Why Did Speaking Truth Lead to Punishments?


SHLACH, Numbers: 13:1-15:41


It's hard not to wonder: If a congressional committee of inquiry investigated the spies discussed in this week's portion — much as several have done in regards to the CIA and other organs of America's intelligence establishment — what would it find they did wrong?

Commentators through time have grappled with why the spies — who at the beginning of the Torah reading are sent by Moses to report back on the future Land of Israel — incur such heavenly wrath for seemingly doing exactly what they were told to do.

"See what kind of country it is," Moses tells the scouts. "Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country … good or bad? Are the towns … open or fortified?"

Upon their return, they answer that the inhabitants of what was then Canaan are quite mighty and outnumber the Israelite forces. The country is "one that devours its settlers," and the towns are fortified.

They happened to speak the truth: The report is practically repeated almost 40 years later by Moses to the second generation — the first was wiped out because of the sin of the spies — as a warning, lest the land's future inhabitants read into their conquering of it any extreme ability on their part. So the spies couldn't have been punished for delivering an accurate report.

And even though the whole ordeal of the spies came about from Moses' own fruition — tradition makes a point of saying that God merely granted him the permission to send them — the act of dispatching them was clearly not wrong.

We can even learn a general principal from Moses' actions that when faced with a supreme task, it behooves us to consider the proper path to victory. Joshua, as is recorded in this week's Haftorah, similarly sends out spies prior to conquering Jericho — an act which, far from leading to the collective punishment of the Israelites, is a primary cause of their success.

Feats of Military Might
The spies' error came about in their going beyond the mere facts of the case. They were asked simply to be Israel's eyes and ears when behind enemy lines. Instead, they chose to also assume the role of the brain, and emphatically declared that they were not up to the task of transforming Canaan into Israel.

Yes, the land would require major feats of military might to conquer it, and would require major investments of physical exertion to release its prophesied bounty.

And both feats were practically unknown to a peaceful people whose previous experiences amounted to construction work in Egypt, and then life in the desert, where God provided for their every need through the open miracles of splitting the Sea of Reeds and sending a supernatural food known as manna six days a week.

The spies, however, failed to acknowledge that the same Almighty who protected them and provided for them through supernatural means would also do so through the laws of nature.

On the one hand, they were right to realize that they couldn't go it alone. On the other, they were wrong in forgetting that a just and awesome God does not ask anything of the Jewish people that it can't accomplish.


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