Shabbat candles: 8:11 p.m.
Torah: Num. 13:1-15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24
c begins with the saga of the spies’ report about the land of Israel. On the eve of the Jewish people’s preparation to enter Eretz Yisrael, 12 spies, each representing a tribe, were sent to survey the land. Upon their return, ten of the twelve deliver very negative news: It will be impossible for the Jewish people to overcome and conquer the land from the nations living there.
If we look at the text, what did they spies say that was so bad, worthy of such punishment? When they returned to Moshe and Aaron, they said it is “eretz zavat chalav udevash,” a land overflowing with milk and honey [Numbers 13:27]. They add, however, that it is a land inhabited by people who are powerful; they are giants and “we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so were in their sight” [Num. 12:33].
Of the spies, only Joshua and Caleb dissent from the negative report, but their attempt to convince the Jewish people that they can persevere falls on deaf ears. The people fall into a panic, complaining, engaging in mass hysteria, asking that they return to Egypt. God threatens to finish them off, and at that point, Moshe pleads to God with words that we say on Kol Nidre night, “‘Slach na lavon haam hazeh,’ in your unbounded loving-kindness, please pardon the sin of this people. Forgive us as You have forgiven our people through all times.” God answers. “Salachti kidvarecha, I have forgiven them as you ask,” but the people, while not destroyed, must wander in the desert for 40 years and, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, will nor enter the land [Num. 14:9-24].
If these verses are meant to evoke God’s pardoning power, why is God’s response so harsh when it comes to the saga of the spies? If we compare God’s reaction to those who worshipped the Golden Calf, God’s response there was to forgive an entire generation but here God condemns an entire generation. What was so sinful about the report of the spies that warranted such a punishment?
If we go back and look at what the spies said, we see that both the majority and the minority saw good in the land. But the great sin of the ten spies was that after they gave the good news, Ramban points out that they then said, “efes (but)“ [Num. 13:28], the people who dwell in the land are fierce and the cities are fortified. We can’t make it, it is beyond our reach, said the spies.
They began with the good and then used a word we should be very careful with: “efes.” We translate the word as “but.” Rabbi Mitchell Wolhlberg teaches, what does the word efes also mean? In Hebrew, efes also means “zero.” In one fell swoop, everything that followed zeroed out all the previous good news. It was the bad news that became the bottom line: the bad negated the good, the negative outweighed the positive. Their lashon hara (negative language and disparagement) caused a groundswell against the Bnai Yisrael’s entry into Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. However, as the Gemara points out, wasn’t it only conjecture as to how they were perceived by the inhabitants?
It reflects to what ultimately doomed them: a projection of their own loss of self-esteem. They were overcome with self-doubt and negativity. Upon entering the land, the spies were on the upswing, as reflected in the very language used in the Torah from aliyah (ascent) to nefila (a fall, or descent) afterwards.
Even if they had a valid concern over how to conquer the land, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains, the place and manner in which they said it could only result in panic. Sometimes the niggun you use is even more important than the words. The spies needed a different melody to sing in their hearts, and express in their words to Moshe and Bnai Yisrael.
Adena Berkowitz, scholar-in-residence at Kol HaNeshamah and a visiting lecturer at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, is co-author of “Shaarei Simcha-Gates of Joy,” a mini-siddur.