Zander McLane Bar Mitzvah dvar: Shelach

Shabbat shalom! My Torah portion is Shelach. At the beginning of Shelach, all the Israelites are in the desert near Canaan when God tells Moses to send twelve spies, one from each of the twelve tribes, to go check out Canaan. Moses sends the spies to the hill country so that they can come back and tell the people what kind of land it is, and he also tells them to bring back ripe grapes to show what kinds of fruits grow in Canaan.

When the spies get there, they look around the country and eventually find grapes so big that they need two people and a frame of wood to carry the grapes.

After forty days in Canaan, the twelve spies come back to the Israelites and report their findings. Ten of the spies end up telling the community that the people of Canaan are giants, and will kill everybody. Thus the community goes into terror. The whole community shouts and cries, saying that that they would rather go back to Egypt and be slaves again because it is better to be a slave than to fall to the sword.

When God hears this, God gets mad. God says to Moses that God is going to strike the Israelites down because they don’t have faith in God, and will make a nation more numerous than the Israelites to replace them.

Moses begs God not to destroy the Israelites and, while God and Moses are talking, the people sneak away. (Just kidding!) What actually happens is that Moses begs for God’s mercy for the Israelites and, because of Moses, God changes their punishment. Rather than being killed, God decides that the unfaithful Israelites will wander the wilderness for forty years, one year for each day the spies scouted the land, and their children will wander until the last of their carcasses drop.

And then there’s some boring and important stuff about offerings… But who cares about that! Moving on.

As I was reading through my Torah portion, the question I was most curious about was why there were twelve spies, exactly. In my Haftorah portion, forty years after the events I just described, Joshua sends two new spies (these ones do a slightly better job) to Jericho, the city they want to conquer. In the first few minutes of being in Jericho they get caught, and hide in a woman’s house. The woman is named Rahab and she is awesome, because when the king’s men see the spies go into her house she lies to the king’s men and says they’re not there. This allows the spies to escape out her window. In return for this great deed the spies tie a red cord on her window so when the Israelite army comes back to attack the city, they make sure not to kill anyone in her house.

As you can see, in my Haftorah, there are only two spies; but in my Torah portion, there are twelve. Why this discrepancy in numbers, when in both cases there are spies being sent to check out the land they want to conquer? How did they decide who to send as spies, and how many?

Now, I’m gonna pull a Rashi here. Rashi was a medieval French rabbi and you could say he had the catchphrase, “what’s bugging Rashi?” because he would be bugged by practical details of what was happening in Torah stories and interpret them. So instead of what’s bugging Rashi, “what’s bugging Zander?” When I came up with this joke, I thought it was funny that my and Rashi’s Hebrew names are both Shlomo.

So what’s bugging me is this question: why was it important to send exactly these twelve people in Shelach to scout out the Land of Israel?

To get some things straight, these people were not the best spies of the Israelites. These people were the sons of the chiefs of the twelve tribes. So why send these people, and not, like, actual trained spies?

My answer to this is, maybe these sons of the chiefs were seen to be trustworthy people by all the tribes, and when they would report back to their own tribe, their tribe would trust their report. Also, maybe, the thought process was that the more people you send, the harder it is for lies to get through. Just see how that went down! Because in factuality ten lied and two didn’t (Joshua and Caleb, the people who called out the liars).

Also, wouldn’t having one spy from each of the different tribes potentially lead to conflict? At the very least, if each spy was from a different tribe, they’d probably have different customs, and each do things differently. This might cause a lot of disagreement within the group.

On the other hand, there would be a couple advantages to sending spies from different tribes; they probably wouldn’t know each other that well, so they wouldn’t have any dirt on each other, and wouldn’t be able to manipulate each other. Another advantage of sending one spy from each Israelite tribe is that they would be a very diverse group, with a diverse skill set. They could each weigh in to get the best possible solution to any problem that could come up as they were traveling.

As you can see there could have been advantages and disadvantages to sending these twelve spies. But what actually happened was that their spying was a complete disaster — ten lied and two told the truth, and the Israelites were almost destroyed!

So: Whose idea was it to send out twelve spies in the first place then? If we look back at my Torah portion, it says in Numbers chapter 13, verse 1: “And God spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.’”

So it seems as though God told Moses to send one spy from each tribe. But Ibn Ezra (who was a Spanish Rabbi dude, which is interesting that the two rabbis I have talked about were both from the middle ages, and were from countries that were rivals at certain points in history) — Ibn Ezra says that when it’s written in the Torah “Send forth,” that what actually happened was first God said to the Israelites “Go and conquer.” Then the Israelites said to themselves: “Let’s send people first.” And only after this, God said: “Send forth men.”

According to Ibn Ezra, then, the Israelites were the ones who wanted the reassurance of spies — it wasn’t something that God thought should happen in the first place. It was more like God was saying, “fine, you can have that” — like God was bitter.

All in all, I have to say, that sending twelve spies wasn’t the best idea that the Israelites had. It made God mad, plus it seems like the Israelites were not the sharpest knives in the drawer, because they chose such bad spies! And because those ancient Israelites were so gullible, if Joshua and Caleb had not called out the ten spies that lied, we’d all be Egyptian. So thank goodness that the liars got called out.

A couple lessons I think we can draw from this story is that there’s not always strength in numbers. Also that liars never prosper, meaning that people who lie always can and will be found out eventually.

So kids (and maybe parents too), this is why you don’t lie. There is always some negative unintended effects from lying, cheating, and other non-truthful behaviour, like loss of trust and punishment. As the prophet Jeremiah eloquently states, “The Lord God is truth.” Also, in the Talmud, Pesachim 113b, it is written, “The Holy One, blessed be God, hates a person who says one thing with his mouth and another in his heart.” I know I sounded like a book there, but the point is, Judaism teaches us: don’t lie.