This week’s parasha begins as the Israelites who had been freed from Egypt prepare to enter the Promised Land. 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.
The best-known explanation is found in Rashi, who cites the Tanhuma. The parasha begins, shelah lecha 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 lecha, 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. Sadly, God has already decreed their fate and this attempt fails.
However, as recorded in the haftara for parashat Shelah Lecha, 39 years after these events, Joshua sends spies into Jericho on a reconnaissance mission and this attempt succeeds. So what accounts for this difference? According to a commentary found in Itturei Torah by Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, here is what happened:
Each tribe sent its own representative. No tribe trusted any other, and each group chose its own person. There was no unity among them, and they were divided into separate tribes and groups. However, when Joshua sent spies, he sent only two. That showed the unity of the nation and their mutual trust and that was the reason for the mission’s success.
The Israelites were not able to conquer the Promised Land until they transformed themselves from a collection of separate, distrustful tribes into a single nation. I can’t imagine that they all agreed on everything, but they saw themselves as part of a greater whole in spite of their differences.
This is surely a cautionary tale for today. We Jews differ in many ways — religious and secular; Orthodox, Reform, Conservative; Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Eidot HaMizrach; Israel and Diaspora; rich and poor; learned and unlearned; hasid and mitnagid; and many more. The truth is, the Jewish community has always had differences and they greatly enrich our Judaism. The danger we face is that we may come to see our particular niche as right and everyone else as wrong. Our hope for the future depends on our remembering that we’re all in this together.