R. Bernie Fox


However, the nation that dwells in the land is mighty.  And the cities are large and fortified.  We also saw there the descendants of the giants.  (BeMidbar 13:28)

In our parasha, Hashem tells Moshe to send spies into the land of Israel.  Moshe explains, in Sefer Devarim, that Hashem was responding to the request of Bnai Yisrael.  The people had approached Moshe and suggested that these spies be sent.  Moshe regarded this as a reasonable plan.  Hashem agreed to the request.[1]

The spies returned.  They reported that the land was rich and fertile.  They also reported that the land was well defended and would be difficult to conquer.  Upon hearing this report, Bnai Yisrael panicked.  The people refused to proceed into the land.  Hashem punished the nation.  The generation that refused to conquer the land was forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years.  After this generation died, their children conquered the land under the leadership of Yehoshua.

The Torah explains that the spies sinned and caused the rebellion.  What was their sin?  It is difficult to condemn the spies for reporting that the land was well defended.  This was their job.  Moshe charged them with the responsibility of gathering intelligence.  They were ordered to asses the fortifications and the strength of inhabitants.  Surely the spies cannot be condemned for fulfilling their mission!


The Torah describes their sin as propagating negative report on the land.[2]  This seems to be a reference to a specific statement made by the spies.  They claimed that the land consumed its inhabitants.[3]  This was a false assertion.  It is reasonable to hold the spies responsible for this lie.


However, this raises an obvious question.  The spies initially reported that the land was fertile and rich.  They even brought back fruit to support their report.  How could they reasonably claim that the land was unwholesome?  Why would the people believe a claim that clearly contradicted the spies' own words?


One possible answer is that the initial report was delivered in front of Moshe and Ahron.  Moshe was familiar with the land of Canaan from his younger years.[4]  He could easily dispute any negative characterization of the land.  The spies did not criticize the land of Israel in front of Moshe and Ahron.  They acknowledged its richness.  Later the assembly broke up.  The spies followed the people back to their tents.  There, outside of the presence of Moshe and Ahron, the spies denigrated the land.


This does not completely answer the question.  Still, the people must have realized that the spies were contradicting themselves in their characterization of the land!  Perhaps, the spies responded that they were afraid to contradict Moshe's assurances regarding the land.  Therefore, in his presence they had been less than completely truthful.  Now, in privacy they could reveal the truth.


Nachmanides suggests that the spies never contradicted themselves.  They never retracted from their report that the land flowed with milk and honey.  Instead, they claimed that the land was too rich.  The luscious fruit and produce would sustain an especially robust metabolism.  It seemed to be a perfect diet for giants.  But a more average specimen would be harmed by the richness of the diet.  They claimed that this must be the case.  They had only encountered giants.  Apparently, normal human beings would not be sustained by these rich fruits.[5]


Nachmanides further comments that the sin of the spies did not begin with this lie.  The lie was the culmination.  The sin began with the statement contained in our pasuk.  At first glance this seems odd.  In our pasuk, the spies are reporting that the land is well defended.  This was an accurate and truthful account!


Nachmanides explains that the role of the spies was to provide intelligence.  This information was to be used to formulate a plan for conquest.  The spies were never authorized to evaluate the chances of succeeding.  If we consider our passage carefully, we can see that the spies overstepped their authority.


The spies use an odd word in our pasuk.  They say, "However, the nation that dwells in the land is mighty".  Let us consider the implications of the word "however".  This word creates some connection between the preceding and the following statement.  It qualifies the prior statement.  What was this prior statement?  The spies had just reported that the land was rich and fertile.  Then they added their "however".  What was their message?  They were saying, "Yes, the land flows with milk and honey – just as Moshe promised.  However, what good is this to us?  We cannot conquer the land.  It is too well defended".  Of course, the spies did not actually say this.  Their intent was implied in the "however".[6]


And Moshe and Ahron fell on their faces before the whole assembled Bnai Yisrael.  (BeMidbar 14:5)

The scouts return.  They report that the land will impossible to conquer.  They also deny that the land is wholesome.  They claim that the land seems to consume or destroy its inhabitants.  The nation is discouraged by this report.  The people question the purpose of traveling through the wilderness to arrive at this hopeless end.  They come to a consensus.  They will replace Moshe and Ahron.  Another leader will be chosen.  This leader will take them back to Egypt.


Our pasuk records Moshe and Ahron’s reaction to the nation’s decision.  The Torah does not tell us that they argued with the people.  The Torah records that they fell upon their faces before the nation.


What was the purpose of this reaction?  Nachmanides explains that Moshe and Ahron were beseeching the people not to perform this wicked act.[7]  They should not rebel against the Almighty and refuse to posses the land.  They must continue forward and not return to Egypt.


This reaction raises an important question.  Why did Moshe and Ahron not respond more forcefully?  They behaved as supplicants.  They begged the people not to act sinfully.  Contrast this to Moshe’s reaction upon descending from Sinai.  Moshe descended from Sinai and encountered the nation worshipping the Egel – the Golden Calf.  Moshe did not become a supplicant.  He did not beg the nation to repent.  Instead, he acted decisively and sternly.  He rebuked Ahron for his involvement in the sin.  He separated the sinners from the faithful.  He immediately executed those responsible for the travesty of the Egel.  How can we explain Moshe’s relative passivity in responding to the transgression in our parasha?


The first possibility is that the sin of the Egel was more isolated than the movement to return to Egypt.  In the instance of the Egel, Moshe realized that the majority of Bnai Yisrael remained faithful to Hashem.  He enlisted the majority to punish the minority of sinners.  In our parasha, Moshe was confronted with a mass movement.  The nation – as a whole – had decided to abandon Moshe and the quest for the land of Israel.  Moshe had very few allies.  He could not act forcefully.  Therefore, he was forced to become a supplicant.  He appealed to the nation reconsider.


However, Rav Simcha Zisil Broudy notes another distinction between the two incidents.   He explains that the sin of the Egel was not directed against Moshe.  The nation had defied the law of the Almighty.  Moshe vigorously defended the glory of the Creator.  In the incident in our parasha, the nation’s rebellion was not directed solely against Hashem.  The people were also rejecting the leadership of Moshe and Ahron.  The people sought new leadership.  They wanted leaders that would guide them on a more productive and meaningful path. 


Moshe and Ahron could not act forcefully in this incident.  One who leads through force can be accused of self-aggrandizement.  Furthermore, a leader that forces other to follow is not a true leader.  If force must be used, the leader has failed to prove his or her worthiness.  Moshe realized that this was not a conflict that could be resolved through force. 


Nonetheless, Moshe and Ahron did not abandon the conflict.  They realized that they could not coerce the nation.  Instead, they resorted to petition.  They were not concerned with their own position of honor.  They only cared for the welfare of Bnai Yisrael.  If this required them to become beggars and supplicants, they were willing.[8]


[1]   Sefer Devarim 1:22-23.

[2]   Sefer BeMidbar 14:36.

[3]    Sefer BeMidbar 13:32.

[4]    Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer      

    BeMidbar 13:2.

[5]    Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer  

    BeMidbar 13:32.

[6]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer

    BeMidbar 13:27.

[7]  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer

    BeMidbar 14:5.

[8]  Rav Shimon Yosef Miller, Shai LaTorah (Jerusalem 5753), volume 3, pp. 143-144.