Rabbi David Walk
What's the seminal event in the book of Genesis? I think that many serious readers would say lech licha, God's command to Avraham to leave his homeland and venture forth onto the world stage. Even though that's a great choice, I would posit Brit bein Habetarim, the Covenant Between the Parts, which forms the basis for our eternal, binding relationship with God. Others might suggest the mitzvah of circumcision, or even the birth of Yitzchak. So, too, in the book of Exodus we could have a lively debate between the exodus and the epiphany as the central episode in the volume. Someone could even make a case for the sin of the Golden Calf, although I'd be less inclined to agree. However, when we get to the book of Numbers there's only one candidate for the book's central incident, and that occurs in this week's Torah reading. This week we have the story of the committee sent to assess the land which God has promised us. You'll notice I didn't use the word 'spies', because, even though we often refer to this incident as 'The Sin of the Spies', the Hebrew word for spies, meraglim, never appears in the whole account. So, who were these people and what went wrong?
Interestingly, these men are referred to as leaders or heads of the tribes. However, none of their names are known to us previously, except for Yehoshua. So, why these people and not those leaders whose names we saw in the census? And what was the purpose of this non-spying mission? I think that we have to look at our parsha in the context of the book of Numbers. Last week the Jews freaked out after departing from Mt. Sinai, and the response of God was to appoint a group of elders to assist Moshe in the leadership of this vast multitude. An endeavor was under way to bring in new faces to help lead the nation. These guys are the result of that effort. But what were they to do? The word used is latur, which can be translated as 'to scout' or even the similar sounding 'to tour'. They were supposed to explore and report back on what they saw. This was not a clandestine military operation. Oh, no, they were to survey the land and relate impressions. Boy, did they do that! If so, what's the sin?
To help answer that question let's address an important discrepancy in the story as it appears here and as it appears in Deuteronomy. Here it says: The Lord said to Moses, 'Choose a leader from each tribe and send them into Canaan to explore the land (Numbers 13:1 & 2).' In Deuteronomy, it says: Then all of you came to me and said, 'Before we go into the land, let's send some men to explore it. When they come back, they can tell us about the towns we will find and what roads we should take.' It seemed like a good idea, so I chose twelve men, one from each tribe (Deuteronomy 1:33 & 34). Well, that's interesting. In our parsha the initiative seems to come from God, but in Deuteronomy it seems to come from the people. There could be many ways to deal with the discrepancy, but I'd like to suggest that God was confirming and approving of a legitimate request. We have precedent for that in the story of Pesach Sheini (Numbers 9:6-13). Moshe also approved of the idea, because the request was reasonable. God and Moshe expressed approval for a fact finding mission which would confirm the goodness of the land.
Here's what went wrong: God approved the mission but made it into a shlichut or an agency on behalf of the Divine mission. This is inherent in the word shelach or send, which is the name of our reading. There are different rules when you are on your own and when you are someone's agent. When I am fulfilling another's mission, I must look at the circumstances from their point of view. This idea is actually in our parsha. Please, allow a little digression. The book of Numbers is unique in the five books of Torah. Only here do we have a mixture of narrative and law. This means that we must look at the legal material and try to see how it corresponds to the stories nearby. The Sages helped us in this endeavor by the way they cut up the weekly readings. This week we start with the story of the mission to Israel and end with the mitzva of tzitzit. What do we learn from the juxtaposition? It says in the tzitzit portion, And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to scout around (latur) after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to seduce you into infidelities (Numbers 15:39). Notice that we told to refrain from using our heart to determine the nature of what we see. When we fulfill an agency (shlichut) we do so on their terms. The scouts got it wrong and put their hearts and predilections before the interests and point of view of God. The mitzva of tzitzit is to say that we're always on a mission from God (sort of like the Blues Brothers), but our story is that these men were specifically required to follow God's agenda.
So, what is the upshot of this story? The destiny of the generation of the Wilderness was irrevocably changed by the incitement of this committee, because they believed that their role was to determine the status of Israel. That couldn't be true. God had already informed them that this land was 'good' and 'flowing with milk and honey'. Their job was to confirm and testify to the land's virtue and value. We have a similar assignment vis a vis the mitzvot. We are supposed to perform mitzvot, not critique them. It's perfectly acceptable to comment and share opinions on any topic. But no one can reject the Mission Statement and expect to remain on the team. Our Mission is to maintain a Jewish State in Israel.