THE SPIES – FOOLS, SCOUNDRELS OR TZADDIKIM?
The reader of the “meraglim” (the spies) narrative discerns that the Torah does not call the group of men sent by Moshe to tour the Land ‘meraglim’; that appellation was applied to them by our Sages.
The Torah does employ the term, but places it in the mouth of Yosef, as he accuses his brothers: “And Yosef recalled the dreams which he had dreamt, and he
said to them: You are meraglim –to seek the weakness of the land. have you come.” (Bereishit 42:9)
‘Meragel’ is, in this context, one who has come to scout “the weakness of the land”.
Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, author of the commentary Baal Haturim, links Yosef’s ‘accusation’ of his brothers to our parasha’s story of the meraglim, and these are his words: “You are spies!” – This means “you and not I, for Yehoshua, who will descend from me, was not partner to the spies’ scheme.” And they said: “Your servants were not spies” - Yehuda was the one who spoke, for he was the main speaker; “and from me will descend Calev who was not partner to the spies’ scheme.” “. . . were not . . .” is the gematriya equivalent of ‘Calev’.
(Baal HaTurim, Bereishit 42:9)
The Torah designates the spies ‘anashim’ – ‘men’ – denoting honorable men, even brave men. For example, Rashi:
“All of them men” The term ‘anashim’ in Scripture always denotes importance, and at that moment they were all honorable men.
Or Ibn Ezra:
And the reason for [calling them] “anashim”: They were renowned and were heroes.
And also Sforno:
“All of them men” – brave men. “And these are their names” – all important, each by his name according to their qualities.
Our Sages of the midrash sensed the difficulty, and dealt with the question of the character of those “spies.”
“He who sends a message by a dullard will wear out legs and must put up with lawlessness.” Were the spies dullards? Has it not been said “Send you men [anashim]”, and whenever scripture says ‘men’ it indicates they are righteous men! Similarly it says (Shemot 17): “And Moshe said to Yehoshua, Chose for us men.” And thus does it say (I Samuel 17) “And in the days of Saul the man was already old, advanced in years.” And also (I Samuel 1) “And if You will grant your maidservant a male child [literally – seed of men]”. Are all these to be termed ‘dullards’? They, the spies, were called ‘dullards’ because they spoke slanderously of the Land, as is written (Proverbs 10) “He who spreads calumny is a dullard”. Despite this, they were great men, but they made dullards of themselves, and about them Moshe said (Devarim 32): “Indeed, a generation of overturning are they, children in whom one cannot trust.” They were chosen from among all Israel by The Holy One, Blessed Be He, and by Moshe, as is written (Ibid 1) “The matter was good in my eyes, so I took from among you twelve men” – indicating that they were tzaddikim in the eyes of Israel and in the eyes of Moshe, but Moshe was reluctant to send them without consulting with The Holy One, Blessed Be He, regarding each one of them, “So-and-so from this tribe” and He said, “They are suitable”. And from where do we learn that The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said that they were suitable? It is written (Bemidbar 13) “So
Moshe sent them from the Wilderness of Paran, by order of God” and afterwards, at the end of forty days, they turned around and generated all the trouble, and caused that generation to suffer that punishment, as is written, “ a generation of overturning are they”, for they were chosen as tzaddikim, and turned about, and therefore does it say, “Send for yourself men . . . and these were the names of the men.”
(Bemidbar Rabba, Bemidbar, Parasha 15:5)
Our Sages are, in effect, emphatically stressing the careful process of selection which the spies underwent. They were tzaddikim in the eyes of Israel and of Moshe, and even received a ‘hechsher’ from The Holy One, Blessed Be He, Himself.
It is, therefore, difficult to understand “How did the mighty fall?” This was not a group whose slander of the Land could have been foreseen. They were not the kind of people who could be expected to demoralize the nation and lead to the tragic consequences described by the Torah and the Talmud (Sanhedrin 90a):
“The spies have no portion in the world to come” and “The Generation
of the Wilderness has no portion of the world to come.”
The sin of the meraglim and of the generation which was swayed by them was so great that not only were they denied entry into the Land of Israel, but they will also never reach the world to come – even though “All Israel has a portion in the world to come.”
We may ask two penetrating questions:
1. How is it that such righteous and heroic men should stumble in their mission?
2. What was so grave about their actions that brought about their non-admittance into the Land of Israel, and deprivation of their portion of the world to come?
The above-quoted midrash refers to them as ‘a generation of overturning’, but
states that they changed from tzaddikim to ‘dullards’ – but not necessary to wicked men.
Rashi, however, following the Tanhuma, terms them ‘wicked’ because they “failed to learn the moral of the lesson of Miriam.”
It must be mentioned that the Talmud (Sotah 35a) presents the view of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai: “[Their] going is compared to [their] coming; just as their coming was with bad counsel, so was their going with bad counsel.”
But the prevailing view seems to be that – even according to the plain reading of Scripture – we are dealing with people who had exceptionally fine qualities, who committed a most serious transgression.
Many explanations have been offered as to the seriousness of their sin. Was it their complaint and the devastating influence upon the nation? Was there a lack of
faith? Is it that they were assigned to describe what they saw, and they sinned by failing to discriminate between factual report and judgmental evaluation, as often happens today with tendentious and selective reporting?
I would like to suggest another perspective, based upon a plain reading of the text.
In Chapter 13, verses 30-31, we read Calev’s reaction to the words of the spies: “Now Calev hushed the people before Moshe and said: Let us go up, yes, up, and possess it, for we can prevail, yes, prevail against it. But the men who went up with him said: We are not able to go up against the population, for it is stronger than we!”
The addition of the argument “for it is stronger than we!” – is explained by Rashi, following the Talmud in Sotah: “They said this, as it were, against God.” [Note: the Hebrew for ‘than we’ – mimenu – can also mean “than he”]. In other words, the population is not stronger than we, but stronger, as it were, than The Holy One, Blessed Be He. This explanation sheds light on the severe mistake of the men, leading to their punishment and to their being branded ‘spies.’
When acting out of deep awareness of justice and of fulfilling the will of God, motives must be pure. The spies began to relate to the struggle over the Land in terms of weakness and strength. Power, as the central factor in determination of the destiny of men and nations, became for them the idol to which they bowed. It makes no difference that in this particular case they considered themselves the weak and the inhabitants of the land as the strong; the determining factor is power, not the will of God and His promise. Rashi’s explication (“stronger than, as it were, He”) underscores the important distinction between these two sets of values. There can be no connection between the belief that history unfolds according to Divine law – which moves towards perfection of the world under the reign of God -- and the belief in the ability of military might to solve human problems. These are two separate and contradictory value systems. Maybe this is the reason that the spies and the Generation of the Wilderness are unable to reach the world to come; the concept of a world to come demands man’s maximum closeness to the spiritual dimension which is in opposition to any power principle. The important conclusion which this story has for all generations is that no man – even tzaddik and sage – is immune to the danger of confusing power with the principle of justice. Any man can easily be tempted to believe in solutions based on the exercise of power. Every one of us can be either “man” or “spy”. Said God to Zerubavel (Zecharya 4, the Haftara of Behaalotcha): “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit – said the Lord of Hosts.”