Parashat Shelach – the story of the twelve spies sent by Moshe (Moses) to spy out the land of Canaan in preparation for Israel’s imminent entry into the land, is a saga of good intentions gone wrong, a lack of proper planning, poor communication, a lack of vision, a lack of faith, and mass hysteria. Is it any wonder the story of the spies seems so relevant to our lives today?
Whose idea was it in the first place to send the spies? G-d clearly commands Moshe, “Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel,” (Numbers 13:2) but the Hebrew expression “shelach lecha,” literally, “send for yourself,” leaves some of our sages with the impression that G-d was answering a request by Moshe: “Send for yourself, if that is what you want.” But Moshe, in the book of Deuteronomy, presents a very different picture. Speaking to the children of Israel, he says, “And all of you approached me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead of us so that they will search out the land for us and bring us back word by which route we shall go up, and to which cities we shall come.'” (Deuteronomy 1:22)
Leaving this question aside, the twelve tribal leaders who were chosen by Moshe to lead the expedition were given specific instructions of what to look for, in short, is the land fruitful and are the inhabitants threatening?
Returning with pomegranates, figs and luscious grapes, the obvious answer was that the land of Canaan was every bit as pleasant and bountiful as G-d had promised. But when describing the inhabitants of the land, the spies’ knees began to shake. “The people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant. The Amalekites dwell in the south land, while the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the mountainous region. The Canaanites dwell on the coast and alongside the Jordan.” (Numbers 13:28-29) Calev ben Yepphunneh (Caleb) , one of the twelve spies, seeing where this was heading, tries to silence the other spies, insisting, “We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it.” (Num. 13:30) But to no avail! The other spies, with the exception of Yehoshua (Joshua), “spread an evil report about the land which they had scouted, telling the children of Israel, ‘The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature.'” (Num. 13: 32)
The die was cast: mass hysteria set in. The entire nation began to wail and wallow in despondency, even as Calev and Yehoshua and Moshe and Aharon (Aaron) tried desperately to calm the crowd, insisting that “If HaShem desires us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Num. 14:8) But alas, it was too late! The nation’s lack of faith in G-d’s ability to bring them into the promised land and oversee their successful conquest and settling of the land, provoked G-d’s wrath, and an entire generation, the very generation whom G-d had taken out of Egypt with signs and wonders, fed in the desert with miraculous manna and bequeathed with Torah at Sinai, was to be written out of G-d’s will. The land that He had promised them would not be theirs. It would be for their children to inherit, leaving this generation to wander and to die in the desert.
“Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.” This oft said saying may well describe the state of affairs in our story. Why were the spies sent in the first place? Why did they not speak first in private with Moshe and Aharon, upon returning, where they could have conferred on how to present their findings to the people? Why were the voices of Calev and Yehoshua not heard above the fray? But looking back, and without looking at the text for a moment, can anyone today remember the names of the ten spies who banded together to bring an evil report on the land? Calev and Yehoshua are the bright lights of this story, the sole shining stars who would, forty years later, bring Israel into Canaan and systematically conquer and settle the land.
And to this G-d testifies: “But as for My servant Calev, since he was possessed by a different spirit, and he followed Me, I will bring him to the land to which he came, and his descendants will drive its inhabitants out.” (Num. 14:24) “A different spirit” – ruach acheret, in Hebrew. This is the spirit of trust in HaShem, the ability to see through the spin and the fake news, to disdain the trap of despair and the lure of victimhood. To keep on course – on G-d’s course – even when all others falter, even when left all alone. But not for Yehoshua and Calev, who knows what Israel’s fate would have been?
We read in the book of Joshua, chapter 2, of another reconnaissance mission, this one formulated by Yehoshua, this one successful. Curiously, it was here that Rachav (Rahab), a resident of Jericho, expressed the faith in the G-d of Israel that the generation of the wilderness so resoundingly lacked: “I know that HaShem has given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted away because of you.” (Joshua 2:9) It would appear that Rachav, too, like Calev, was possessed of “a different spirt” – a ruach acheret. Little wonder that Rachav, a woman of low social status, but imbued with a great and different spirit, with fear of G-d and faith in G-d’s ways, would, according to tradition, accept upon herself the yoke of Torah and marry none other than Yehoshua bin Nun, the leader of Israel.
Midrash describes Rachav as one of the four most beautiful women in the world, referring to her inner, spiritual beauty, alongside Sarah, Avigail, and Esther. Married to Yehoshua, her descendants would include the prophets Jeremiah, Hilkiah, Seraiah, Machseiah, Baruch, Ezekiel and Hulda. What a difference trust in HaShem and faith in His promise can make! When all others falter – keep the faith – stick with HaShem!