Sotah 34

With God’s blessings.

On a number of occasions, the Torah repeats itself but with different words, almost as if a given story is being retold differently for a specific reason. The Torah itself does not explain the reasons for these differences, but the sages of the Talmud often try to reconcile these differing accounts. 

We find an example of this on today’s daf, which analyzes the two biblical accounts of the story of the 12 spies who were sent by Moses to scout out the land of Israel. Spoiler alert: Ten of the 12 returned with a negative report, thereby disappointing God and delaying the entrance of the Israelites into the land of Israel for a further 40 years. 

However, our daf is more interested in the beginning of this story than the end. Specifically, this story begins with God telling Moses: “Send you men to scout the land of Canaan” (Numbers 13:2). Based on the fact that the word “you” (lekha in Hebrew) is in the singular, the Talmud records this teaching:

Reish Lakish says: “Send you” means at your own discretion.

Reish Lakish understands that Moses sent the spies at his own discretion, not as a divine command, and thus the onus of the mission falls entirely on Moses. 

Fast forward 40 years and, in the weeks leading up to his death, Moses retells this story to the Israelites, saying the sending of the spies “was good in my eyes” (Deuteronomy 1:23). In this case, it is Moses who uses the singular tense about himself. Here’s how Reish Lakish understands this phrase: 

Reish Lakish says: It seemed good “in my eyes,” but not in the eyes of the Omnipresent.

According to this reading, Moses accepts that he made an error of judgment by sending the spies in the manner that he did. Of course, hindsight is always 20-20. Still, why did Moses proceed with sending the spies when, at least according to Reish Lakish, the language initially used by God implied that God was not only not commanding Moses to proceed with the mission, but not endorsing it either?

Nachmanides explains that when God (apparently) commanded Moses to send the spies, it was really a response to Moses’ prior conversations with the Israelites, who had pressured him to agree to scout the land of Israel before they entered. The problem was that Moses agreed to do so without first seeking God’s advice. This disappointed God, especially since Moses had already been told by God that the land was a “good land” (see Exodus 3:8). So God’s seeming command to Moses to send men is in reality God acquiescing to a plan that had already been sealed between Moses and the people without any divine command or recommendation. 

With all this in mind, we can now return to Moses’ remark in Deuteronomy 1:23 that the plan to send the spies seemed good “in my eyes.” Here, Moses isn’t really talking about the spies, but about himself and his error of not consulting God before he agreed to send them. Why does he review a decision that he made 40 years previously? Surely, what’s done is done.

I believe that the answer is that Moses is not really talking to the people, nor is he talking to God. He is offering guidance to his disciple Joshua, who is about to lead the people into the land of Israel. Moses wants to warn Joshua that he shouldn’t make rash decisions without first checking with God. 

And so it was. Joshua subsequently sends spies once more (see Joshua Chapter 1). But unlike Moses’ 12 spies, Joshua’s two spies go not only with his blessings — but with God’s blessings too!

Read all of Sotah 34 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 2, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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