Parshat Shelach begins on a note of hope and ends in disaster. Not long after leaving Mount Sinai, Moses sends 12 spies, one from each tribe, to scout out the land of Canaan and bring back a report of the conditions the Israelites will find there.
The spies return after 40 days, bringing their report of the good land. However, 10 of them insist that the Canaanites are too powerful for the Israelites to conquer. The people panic, and despite the encouragement of Joshua and Caleb, they rebel and declare once more that they want to return to Egypt.
God’s patience is finally exhausted and He decrees that this generation will die in the wilderness. It will be their children who will possess the land.
How did things go so wrong?
The best-known explanation is found in Rashi, who cites the Tanhuma. The parsha begins “Sh’lah l’cha anashim,” “Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people.” But this translation obscures a feature of the Hebrew. The force of “l’cha,” “for yourself,” is: You may do this if it’s what you want, but I [God] do not command you to do it.
This interpretation is bolstered by Moses’ review of past events at the very beginning of Devarim: “Then all of you came to me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us…. I approved of the plan, and so I selected 12 of your men, one from each tribe.”
Now what Moses and the people wanted to do — to get a reconnaissance report on Canaan and the Canaanites — was certainly prudent and logical, but apparently it was not what God wanted. So when the people react to the spies’ negative report, God tells them that they will not see the land. As might be expected, the people are devastated by their punishment and they decide that now they are prepared to fight for their home. However, God has already decreed their fate, and this attempt fails.
And our story has an epilogue. The conclusion of the parsha is parshat tzitzit, the third paragraph of the Sh’ma, which contains the commandment to wear tzitzit “so that you will not be seduced by your heart nor led astray by your eyes — then you will remember and observe all My mitzvot and be holy before your God.”
In biblical Hebrew, the heart is not, as we understand it, the seat of the emotions, but the seat of the intellect. Therefore, what the Torah is telling us is that we should be careful not to be led astray by our own logic and observations.
This is the response our parsha offers to the episode of the spies: You chose to do what you believed was wise and prudent rather than listen to God’s commandments. You observed the conditions in the land and drew your own conclusions about your ability to proceed. You left God out of the equation, and your hearts and eyes brought you to disaster. So, in the future, look at the tzitzit and realize that maybe — just maybe — you don’t know everything.