Our National Nadir, the Spies

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

John F. Kennedy’s characterization of failure as a lonely orphan explains Ramban’s surprise at how Rashi ascribes to Moshe the idea of sending spies to Israel. Hashem says “shelach lecha anashim,” and Rashi picks up on the lecha, you, to say Hashem gave grudging acceptance. Which would seem to put Moshe in the wrong, since he tells us, in Devarim 1;23, he approved of the idea.

More, what kind of information could Moshe have wanted the spies to find, when Hashem already described the land as good? Once he did send them to evaluate the land, why were the spies blamed for reporting their impressions? It couldn’t be their focus on the strength of the people and the cities, because Moshe himself would speak similarly to the next generation, on the verge of entering Israel (Devarim 9).

Ramban’s reconstruction teaches us about what happened in this terrible failure, as well as how to properly address similar national incidents in the future.

There Are Spies and There Are Spies

Ramban differentiates the original function of the spies and how they eventually acted. Any invading army will send advance scouts to figure out the best way to enter, and then guide the invasion based on the geography they learned in their travels. Moshe does so ahead of an invasion in chapter 21, and Yehoshu’a does so when approaching Yericho.

So far so good, because the Torah does not want people to act as if their lives will proceed miraculously, as was clear at Ai, where Yehoshu’a had to come up with a military strategy for victory. In addition, Ramban thinks Moshe sent the spies on a path he knew to be particularly bountiful and beautiful, so their positive report would enthuse and energize the people.

Moshe knew all this because Israel is close to Egypt (it’s a seven-day journey to Chevron; I just this past Shabbat heard Prof. Yosef Ofer, who has written a book about Ramban’s additions to his commentary once he arrived in Israel. This is a place he flagged, since Ramban only realized how close Chevron is to Egypt when he got there), although the rest of the people had been too encompassed by their slavery to absorb news or information about it. (Note Ramban does not say Moshe knew of Israel’s great qualities, and the path to take to see them, from Hashem).

Hashem Weighs In

Moshe thought of spies as a way to conceive a plan of attack and alert the people to the good fortune awaiting them. The mission was so clearly appropriate, Ramban thinks Moshe did not ask Hashem (he does not elaborate on the important topic of when human beings are supposed to ask Hashem before acting and when they may act without prior consultation).

So why does our parsha start with Hashem telling Moshe to send spies? Ramban says Hashem stepped in to adjust one part of the plan. Scripture shows us spies generally went in twos; knowing the incident would likely not end well, Hashem commanded Moshe to send a representative from each tribe, with two goals. First, the more great leaders included, the better the chances they would remember to stay faithful to Hashem. Should matters proceed as expected, a spy from each tribe would democratize the blame—they were all in it together.

Where the Spies Went Wrong

Only in verse thirty-two does the Torah say the spies did something wrong, spread dibbat ha-aretz, bad tales about the land. For Ramban, the discussion in front of Moshe and Aharon did not involve anything punishable. The spies’ worries about the strength of the Canaanites is an issue to which Ramban will return, but Calev countered with exactly the needed faith in Hashem’s assistance, and the people were until that point wavering, unsure of (and divided about) which side to follow.

Then, the spies went too far. Fear of the mighty Canaanites gripped them, so they circulated among the people, spreading false information about the Land, to be sure the people refused to go.

In a moment, Ramban will tell us they already sinned in becoming so afraid. Their full downfall came when they let their fear lead them to lie and manipulate the people. Forming a wrong opinion, even when the person should know better, would not have produced Hashem’s reaction. Breaking the rules of public engagement and debate did.

Fear Fear Itself, Indeed

Their efforts succeeded, and in the beginning of chapter fourteen, the people accost Moshe and Aharon to demand a return to Egypt. Yehoshu’a and Calev plead with them, 14;9, not to rebel against Hashem, without defining the rebellion.

Ramban says it was their fear of the Canaanites. They were supposed to know/ remember they had not left Egypt through any power of their own, had seen Hashem’s wondrous Hand and should have trusted Hashem could and would give them the land—as Hashem had promised.

Later in the verse, Calev argues the Canaanites are “lachmeinu, ours to devour.” He thought the Jews would be able to conquer them naturally, because he had noticed the Canaanites’ fear of the Jews, which would paralyze them enough to lead to a victory even without supernatural intervention.

How plans go awry, for Ramban: Moshe and the people think they are embarking on a fact-finding, strategy-fueling mission. Hashem sees the danger and insists on sending the best of them, spread among the entirety of the people. They submit to fear, going so far as to lie about the land and to lobby the people. They in turn yield to the fear as well, letting it overwhelm memories of the wonders of the Exodus.

Which was itself the rebellion against Hashem that doomed them.

Picking Middot to Pray for What’s Possible

Hashem takes the people’s misdeeds as the last straw, tells Moshe they deserve to be wiped out, with Moshe the progenitor of a new and stronger nation. Moshe prays on their behalf (as, I believe, Hashem was indicating he should); verse seventeen invokes Attributes of Hashem we know from Sinai as part of prayer.

Except Moshe does not mention all the Attributes Hashem taught him at Sinai. Moshe mentions Hashem’s length to anger, great kindness, bearing of sin, etc., but leaves out emet, truth, which Ramban sees as intentional, since in truth the people were liable. He also leaves out notzer chessed la-alafim, Hashem continues to repay good deed for thousands of generations, because the people were in the process of rejecting the Land promised to those forefathers.

They cannot both reject their forefathers’ legacy and benefit from it at the same time, says Ramban (a broadly important idea I hope for another opportunity to expand; we today often ignore the ramifications of a decision to reject or abandon a tradition. Ramban is saying, punishment or consequences aside, one cannot look for the fruits of a legacy while rebelling against that very legacy).

Moshe also does not refer to Hashem as bearing chata’ah, inadvertent sins, since the Jews here acted intentionally, deliberately, maliciously (again worth pondering, since the people could have argued they were reacting to an honest emotion, fear. I think Ramban thinks Hashem holds them and us responsible for our emotions. If we let our fear push us to acts we know are wrong, I think Ramban is characterizing the acts as deliberate and malicious, not sins of weakness).

Moshe also does not mention rachum ve-chanun, for reasons Ramban is not sure of. Perhaps Moshe understood there would be no forgiveness, only a stretching out of judgment, such that they would not be killed at once. They would die slowly, over forty years, in the desert, and the date would cause bechiyah le-dorot, sad reverberations in many generations, the most Moshe could accomplish.

The comment interested me first because it highlights how Hashem meant Moshe to “use” the knowledge of the Attributes. Instead of a formula to be recited by rote, Moshe understood his responsibility to understand the Attributes, to know which were relevant to which situation, and invoke them as proper. Which he did here.

Not a Prayer the People Would Respect

Moshe also does not mention this prayer in his recap of prayers he had given during their time in the desert, Devarim 9;18. He speaks of how he prayed on theirs and Aharon’s behalf after the Golden Calf, but not this one. Ramban says in the first case, he prayed for forgiveness; here, he prayed only delay of judgment. It was the best he could do, but left room for them to complain about his lukewarm attempts.

A reminder of Moshe’s situation in the desert, his dealing with a people for whom he gave his all, to the best of his unique abilities, but always faced their suspicion, their readiness to see how he failed to do this or that on their behalf.

So many wrongs packed into one incident. Ramban lets us see why Hashem would threaten destruction, why indeed this left the Jews without recourse other than waiting out a new generation, which we could hope would do better.

About Gidon Rothstein

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