Author Archives: Cantor Josee Wolff

Cantor Josee Wolff

About Cantor Josee Wolff

Cantor Josee Wolff is Director of Student Placement and a part time faculty member at the School of Sacred Music, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

The Sin of the Spies

Reprinted with permission from  The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

When Moses sends the scouts to survey the land of Canaan, he gives them a list of very specific things to investigate. He charges them: “Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?” (13:17-20). Twelve emissaries go out and return after forty days, reporting on what they saw in this exotic new land. All but two of the scouts are punished later; victims of a plague, they die in the wilderness.
the torah women's commentary
What is their sin? According to our tradition, they sin by not trusting God’s vision and not having faith: “How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst?” (14:11). Furthermore, they sin because they “caused the whole community to mutter against him [Moses] by spreading calumnies about the land” (14:36).

The Nature of their Sin

I question not only the nature of their sin, but also Moses’ approach to their mission. Moses’ instructions divide the world into either/or categories that ignore the nuances within a complex reality. Instead of asking such specific questions, what if he had said to them, “When you return, tell us what you see. How did you experience this new place? What was the land like? How were the people?” Perhaps these kinds of open ended questions would have led the scouts to bring back a different report. At least these sorts of instructions might have given them more room to develop their own stories in a less dualistic fashion; the scouts might have been inspired to bring back a different description of what they saw.

Or is it simply a matter of perspective? After all, the twelve emissaries all observe and experience the same things, and yet two of them return with an account that is entirely different from that of the other ten. What is it that enables Joshua and Caleb to see the Promised Land through different eyes?