SHELACH LEKHA: How could Moses have chosen such people?
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
Shabbat 25th June 2005

Today’s sidrah describes the sending out of the twelve spies and the false report brought back by ten of them.

We may wonder at the calibre and rank of the people chosen for this sensitive, destiny-laden mission. The Torah addresses this at the very outset, disclosing that, kohl nasi bahem… kullam anashim roshei v’nei yisrael heimah, “each [of the spies] was a prince...all of them heads of the Children of Israel.”

This surely calls into question, then, Moses’ ability as a judge of character. Surely the spies must have shown their true colours, and betrayed their pessimism and lack of faith, long before they were chosen. So was Moses so out of touch with the rank and file that he received no report of the sceptical attitude of those princes of their tribes? And if he was, indeed, out of touch, then surely Aaron or Caleb or Joshua would have got wind of their views, their lack of faith and faint-heartedness, and reported it to him immediately, with a clear warning against sending them out on such a mission?

To attempt to answer this question we are forced to consider three alternative situations: The first is that those princes had, indeed, kept their feelings to themselves, but that, once they had started out on their mission, and cemented a relationship of camaraderie and trust, they all opened up to each other, and realised that ten of them actually shared the same scepticism regarding their ability to conquer Israel. And hence the plot was hatched to bring back an evil report regarding Israel and the impossibility of conquering it.

The second possibility, and we can justify this from several passages in the Torah, is that those leaders had not, in fact, kept their views secret, and that Moses knew in advance of how they felt and the dangers of sending out such people. However, that pessimistic view was so entrenched throughout the Israelite camp that Moses simply was unable to find any alternative tribal leaders with an open mind on this matter. Fear is like a virus which can so easily infect an entire tribe, an entire army and an entire nation. Moses might well have trusted that the sight of ‘The land flowing with milk and honey,‘ and its glorious scenery and lush vegetation, might just induce a change of heart within the spies, to the extent that, on their return, they would provide hope and encouragement to the rest of the nation...

The third possibility is that they started out as fine, up-standing people, whose minds were open, and who really hoped that they would be able to bring back a positive reward. In that respect, they were the exception to the rest of Israel that had already been infected with the virus of despair and lack of faith in God and in themselves. The possibility is that, just as God had once ‘hardened Pharaoh’s heart’ to justify punishing him for his cruelty to Israel and his initial refusal to let them go, so God may have hardened the otherwise noble hearts of those princes. God may have decided to use those ten leaders as his instrument of punishment of his faithless people. And so He may have implanted into the spies a change of heart, as they travelled through the Promised Land, and injected into them a bitterly critical spirit, to the extent that they saw only the problems and difficulties of conquest, without even considering any strategy for overcoming them.

This last alternative has much to commend it, and offers an explanation of the otherwise mystifying problem of how Moses could have been so naïve as to have chosen ten such faithless and cowardly leaders for such a mission. It also connects two passages in the Torah where the number forty looms large.

We remember that, when Moses was away for forty days and nights, to receive the Torah on Sinai, he failed to return precisely on the day the Israelites expected him. Their panic and lack of faith prompted them to force Aaron to make them a Golden Calf, which they then proceeded to venerate as a God. That was the moment when God determined that He could never have a spiritual covenant with that idolatrous generation. He tells Moses of His intention to destroy the entire nation and create a new nation from Moses’ offspring alone (See Exodus 32:10).

Moses gains a temporary reprieve for his people, so that, at that time, God only punishes the ring-leaders. Relations, however, can never be the same again. This generation is doomed, and it was only a matter of time before God’s assessment of the nation is vindicated, namely in the matter of the spies whose evil and despairing report was uncritically accepted by the entirety of the nation. Once again, the number forty casts its dark shadow over the nation on probation. Just as the first act of rebellion occurred in the wake of a forty-day absence, so God, in pronouncing sentence for the second act of rebelliousness, links the two by punishing the nation with a future delay of forty years before their offspring can enter the Promised Land. God is, in effect, reminding Israel that He is a just God, that they had had their chance, but that they had now blown it twice.

Barukh dayyan ha-emet – “Blessed is the true judge.”

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My dear Jordan,

Mazal tov to you and to your dear parents, Sandy and Colin, and to your dear grandparents, Valerie and Dennis and Valerie and Jack, and to your dear sisters, Danielle and Bianca, and family, on this special occasion of your barmitzvah, and congratulations on the excellent way that you read your parashiot, maftir and haftarah.

I used the term ‘special occasion’ because I know that for you and your parents, becoming barmitzvah is something you really cherish. It is a status that you have long looked forward to, in order to exercise the rights, privileges and responsibilities of a committed, Torah observant person. Indeed, only 12 days ago, you seized with alacrity the opportunity to stand with the Cohanim for the Birkat Cohanim, the blessing of the congregation.

You and your parents are ‘shul people’ in the full sense of the word, and I have observed how you have all truly gloried in the opportunities offered to you over the years to participate on the bimah. You’ve led us in Anim Zemirot countless times since you were only 7 years of age. You’ve done Yigdal on Friday night three times. You’ve been a mainstay of the young services, having acted regularly as chazzan, as well as Ba’al Keriah, reading from the Torah. And, in recognition of your enthusiastic support of the Children’s Service you were honoured with being the Chatan Bereishit. You are proceeding with your Jewish Studies and are doing a course leading to the GCSE – unless the government has abolished it by then! (The GCSE, I mean, not Jewish Studies. Though you never know!)

I also know that you are a very concerned and kind-hearted young man, You fulfil the mitzvah of tzedakah on a regular basis. You’ve raised money for Norwood, and you have also donated some of your barmitzvah money to WIZO to provide a barmitzvah for a disadvantaged boy in Israel. That is a wonderful gesture, Jordan.

Now, when I addressed your sisters on their Batmitzvah, I paid a full tribute to your parents’ contribution to our shul, and especially to the fact that your dad has lead the Children’s Service for what now adds up to a period of 10 years. Now, when he asked me to spare his and your mum’s blushes this time, I decided to respect that request – knowing what a quiet, retiring, self-effacing man Colin is, a man who rarely puts forward his own views, and who would never dream of collaring the rabbi at Kiddush every Shabbat to discuss political, religious, Zionistic, philosophical, social, economic, ecological and climatic issues. To name but a few. So, I’ll content myself with saying merely that Stanmore is fortunate to have such committed, concerned and public-spirited families as yours.

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Jordan, Let me leave you with a thought associated with the theme of my sermon, and Moses’ astonishing choice of those ten faint-hearted and faithless leaders for such an important mission of assessing the strengths and attributes of the Promised Land.

Jordan, in our youth we all have a notion of our own, personal ‘promised land,’ of what we most dearly would love to accomplish with our lives, of what would bring us the greatest satisfaction, and what we would find the most rewarding area of effort and activity.

Along the long route to that destination we encounter older people in whose guidance and advice we inevitably place our trust: youth leaders, teachers, older relatives and friends of our parents, media celebrities who regularly pass on their own ‘wisdom’ either verbally or in magazines. Much of that wisdom, Jordan, I assure you, is not OK! They are all more than keen to point us in the direction of the Promised Land. The only trouble is, that, in the main, they are pointing in the direction of their own Promised Land; they are trying to influence you to follow a direction that may suit their own lifestyle, their values and moral and ethical standards, their sense of priorities, a direction that gives them a ‘feel-good factor,’ but is wholly unsuited to your particular temperament, your qualities, your values, your moral and religious inclinations.

By the same token, some older people may also seek to influence you on the basis of their own prejudices, as is happening so frequently in Colleges and Universities, where such teachings as anti-Semitism, religious scepticism and the rejection of conventional morality or decent values is often preached by lecturers and promoted by societies. Some might seek, consciously or unconsciously, to infect you with the effects of their own disappointments and setbacks, and discourage you from relying on your own intuition, or from expressing your own creativity.

We have to be very careful, Jordan, regarding whom we set up as our role models, in whom we put our trust, whose advice we take, and who we choose as our friends - because friends are our most persuasive advisers.

It is possible that the ten spies that Moses sent had already been brain-washed by their experiences in Egypt, that they had had all hope, faith and determination wrung out of them, and that their minds were weighted down with negativity and self-doubt, with what the problems were, rather than how the challenges might be met and the solutions discovered.

I once visited Baltimore in the USA, and I will never forget a phrase that my host and friend used. He said, ‘We are a “can-do” society.’ What a great philosophy. And perhaps that explains why America is so hated by the Middle Eastern dictatorships that cripple the freedom and creativity, and stifle the independence of their citizens with the constricting and restrictive principle of “can’t do!”

Jordan, I trust you’ll take away something from these important messages contained in your sidrah, and that you will always choose the right guides and advisers throughout your life. Believe me, within the pages of your chumash, you have the truest, richest and most mature guidance that you will ever require, and that can provide inspiration and direction for even the most difficult of problems that you may ever encounter.

May you continue to bring great pride and pleasure to your dear parents, grandparents and family, your community and your people. Amen.