Meraglim – The Spies


Rabbi Mendy Feder


In order to understand the story of the Meraglim we must first examine the nature and cause of their sin.  A careful analysis of the story raises many perplexing questions that demand explanation.  A proper appreciation of the story will teach us some very important lessons, which can help us in perfecting our own behavior and our relationship with our Creator. 


We must first investigate the motivation behind the mission of the Meraglim.  Rashi remarks that Bnei Yisrael initially proposed the mission.  Moshe was ambivalent about this proposition.  On the one hand he understood Bnei Yisrael’s need to scout the land, but apparently recognized a latent danger in the operation.  Moshe was perplexed, and accordingly sought counsel from God.  What was Moshe’s concern?  A strong case could be made that the mission made absolute sense.  Judaism demands that a person be proactive and behave in accordance with his intellect.  To sit back and expect God to take care of one’s needs is a distorted, infantile idea of bitachon – trust in God.  True bitachon demands the individual utilize his tzelem Elokim, his mind, to act rationally and to take security only in his recognition of the ultimate reality.  The people wanted to know about the land that they were going to conquer.  The spies were the nobility of the Jewish people, men of distinction and leaders of the people.  They felt that a scouting mission was essential to properly plan an attack.  Did not Yehoshua ultimately send scouts prior to entering the land 40 years later?  How was the action of the Meraglim any different?  What bothered Moshe about this mission and what was the nature of his concern?


In order to identify and properly understand the dangers of the mission we must scrutinize the entire sequence of events.  A thorough analysis, based on the comments of Chazal, gives rise to many questions, the resolution of which may help us comprehend the underlying sin of the spies.


The spies, upon returning, reported their findings to the entire Jewish people.  One of their conclusions was that Eretz Yisrael was “eretz ochelet yosheveha,” (Bamidbar 13:32) a land that consumes its inhabitants.  Rashi explains that the scouts reported that wherever they went they encountered an inordinate number of funerals.  This, they felt, reflected the fact that it was a difficult and treacherous land to settle.  Rashi explains that the spies failed to perceive the good intent of God’s actions.  God chose to distract the inhabitants so that they would not pay any heed to the spies, thereby removing any element of danger from the mission.  The Gemara in Sotah 35a adds that the residents of the land were at the funeral of Iyov, who protected that generation.  Nevertheless the spies did not appreciate this Divine assistance.  Calev and Yehoshua, on the other hand, recognized and appreciated this kindness of God.  They reported to the people, “sar tzeelem me’aleihem” (ibid. 14:9) God has removed his shade, his protection, from the peoples of the land.  Rashi tells us that Calev and Yehoshua were referring to Iyov, their protector, whom God had killed.  As such, the inhabitants of the land were now vulnerable to being destroyed. 


We must pause and ask: what do the Gemara and Rashi mean?  Are they positing that Iyov lived at this time?  Furthermore, why were the other spies so blinded to God’s helpful hand? 


After reporting their findings the spies rallied the people and incited them to complain against Moshe and Aharon.  The people said, “let us appoint a new leader to and return to Egypt” (ibid. 14:4). The Gemara in Sanhedrin 107b states that the language of, “nitnah rosh – appoint us a leader” is “lashon avodah zarah – an expression that connotes idolatry.”  This comment is difficult to understand.  What is the connection between Bnei Yisrael’s fear of entering the land and idolatry? 


Calev and Yehoshua did not participate in the sin of the other spies.  In order to help us understand the ramifications of the sin we must first analyze the behavior of Calev and Yehoshua to understand why they didn’t participate.The Gemara in Sotah 34b tells us that Calev went to kivrei Avot – the graves of his forefathers – in order to plead for God to have mercy on him.  The Baalei Tosafot cite the Gemara in Brachos 18a which states that the dead lack knowledge of worldly events.  If that is the case, the Baalei Tosafot ask, what was the intent of Calev in visiting their graves?  How could such a visit possibly help Calev in asking for mercy from God?  Furthermore, what was the intent of Calev in asking for mercy and what did this have to do with not succumbing to the advice of the spies?  The Gemara also tells us that Yehoshua did not join Calev in his journey to kivrei Avot because Moshe had already sought God’s compassion on his behalf when he changed his name from Hoshea to Yehoshua.  This was done so that God would save him from the bad counsel of the spies.  How does a name change or a visit to a cemetery protect one from becoming falling into a bad crowd?


The question that is most basic to the whole story is: why were the spies and the rest of the nation terrified about attacking the inhabitants of the land?  Where was their trust in God?  As God asked Moshe, “How long will [this nation continue] not to have faith in Me, despite all the signs I have performed in its midst?” (ibid. 14:11). This nation witnessed the most miraculous of plagues and watched as most powerful nation in the world was rendered powerless.  This nation observed the total annihilation of the Egyptians at the splitting of the Red Sea as they marched through walls of flowing water.  This was nation that God personally brought out of Egypt and sheltered and sustained in the wilderness.  What could possibly cause them to suddenly question God’s ability to lead them into the Promised Land?  Could they have doubted His ability to protect them?  Such a possibility seems absurd.  


In order to answer these questions we must first understand the state of mind of the Jewish people at this fateful time in history.  The Gemara in Sotah 34b states that we have a tradition that the names of the various spies allude to their actions.  “Setur ben Michael” was so named because “setur ma’asav shel haKadosh Baruch Hu, he distorted the actions of God.  His father’s name connotes “mach E-l,” he portrayed God as weak.  Rashi explains that his hatred of God caused him to lie in his report.  He portrayed God as weak by comparing Him to a homeowner who is unable remove his furniture from his house, the underlying accusation being that God is unable to drive the inhabitants out of the land.  “Nachvi ben Vofsi” was named because “hechvi d’varav shel Hashem,” he concealed the words of God.”  His father’s name alludes to “pise’ah al midotav,” he ignored God’s attributes.  Rashi explains that he concealed things by not reporting things the way he actually observed them.  He also ignored the good things that God did for Bnei Yisrael by not reporting them accurately, for example, by reporting that the land consumed its inhabitants and giving Bnei Yisrael impression that the land was undesirable and impossible to conquer.  He distorted and concealed the fact that God caused these deaths in order to prevent their destruction. 


An analysis of the Gemara poses several considerable difficulties.  What does it mean that the spies’ hatred of God made them liars?  Why would these spies hate God?  At the inception of the mission they were considered ha’sarim – the leaders.  These were individuals that personally experienced the great beneficence of the Creator.  How could such noble individuals stoop to the base level of lying about the God Who took them out of Egypt?  What was the cause of this behavior?


The Gemara, by citing the tradition that the spies’ names allude to their actions, provides great insight into the nature of the spies’ sin.  This Gemara sheds light on the psychological underpinnings of the actions of the spies.  These men were faced with an internal conflict.  On the one hand they were the nobility, the leaders and guides of the nation.  But at the same time they, like all of Bnei Yisrael, had all of their needs provided for by God.  He liberated them from slavery, defeated their masters, protected them in the wilderness, and presently led them into their new homeland.  Consequently these leaders felt impotent.  They felt as though they, the would-be leaders of the Jewish people, had no role in their salvation.  With this underlying, unconscious motivation, the leaders roused the people to demand that Moshe send spies to scout out the land.  They did in order to play an active role in the process of entering the land, thereby satisfying their need to feel proactive and important.  Moshe was cognizant of this psychological need but was caught in a dilemma.  On the one hand he recognized that this request was a deviation from the God’s set course of action, for God had not commanded Moshe to send the spies.  On the other hand he recognized that were he to deny Bnei Yisrael’s request their feelings of inadequacy would only intensify, generating feelings of resentment and possibly rebelliousness.  After consulting with God, who left the decision up to Moshe, he reluctantly agreed to send spies in an attempt to satisfy the psychological need of the people and the leaders in a healthy manner.  The Gemara in Sotah is informing us of the psychological mindset of the spies.  Obviously they didn’t hate God.  However, they resented the fact that God did everything for them, especially since they were supposed to be the leaders of the people.  Their pride would not allow them to accept the fact the state of being completely passive and powerless.  It is this unconscious resentment that the Gemara refers to as “hatred” of God.  It was this resentment which caused the spies to be terrified upon seeing the mighty inhabitants of the land.  Rather than attributing this reaction to their own failings, their inability to confront their own inadequacy led them to project their weakness onto God, comparing Him to a homeowner who is unable to move his furniture.  Unconsciously, they could not tolerate the notion that God would have to take care of them again because they were totally helpless. 


But the question still remains: how did this resentment prevent them from recognizing and appreciating all of the good that God had and continued to do for them?  Why did they unconsciously project their own weakness onto God and blind them to the display of providence they had been subject to thus far? 


An understanding of the Klal Yisrael’s response to the spies’ report is quite revealing.  They did not to cry out to God to assist them in conquering the inhabitants nor did they demand that Moshe explain God’s actions.  Rather their immediate reaction was, “appoint us a leader and we will return to Egypt” (ibid. 14:4).  Our Sages teach us that this reaction stemmed from an idolatrous emotion.  Bnei Yisrael viewed God as a Father in heaven Who took care of their every need because they were special.  All of the miracles, care, and sustenance provided to them throughout the Exodus caused them to feel like spoiled children.  They failed to recognize the mission with which they were charged at Sinai, that they were chosen to act as a moral light unto the world.  They were destined to enter the land of Israel, not because God wanted to fulfill their desires, but in order to live at the highest spiritual and intellectual level and serve as a role model for the nations of the world, causing them to exclaim “surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation” (Devarim 4:6).  It was only because of this mission that God watched over them and supervised them.  God’s providence functioned solely for the purpose of enabling them to achieve spiritual perfection.  However, like rebellious children, they could not tolerate the fact that God had to take care of all their needs.  They could not tolerate this because the idolatrous emotion pervaded their relationship with God.  They acted as though God existed for the sole purpose of caring for their needs as helpless children.  The hatred the Gemara describes is the unconscious resentment that a child encounters when he realizes his own inadequacies.  The child cannot tolerate his total dependence on the parent.  That is why there is no answer to God’s rhetorical question to Moshe, “How long will [this nation continue] not to have faith in Me, despite all the signs I have performed in its midst?” (Bamidbar 14:11).  It is interesting to note that the word “b’tocho,” “in their midst,” is used instead of a word indicating that the miracles were done for them.  The reason why God wanted to destroy them at this point in time is that the people had totally corrupted themselves and their mission by adopting this selfish view of their relationship with Him.

We can now also understand Chazal’s interpretation of Calev and Yehoshua’s response to the accusation of “it is a land that consumes its inhabitants.”  They responded by assuring the people that, “God removed the protection of the inhabitants.”  Chazal state that this refers to Iyov who had died and was the protector and strength for the inhabitants of the land.  Chazal are again underscoring the basic sin of the Meraglim.  Iyov typified a person whose experience taught him the proper perspective of one’s relationship with the Creator.  God does not exist merely to help a person fulfill his desires.  His providence is based upon man’s perfection as a spiritual being.  The spies totally misconstrued the events they witnessed in the land of Israel in the same fashion, which distorted their entire relationship with God. 


Yehoshua and Calev did not participate in the sin of the Meraglim but instead gave an accurate description of what they witnessed.  They told the people not to worry about the inhabitants of the land, assuring them that God would destroy them and allow Bnei Yisrael to enter the land.  They were aware of the true character of Bnei Yisrael’s mission and their relationship with God.  Yehoshua and Calev were capable of maintaining their security in this relationship and were not overwhelmed by the hysteria of the other spies.  Moshe changed Yehoshua’s name.  By adding the name of God, “Yah” to “Hoshaya” creating “Yehoshua”, Moses told Yehoshua that God would save him from the bad counsel of the Meraglim.  Moshe was a rebbi to Yehoshua, a teacher and guide.  He recognized the dangerous attitude of the other spies and warned his pupil.  As Chazal tell us, the act of changing Yehoshua’s name was a way of requesting compassion from God.  Compassion from God is evoked when man realizes that his sins result from the frailties of the human condition.  He seeks God’s guidance to give him the opportunity and ability to act in accordance with his tzelem Elokim – his intellect, that which allows him to approach God.  By changing his name Moshe secured this message, ensuring that Yehoshua would constantly remain aware of the dangers and maintained steadfast in his relationship with God.  Our Sages tell us that Calev had to go out to kivrei avot – the graves of his forefathers – to seek compassion.  He was not Moshe’s main disciple and Moshe was not his personal rebbi, as he was to Yehoshua.  Calev recognized the dangers of his mission and he went to kivrei avot.  He sought inspiration from Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, the great forefathers of our nation, men who had the proper perspective of man’s relationship with God.  The Avot symbolized the mission and destiny of Bnei Yisrael, for they were the origin and cause of our existence as the chosen people.  Tosafos is accurate in pointing out that the dead are unaware of worldly events, however, Calev desired that the Avot be a source of compassion for him in a different sense.  They were his teachers.  They had the proper perspective of the Jewish people’s relationship with God and their destiny.  At this critical time, as the Jewish people were entering into the promised land, Calev sought inspiration from the fathers and mothers of our nation to save him from the negative influence of his peers.  He sought God’s compassion because he recognized the frailty of man and sought and resolved to resist those weaknesses.  The Torah teaches us that Calev retained his strength of character because he had a “ruach acheret,” a different spirit than the others.  Calev possessed the true “ruach Elokim,” the true spirit which is line with God’s will. 



Upon hearing the distorted report of the spies, the people did not discount the strength of the inhabitants.  They failed to recognize that God would destroy their enemies and allow them to enter to the land to achieve their destiny.  On the contrary, “vayivku – and they cried,” Bnei Yisrael cried like helpless children.  They were incapable of taking security in their relationship with their Creator.  Chazal teach us that God responded by stating that they were crying for no reason and responded by promising, “I will give them reason to cry.”  That night was Tisha b’Av, a day indelibly etched into the calendar of our people as a day of tragedy.  Tisha b’Av represents hester panim – the total concealment of God’s special providence for the Jewish people.  Throughout the generations Bnei Yisrael would mourn on Tisha b’Av, a day which reflects the distance between God and His chosen people.  The Meraglim lacked the proper perspective of the relationship between God and Klal Yisrael.  They failed to recognize their true mission.  This resulted in distancing the Jewish people from God, establishing a chasm which will only be bridged in the Messianic Era.  In the end of days, Bnei Yisrael will again cleave to God, with the proper perspective of their mission, and then will be worthy of being a moral light unto the world. 


Another reflection of God’s justice as being midda k’neged midda – measure for measure – was Klal Yisrael’s punishment for sympathizing with the Meraglim.  Those alive at the time were incapable of entering into Eretz Yisrael.  Their relationship with God was marred by the idolatrous notion that they were special and that God would take care of them as helpless children.  They did not appreciate the true character of their relationship with the Creator and were thus incapable of entering into the land.  This generation had to do Teshuva and totally reappraise their role as the Chosen Nation.  What was their punishment?  They had to dig their own graves and lie down in them, not knowing who would get up again.  This was not a cruel or unusual punishment.  It was midda k’neged midda.  It allowed Klal Yisrael to reflect upon their relationship with God.  God was not there simply to take care of their needs.  God is the Borei Olam – the Creator of the world and source of all reality, as Iyov had recognized.  Only by facing their own mortality as emanating from the Borei Olam could their idolatrous notions be shattered.


The entire story of the Meraglim is followed by a strange sequence of events.  It tells us of a group of Jews, the mapilim, who immediately after God ravaged the spies with the plague attempted to enter into Israel.  What were they thinking?  Had they not personally witnessed God’s punishment of the spies?  Did they fail to recognize that they were not worthy of entering the land?  The Torah teaches us that Moshe and the Ark of God did not budge as this group attempted to proceed into Eretz Yisrael.  However, these people persisted, “v’yapilu la’alot el rosh ha’har – but they were stubborn [and proceeded] to ascend to the mountaintop” (ibid. 14:44).  Rashi tells us that “v’yapilu – and they were stubborn” is “lashon choshech,” an expression connoting darkness.  Alternatively, Rashi suggests it is a language of azut – audacity.  These people were still in the dark.  They failed to perceive the true sin of the Meraglim and the character of their relationship with God.  They were audacious and arrogant.  They felt they were punished because they simply doubted God.  They were like children, incapable of recognizing reality and persistent in achieving a goal beyond their grasp.  They felt that God would take care of them simply because they were special.  This was azut, arrogance.  They felt that the Meraglim were punished because they doubted God but felt that God was on their side.  They felt that they were capable of entering the land.  Moshe and the Ark of God did not budge.  Moshe recognized that these people were doomed to failure.  The Ark of God also did not budge.  This represented that they were not worthy of God’s intervention.  The failure of the Meraglim was a failure of the greatest degree.  It went to the core of their very existence as a nation and demanded a generation of time to cure.  These people still suffered from the same malady.  They were not worthy of God’s providence and they were totally destroyed.


A careful analysis of the story of the Meraglim affords us an excellent opportunity to reflect upon our relationship with God as the Chosen Nation.  It is only when we have a proper perspective of our relationship with the Borei Olam and rid ourselves of any idolatrous notions can we be worthy of redemption.