Rabbi Michael Bernstein



Messengers Gone Astray

 Long before the spies set out on their ill-fated mission, Moses already suspected something would go wrong (13:16). “These are the names of the men Moses sent to reconnoiter the land. And Moses called Hosea, son of Nun, Joshua.” Why did he change Hosea’s name to Joshua? Our Sages tells us (Tanchuma 6, Sotah 34b) that the new name means “God save.” Moses prayed that God would save Joshua from the conspiracy of the spies. Why was Moses suspicious? Why did he feel this particular intervention was necessary? And why did he single out Joshua from among the twelve spies for special consideration?


The Talmud notes (Berachos 34b), “A messenger’s failure reflects badly on his sender.” This aphorism displays a sensitivity to the subtleties of human nature. A messenger’s dedication and enthusiasm usually reflect his perception of the sender’s attitude. If he believes the sender cares deeply, he will extend himself to be successful; the messenger, having accepted the sender’s mission, will do his best to satisfy him. But if the messenger deems the sender indifferent or negative to the mission, he himself will take a cavalier attitude toward its successful fulfillment. For instance, a pious rabbi and an indifferent Jew both send the same messenger to purchase a lulav, the palm branch used for the Sukkoth ritual, offering no additional instructions. The messenger will undoubtedly purchase a first-rate lulav for the rabbi and an acceptable one for the indifferent Jew. Although nothing is spoken out, the messenger’s perception of the sender’s preference will determine his actions.


Although God did not forbid the sending of the spies, Deuteronomy makes clear (1:22-23) that He did not approve of it either. Nonetheless, the weaker elements among the Jewish people, insecure in their relationship with God, persisted in their request for a reconnoitering mission before entry to the land; they did not have sufficient faith that God would deliver the land into their hands. Grounded in spiritual deficiency, the mission was doomed to failure from the beginning. Sensing the negativism of the senders, the messengers adjusted the thrust of their mission accordingly.


Moses perceived the reluctance of the senders to enter the land and understood that the mission was destined for catastrophe. The people’s desire to send spies gave credence to the prophecy of Eldad and Meidad that Moses would not lead the conquest of the land. In order to protect his beloved protégé from this impending disaster, Moses changed his name to Joshua. This act identified Joshua as specifically Moses’ messenger and imbued his role in the overall mission with the passion and enthusiasm of his great sender.




The Wood Gatherer

It was a tragic time. The Jewish people were on the verge of entering the Promised Land, but the disastrous chain of events beginning with the slanderous spies ruined everything. God decreed that the people would remain in the desert for a total of forty years, until the entire generation died and another took its place.

In the immediate aftermath, a strange incident takes place (15:32-35), “The people of Israel were in the desert, and they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses, Aaron and the entire assembly. They placed him in detention, for it had not been clarified what should be done to him. And God said to Moses, ‘The man shall be put to death; the entire assembly shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.’”


How does this episode connect to the preceding incident of the spies? Furthermore, what is the purpose of the seemingly superfluous information that the people of Israel were “in the desert (bamidbar)”?


The expression “they found a man gathering wood” is also puzzling. Ordinarily, the Torah would state that “there was a man gathering wood.” The words “they found” implies that people were looking. What does this mean? The Sifrei explains that Moses posted sentries to watch for any violations of the Sabbath. If so, a new question arises. Why did Moses choose to investigate the nation’s Sabbath observance at this point?

Moses understood that the Jewish people’s eagerness to send spies and readiness to accept their slanderous report reflected a collective failure of trust in God’s providence. Opposed to this, Sabbath observance reinforces and gives testimony to God’s general providence over mankind and His particular providence over the Jewish people; the Torah describes the Sabbath as a remembrance of the Creation and the Exodus. Presumably, Moses suspected that the collective deficiency in trust would manifest itself in a lax attitude toward Sabbath observance. Therefore, he posted sentries to warn against transgression and apprehend any violators. By raising the general level of Sabbath observance in the aftermath of the spies, Moses addressed their deficiencies and reinforced their collective trust in God.


Now let us consider for a moment. What did the wood gatherer intend to do with the wood? Rashi, in his commentary on the Talmud (Beitzah 33b), states that the primary use of wood is for construction. Let us then assume the wood gatherer intended to build a wooden house. Ever since entering the desert over a year earlier, the Jewish people had lived in tents. Faced with forty years in the desert, however, a wooden house beckoned as a more secure and comfortable abode than a tent. Thus, the wood gatherer sought security, because he lacked sufficient trust in God, the very flaw that had caused the disaster of the spies. The Torah emphasizes this last point with the gratuitous statement that they were “in the desert (bamidbar).”


After the return of spies, the word midbar occurs ten times in the parashah, corresponding to the number of spies who slandered the land. The mention of midbar again here in connection with the wood gatherer associates the two events. The desecration of the Sabbath echoes the underlying flaw that led to the debacle of the spies.


There is some disagreement among the commentators as to the chronology of events. Some follow the simple meaning of the verse and place the episode of the wood gatherer immediately after the incident of the spies. Rashi, quoting the Mechilta, states that it took place a year earlier, shortly after the Exodus. Even so, the same explanation holds true, for the Torah places these two events side by side. In both cases, insufficient trust was the root cause of the sin.


Right after the episode of the wood gatherer, the Torah commands the placement of tzitzis, fringes, at the corners of one’s garment (15:40-41) “in order that you remember to perform all the commandments and be holy for the Lord. I am God, your Lord, who brought you forth from the land of Egypt to be a Lord to you, I am God, your Lord.”


Clothing are a person’s most immediate physical protection, and the tzitzis attached to them continually remind the wearer that God provides his true protection. The Jewish people had forgotten this important truth, and this led to the spies and the wood gatherer. The tzitzis would serve as a constant reminder and would hopefully prevent recurrences in the future.