The Sin of the Spies

What exactly did the spies do wrong?

Commentary on Parashat Sh'lach, Numbers 13:1 - 15:41

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 Negev 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.

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 12 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?

In his book The Courage to Create (1975), Rollo May writes, “We are called upon to do something new, to confront a no-man’s-land, to push into a forest where there are no well-worn paths and from which no one has returned to guide us. This is what existentialists call the anxiety of nothingness…To live into the future means to leap into the unknown, and this requires a degree of courage for which there is no immediate precedent and which few people realize.” He asserts that “if you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also you will have betrayed our community in failing to make your contribution to the whole.”

The 10 emissaries start their report with a positive statement about the land overflowing with milk and honey; they then switch to the negatively colored description of the fortified cities and powerful people (Numbers 13:27-29). The Rabbis describe this as the way slanderers speak: “They begin with flattering and end with evil.” (BT Sotah 35a) Or, in more modern terms: the pessimist observes a situation, generalizes about the bad aspects, and interprets them as a permanent and constant feature. In contrast, the optimist observes the same situation and sees the bad aspects, but particularizes them and interprets them as a temporary obstacle that can be overcome.

This then is the sin of the scouts: their failure to contribute to their community because of their negative attitude and narrow perspective. They seemingly lack the courage to leap into the unknown and confront “no-man’s-land,” Where the ten see potential failure and defeat, Joshua and Caleb see potential success and possibility. They had the courage to leap into the unknown and envision a new reality.

While they acknowledge the challenges that lie ahead, they are able to “listen to their own being” and trust in the people’s ability to overcome those challenges with God’s promised help and protection:

The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land. If pleased with us, God will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against God. Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey: their protection has departed from them, but mil’ is with us. (Numbers 14:7-9)

As Harvey Fields wrote, we too can “conquer ‘Promised Lands’ when we have regard for our talents and believe in our creative powers. The sin of the spies grows from their failure of self-love and self-respect…Only Joshua and Caleb, who refuse to see themselves as ‘grasshoppers,’ are worthy of entering the Promised Land” (A Torah Commentary for Our Times, 1993, p. 42).

The Challenge of Sh’lach

These, to me, are the challenges of Parashat Sh’lach. First, the challenge to perceive the world in all its nuanced complexity-and not reduce it to simplistic either/or, black/white categories. Second, and more central to the portion, the challenge of really loving ourselves and trusting our instincts, the challenge of not making ourselves into anything less than we truly are (since this would diminish the One in whose image we are created), and the challenge of living with the “anxiety of nothingness” in order to create a new reality.

As long as we see ourselves merely as grasshoppers up against giants, we will set ourselves up for failure. If we want to create anything new and to enter into the Promised Land, then we have no choice but to leap into the unknown, to believe in ourselves, and to trust in God’s faith in us. This voice of optimism and hope is what separates Joshua and Caleb from the other scouts. This is what — in spite of a long history filled with good reasons to see ourselves as grasshoppers and to give up — has enabled the Jewish people to continue and to thrive.

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).

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