Have you ever reread a book or re-watched a movie and known all along how it ends? When you do, have you ever watched the main character make that mistake you know will be catastrophic, or open the door you know hides the murderer, or find out the piece of news you know will be devastating, and thought “NO, DON’T DO IT!!” even though you know they will?
L’havdil, when reading Parshas Shelach there’s a collective holding of breath that we experience as a nation. We know how the story ends: Moshe sends the spies, they come back with a negative report about Eretz Yisrael, stirring up panic and hysteria among the Jewish people. Bnei Yisrael cry bitterly, fearful for their lives, despite the fact that Hashem has promised them that Eretz Yisrael is a beautiful, rich land, which they will conquer safely and successfully. HaKadosh Baruch Hu is understandably angered by their tears, and infamously promises that Bnei Yisrael’s bechiya shel chinam, crying for no reason, will yield bechiyah lidoros, crying for generations -and we’re still suffering the ripple effects.
Looking at the story, it’s tempting to try to find those pivot points, cross-roads moments where it all could’ve ended so differently, if only. Of course, one could argue, it all could have been avoided entirely if the spies were never sent! But even if we accept that this part of the story couldn’t be changed, one becomes even more alarmed when continuing to read the pesukim.
Before sending the spies, Moshe prompts their mission by asking them several pointed questions to consider and try to answer about Eretz Yisrael while they are spying it out. He asks them (13:17-20) to examine the land to determine what it’s like, whether it is good or bad, whether the land is fat or lean, whether the inhabitants are weak or strong, many or few, and whether the cities are walled or unwalled. Moshe even specifically asks them to bring fruit back with them (13:20)!
Reading these pesukim almost makes you cringe in anxious anticipation, the urge to scream, “Noooo!!!” rising swiftly as you read on. Why does Moshe ask these questions?! Knowing how the story ends, it almost seems as though he is setting them up for failure! If Hashem doesn’t even really want to send spies because His word should be good enough to guarantee the status of the land, why is Moshe tempting the spies with the possibility of these potential negative findings? Why ask them to see if the land is good or bad when we know Hashem has promised that the land is good? Why bother to plant the idea that the nations living there might be strong, when we know Hashem has guaranteed that Bnei Yisrael will defeat them? In fact, we sadly see later in the Parsha that the spies return and answer all of Moshes questions – in the worst possible way!
What was Moshe doing even asking these questions in the first place?
Interestingly, the Rishonim seem to be strangely silent on the question of WHY Moshe prompts these questions – Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Seforno, and others provide clarification on the nature of the questions, noting that Moshe is asking questions befitting of a nation seeking to wage war on another nation. Finding out whether the cities were walled or unwalled, whether the inhabitants were weak or strong, etc. is standard protocol for sending spies before attempting to capture the land. We see later on that Yehoshua similarly sends spies with this same mission in mind. It seems once Hashem agreed to send the spies, as it says in the Pasuk (13:3) “Vayishlach osam Moshe al pi Hashem” and Moshe sent [the spies] with G-d’s say-so, it officially became a typical spy mission. Therefore, questions that would pertain to military strategy and conquering of the land were fair game.
However, as the Ha’amek Davar notes, questions about the nature of the land itself, was it good or bad, was it fat or lean, seem to be outside the bounds of this mission. Why was Moshe asking this? Because Klal Yisrael themselves wouldn’t dare ask these questions – after Hashem has promised them that EY is an Eretz Zavas Chalav U’Dvash, it would be a Busha for Bnei Yisrael to ask the spies to confirm or deny this claim.
So why does Moshe ask??
The Netziv explains that Moshe asked these questions because he understood a fundamental human phenomenon: “Aino domeh shemiyah li’re’iah,” hearing about something just doesn’t compare to seeing or experiencing it firsthand. Though Hakadosh Baruch Hu had provided the verbal guarantee that the land was indeed good, that the soil was rich, that the land was flowing with milk and honey, Moshe understood that seeing the tangible evidence of this firsthand would help to alleviate any anxiety or hesitation Bnei Yisrael were feeling. The Netziv goes so far as to say that seeing or experiencing something is even more impactful than Emunah, believing something without seeing it. How well we know this to be true! As Bnei Maaminim, we know firsthand that it is decidedly difficult albeit crucially important to base so much of our daily activities, our health, livelihoods, and overall wellbeing, purely on Emunah. How often do we seek tangible evidence of Hashem’s Divine providence, or wish we had certain knowledge of how things will turn out in our lives?
The tragedy of the sin of the spies is that often, we are held to this standard. We are asked to believe without knowing or seeing. And the Dor HaMidbar had an unparalleled number of moments of revealed Divine providence, of tangible proof of God’s existence, benevolence, and honesty. They witnessed the Makos, they crossed the split Yam Suf, they stood at Har Sinai and heard Hashem speak to them, they ate the Mann, were protected by the Annanei Hakavod, and now they’re going to deny Hashem?! Given everything they had witnessed and experienced, how could they not be expected to be able to rely on blind faith?
Yet, as Moshe seemingly understood, this is what it means to be human. Even on the tremendously lofty level of Dor HaMidbar and on the even greater level of the twelve Nesiim who were chosen as spies, seeing something with one’s own eyes, having a physical sense of certainty, does far more to alleviate anxiety and increase trust than simply being told that something is true. In fact, one could argue that this was an even greater challenge for the Dor HaMidbar BECAUSE this was their experience – think of how accustomed they’d become to witnessing the miracles of HaKadosh Baruch Hu firsthand! This is not the first time they’ve become fearful and doubted Hashem, either. Right before Kriyas Yam Suf, Bnei Yisrael cry out to Moshe in fear, and he has to tell them to literally be quiet and wait to see the Yad Hashem. So one could say, it makes even more sense that Bnei Yisrael wanted tangible proof about Eretz Yisrael.
Moshe clearly seemed to think this was the case. Asking the Meraglim these prompting questions was a means to give them the opportunity to answer in the affirmative. Go ahead, Moshe was implying, see the land and determine for yourselves what Hashem has promised you, that the land is good, that the soil is good for planting and harvesting, that it will be everything Hashem says it is. Who are we to judge them for wanting this proof? We who live our lives (seemingly) without open miracles, perhaps we are used to relying more fully on the word of G-d, and not expecting to see the fulfillment of it firsthand. Yet, we all know the feeling of relief and joy we get when our uncertainty is alleviated, and our faith is confirmed.
If Moshe was hoping to prompt the spies to notice the good of Eretz Yisrael, what went wrong? It seems that, as we’ve discussed before, in the end fear won over the spies and the people. As happens with all of us from time to time, perhaps their emotional mind hijacked them, distorting their perspective, and causing them to sift what they witnessed and experienced through a decidedly negative lens.
Based on these ideas, we can perhaps glean two specific lessons from this tragic story.
First, we can learn from Moshe’s behavior that it may be unfair to expect people to believe something we tell them and concur with our perspective without seeing or experiencing something themselves. This is highly applicable to Chinuch, in particular. We can know that Torah Judaism is beautiful and true, and we can hope to impart this to our children, students, friends, or even ourselves. And we can also encourage blind faith, the basis of so much of our belief system. And, at the same time, to some degree we must find ways to make Yiddishkeit and the joys and beauty of Torah Judaism more tangible and accessible to people. We must strive to make Torah learning more experiential, to abide by the literary principle of “show, don’t tell.” Rather than discussing and debating about Torah ideas, help people experience the Torah as a living, breathing entity, and to find G-d in their lives in similarly tangible ways.
Second, we see from this story the powerful impact of fear, doubt, and uncertainty on our ability to process information. Though unintentional, when Moshe asks his forced-choice questions, he gives the spies’ uncertainty something to cling to, for better or for worse. Fear, anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty can at times cloud our judgment and distort our thinking, causing us to quite literally not see straight. Even when we know something logically, and even when we’ve been prompted to see it firsthand, when we are afraid or uncertain, it is hard to see things clearly. Whether regarding ourselves or our children or students, this is also essential to keep in mind. Even when we’re emphasizing the importance of tangible, firsthand experiences, these will only be effective in increasing love and appreciation for G-d and His Torah if possibly underlying emotions, such as fear, uncertainty, or even anger, are properly addressed.
This week, let us try to take these lessons to heart, so that we can all experience the joys of Torah Judaism firsthand. Go out and see the beautiful world Hashem created for us, experience Shabbos and connection with others and the power of self-reflective prayer. Don’t just take my word for it! Let us not stop only at learning Torah, but also strive to live it!