deviates from his agency is no longer an agent.”[9] Moses was the very embodiment of truth[10]; spying—with its devious misrepresentation of oneself and one’s motives—was the very antithesis of Moses’ most basic characteristic. Having departed from the terms of their commission to pursue an activity so utterly alien to the one who sent them, they were now on their own, with nothing but their own fallible selves to fall back on.

Only Joshua and Caleb, who remained “surveyors of the land,”[11] retained their bond with Moses, ultimately achieving the purpose of their mission and leading the people of Israel to the land and life destined for them from the beginning of time.[12]

Based on an address by the Rebbe,  Shabbat Shelach 5745 (June 15, 1985)[13]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1]. Numbers 13:3.

[2]. Ibid., v. 1.

[3]. Ibid., v. 17.

[4]. Deuteronomy 1:24.

[5]. Numbers 13:18.

[6]. Where manna from heaven sustained them and they devoted themselves wholly to the study of Torah.

[7]. Talmud, Berachot 34b.

[8]. Maimonides’ introduction to Perek Chelek, The Seventh Principle.

[9]. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Agents and Partners, 1:2; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 182:2.

[10]. Psalms 65:11, as per Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 5:11; Talmud, Sanhedrin 111a.

[11]. Numbers 14:6.

[12]. See Rashi on Genesis 1:1.

[13]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXXIII, pp. 81-84.

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Murray Farber

You write that the meraglim reinvented their mission to clandestinely appraise the strength and weakness in the land. But wasnt that their mission? Numbers 13:18, Moses says … see the land…whether the people are strong or weak.

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