Rabbi Bernie Fox






Yehoshua’s Initial Silence in Response to the Report of the Spies


And Kalev silenced the nation’s protest against Moshe.  And he said: We will surely ascend and posses it.  For we certainly have the ability.  (BeMidbar 13:30)

Our parasha relates the incident of the spies –the meraglim.  Bnai Yisrael requests that spies precede them into the land.  Moshe acquiesces.  The spies are charged with the responsibility of scouting the land and bringing back a sample of its fruit.  Moshe hopes that the report of the spies will encourage the nation and facilitate their conquest of the land.  The meraglim scout the land.  However, they are intimidated by the challenge of possessing the land.  The spies report that the land is indeed fertile.  However, it is occupied by mighty nations and its cities are fortified.  They imply that Bnai Yisrael will not be capable of taking possession of the land.


Two of the spies do not participate in this pessimistic report.  Yehoshua and Kalev do not agree with the other spies.   When the other spies deliver their report, Kalev immediately protests that the spies have come to an unwarranted decision.  In fact, the nation can conquer the land.


It is interesting that during this debate between Kalev and the other spies Yehoshua remained silent.  He did not take Kalev’s side.  Instead, he allowed Kalev to act alone in his opposition to other spies.  Only after Kalev faied to influence the nation and the people succumbed to the undermining pessimism of the other spies did Yehoshua join Kalev and speak out in favor of proceeding with the conquest.  Why did Yehoshua not immediately express his support for Kalev’s position?


Rabbaynu Yitzchak Karo suggests that Yehoshua was following a carefully-designed plan.  He knew that the other scouts would contest Kalev’s assertion that Bnai Yisrael could conquer the land.  This would initiate a debate between Kalev and the other spies.  Yehoshua felt that by immediately siding with Kalev, little would be gained.  He and Kalev would be in the minority opposing the shared view of the other ten spies.  However, Yehoshua hoped that Kalev’s opponents would interpret his silence as tacit approval of their position.  This assumption would encourage them to appeal to Yehoshua to present his position to the nation and serve as the arbitrator.  This appeal would enhance his credibility with the nation.  Yehoshua planned to surprise the ten spies by using the credibility they bestowed upon him to undermine their position and state his support for Kalev’s opinion.  This would be devastating for the ten spies. The very person whom they called upon to serve as arbitrator of the truth would side with their opponent.  He hoped this strategy would provide him the opportunity to truly impact the outcome of the debate.[1]


Unfortunately, Yehoshua’s plan did not work.  The ten spies never called upon him to express his opinion.  He was forced to simply side with Yehoshua.  As he expected, his support of Kalev did not impact the outcome of the debate. 






The Consequences of the Sin of the Spies and Bnai Yisrael


Say to them: As I live, so says Hashem, shall it not be as you have spoken in my ears? So I will do to you. (BeMidbar 14:28)

The spies returned. They reported that the land could not be captured. They also criticized the quality of the Land of Israel.  The people accepted the report.  They became despondent.  They believed would never capture the fertile land, promised by Hashem.  They concluded that rather than die in the wilderness, they should consider returning to Egypt.  Hashem punished Bnai Yisrael for this rebellion. This generation would not enter the Land of Israel.  Instead, the children, whom they had predicted would die in the wilderness, would conquer the land.


Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that this episode altered the future of Bnai Yisrael.  Hashem had planned for Moshe to lead the people into the land. The Land of Israel would be easily captured. The conquest would be permanent and there would be no subsequent exile.  He further explains that the consequence of the sin of the spies and their generation was not limited to the death of these individuals in the wilderness.  Instead, the destiny of Bnai Yisrael was altered.  Moshe did not lead the nation into the land. He was be replaced by Yehoshua.   Without Moshe, the conquest was far less miraculous than the conquest Hashem had planned to execute through Moshe.  An even more important consequence of their sin was that the possession of the land would not be permanent.  Instead, it would be followed by exile. Only in the Messianic Era will Bnai Yisrael establish permanent possession of the land.[2]


Our Sages explain that this rebellion occurred on the ninth day of the month of Av. This has been a day of tragedy for Bnai Yisrael.  Among the catastrophes occurring on this date is the destruction of both Temples.[3]  The tradition that the rebellion occurred on the ninth of Av has a special meaning, according to Sforno.  The destruction of the Temples was an outcome of this rebellion.  It is, therefore, fitting to identify the date of the rebellion to the ninth of Av.






The Inadequacy of Bnai Yisrael’s Repentance


And they arose in the morning.  And they ascended to the top of the mountain.  And they said: We will ascend to the place of which Hashem spoke for we have sinned.  (BeMidbar 14:40)

Bnai Yisrael refuses to proceed to the land.  Hashem tells the nation of its punishment.  The people realize that they have sinned.  They want to correct their error.  They are prepared to face their fears.  They declare they will travel into Canaan and do battle with the nations.  Moshe advises Bnai Yisrael not to proceed with its plan.  He tells the people that Hashem will not be with them.  If they attempted to conquer the Land of Israel, they will be defeated.  The people do not listen.  They continue their journey towards Canaan. They are attacked by Amalake and are driven back.


This incident is very difficult to understand.  The response of Moshe to Bnai Yisrael’s declaration of willingness to proceed and Hashem’s abandonment of His nation to Amalake seem almost arbitrary.  Bnai Yisrael acknowledged that it had sinned.  The people accepted responsibility for their doubts and lack of faith.  They eagerly undertook dramatic action to overcome their unfounded fears. This seems to be the model of repentance.  Why was the repentance of Bnai Yisrael not accepted? 


In order to answer this question, we must analyze the process of atonement.  Most sacrifices are brought to atone for a sin.  The sacrifice is accompanied by a confession.  Maimonides discusses this confession in his Mishne Torah.  He explains that the confession contains three elements.  First, the person must acknowledge the transgression.  Second, the person must indicate he has repented.  Last, the person must verbally recognize that the sacrifice is required for atonement.[4]  Why is this last step necessary?  It is easy to understand that atonement for a sin requires acknowledgement of the transgression and repentance, but why is verbal affirmation of the requirement of the sacrifice essential to the process? 


It seems that atonement is not secured until the sinner accepts that his transgression has consequences.  In this case, the consequence is the sacrifice.  Maimonides further discusses this concept in his description of the death penalty.  He explains that one receiving this penalty must confess.  Maimonides defines the minimum standard for this confession: the person to be executed must ask Hashem to accept his or her death as atonement for the transgression.[5]  In other words, his atonement requires he accept that his death is the consequence of his sin.


We can now respond to our original question.  Why was the repentance of Bnai Yisrael inadequate? The nation was truly prepared to proceed with the conquest of the land.  The people were willing to confront their anxieties.  However, this was not sufficient to secure atonement.  Hashem had decreed that this generation would perish in the wilderness.  Repentance required that the nation acknowledge that their transgression had a consequence.  They were required to accept the justice of Hashem’s judgment.  In other words, Bnai Yisrael certainly had the option of praying to Hashem to reconsider His judgment and the punishment He had decreed upon His nation. However, they must first accept the justice of the decree.  Instead, they attempted to defy the decree and to proceed with the conquest of the land.





Bnai Yisrael’s Ethical Dilemma


And they placed him under guard, for it had not been explained what should be done with him. (BeMidbar 15:34)

The Chumash recounts the first violation of the Shabbat.  Rashi explains that the people knew that the punishment for violation of the Shabbat was death. However, there are four forms of this punishment in the Torah. They did not know which form of the penalty to apply. The violator was placed under guard until Hashem revealed to Moshe the proper punishment.[6]


Hashem certainly knew that the Shabbat would ultimately be violated.  Why did He not reveal the specific punishment until the crisis arose? This problem is even more troublesome according to one opinion in the Talmud.  In order for a sinner to be punished for the violation of a commandment, he must first be warned by witnesses. The witnesses must notify the sinner that he is violating the mitzvah. They must also indicate the punishment. According to Rebbe Yehudah, the notification must include the specific form of punishment. According to this opinion, adequate warning could not be provided for this first violation of the Shabbat.[7]  The specific punishment was not known at the time of the violation! The Talmud addresses this problem.  It explains that the legal requirements for execution were, in fact, not met. According to normative practice, this first violator of the Shabbat could not be punished. However, the Torah empowers the courts and a prophet to punish an individual, in extreme cases, without meeting these normative requirements. Moshe and his court used this authority to execute this violator.[8]   In other words, this first violation of the Shabbat created a crisis that could not be solved in accordance with normative law. Only through using the extraordinary power of Moshe and the court was the dilemma solved. What were Hashem's reasons for allowing this preventable crisis to occur?


Hashem has commanded Bnai Yisrael to observe the laws. The responsibility for enforcement rests upon the nation.  At times, this requires that the people harshly punish one of their own. This is a difficult task. It is easy to be callous in dealing with an outsider. However, we all feel less comfortable rebuking a friend or peer. It is even more challenging to precipitate the punishment of a friend.  An even more excruciating ethical dilemma emerges when the crime committed by our friend is a victimless religious violation.   However, the Torah does decree that some religious transgressions – like violation of the Shabbat – are so severe that they are punished with death.  This decree of the Torah is only meaningful if we as a nation are willing to support it.  We must be willing to confront this challenge and moral dilemma and take this most severe action against a peer or friend.


Hashem created a situation in which the people would be required to demonstrate this devotion to and support for the standards of the Torah.  According to Rebbe Yehudah, in order to construct an even more meaningful challenge, they were even provided with a rationalization for overlooking the violation. The people did not yet know the specific form of execution that applied to a person guilty of violating the Shabbat.  Without this information they could not adequately warn the violator of the consequences of his actions.  They knew that because they did not provide an adequate warning, the violator was exempt from the death penalty.  However, despite the tempting opportunity to overlook the violation and the accompanying rationalization for this course of action, the nation realized that this initial rebellion against the Shabbat could not be overlooked. They brought the violator to Moshe and the court and entrusted them with deciding the proper course of action, fully realizing that their friend might be executed.  They knew that Moshe and the court might resort to their extraordinary power to execute the violator despite the deficiency in the warning he had received.  Through following this path, the people demonstrated their commitment to and support of the Torah.






The Differences between the Missions of Yehosua’s Spies and Moshe’s Spies


Any Yehoshua bin Nun sent from Shittim two men – secret spies—saying:  Go and see the land and Yericho.  And they went and they came to the home of a harlot.  And her name was Rachav.  And they laid down there.  (Yehoshua 2:1)

This passage is from the haftara of Parshat Shelach and is directly related to its content.  The Torah portion discusses the incident of the spies.  Moshe sends a group of spies into the Land of Israel.  The spies return and report that the land is well-defended.  They also question the vitality and health of the land’s environment.  Only two of the spies – Yehoshua and Kalev – demur.  They insist that the land is remarkably fertile and that they would succeed in its conquest.  The nation is persuaded by the report provided by the majority of the spies and concludes that it is doomed.  They will not succeed in the conquest.  The nation decides that it must return to Egypt.  Hashem punishes Bnai Yisrael.  The people are condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years – until the members of the generation die.  Then, their children will possess the Land of Israel.


The haftara is taken from Sefer Yehoshua.  Forty years have passed and now Yehoshua leads the nation.  Bnai Yisrael has arrived at the border of the land of Israel and is prepared to follow Yehoshua into the land.  They will vanquish the nations that now occupy it and take possession of the Land of Israel.  But Yehoshua makes an amazing decision.  He decides that before initiating his campaign, he will send spies into the land. This seems to be a very strange decision.  Moshe had sent spies and this lead to disaster.  Yehoshua was one of these spies.  No one was more familiar with the incident.  Why would Yehoshua risk bringing about a repetition of the same catastrophe that Moshe’s spies instigated?






And it was told to the king of Yericho saying:  Men from Bnai Yisrael have come here tonight to spy out the land.  (Yehoshua 2:2)

Yehoshua’s spies are immediately recognized.  The king of Yericho is notified of their presence.  He launches a search to find them.  Rachav decides to hide them.  She bravely protects them from detection.   She helps them escape from Yericho and return to Bnai Yisrael.  In exchange, she asks that Bnai Yisrael spare her and her family. 


It seems that Yehoshua’s decision was ill-advised.  The spies were easily detected.  They were saved only through the efforts of Rachav.  Without her intervention, Yehoshua’s decision would have been disastrous.  At best, the spies would have returned with a report of their harrowing experiences and near-deaths.  This account would not have been very reassuring.  







Send for yourself men and they should spy out the Land of Cana’an that I give to Bnai Yisrael.   You should send one man from each tribe of their fathers.  Each of them should be a leader.  (BeMidbar 13:2) 

Before we can understand Yehoshua’s decision, we must review elements of the incident in the Torah portion.  Hashem authorizes Moshe to create a group of twelve spies.  Each shevet – tribe – of Bnai Yisrael must be represented with the exception of Shevet Leyve.  This group of spies will be sent together into the land and it will bring back a report.


Why were twelve spies needed?  This seems to be an unnecessarily large group.  The larger the group the more likely it will be detected.  Yehoshua’s two spies were immediately observed.  Certainly, only a miracle could protect this large delegation from detection.  Why did Hashem authorize a plan that needlessly relied on a miraculous intervention?


It must, however, be noted that this large group did miraculously avoid detection.  Whereas Yehoshua’s more covert strategy was a failure and his two spies were immediately recognized, it seems that Hashem was willing to protect the secrecy of the large group send by Moshe.  But Hashem was not willing to afford the same protection to Yehoshua’s spies. 








And look upon the land – what is it?  And regarding the nation that dwells upon it – is it strong or weak?  Is it many or few?  (BeMidbar 13:18)

Yehoshua’s directions to his spies are not outlined in detail.  However, the Torah provides a detailed description of Moshe’s instructions.  It is difficult to determine the overarching mission of Moshe’s spies.  Nachmanides argues, that the spies were sent to provide information that would be used in developing a strategy for conquest.  He explains that it is inappropriate to rely upon miraculous intervention.  Instead, we must make every effort to act responsibly.  We cannot conduct ourselves impulsively or recklessly and then rely on Hashem to intervene and save us from our own carelessness.[9]


However, this is not the most obvious interpretation of Moshe’s directions.  He instructs the spies to bring back a sample of the fruit of the land.  He tells them that they should report on the fertility of the land.  Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra suggests that the spies had a dual mission.  They were not only to provide information to be used in developing a strategy for conquest, but were also to provide information to be used to assess the quality of the land.[10] 


We can understand the reason for gathering information relevant to conquest.  Nachmanides’ comments deal thoroughly with this issue.  However, it is more difficult to understand the reason for gathering information relevant to the land’s fertility.  Moshe had already communicated to the nation Hashem’s promise that they would be taken to a land flowing with milk and honey.  Why was a confirmation of the land’s fertility required? 


The composition of Moshe’s spies and their strange mission can be explained by a single consideration.  In his recounting of this event in Sefer Devarim, Moshe explains that the original impetus to send these spies came from the nation.  The nation came to Moshe and requested that he send spies.[11]  In Parshat Shelach, the account begins with Hashem’s response to this request.  He authorizes Moshe to send the spies.[12]


The origin of the suggestion to send the spies explains the composition of the group and its assigned mission.  The nation’s suggestion apparently reflected uncertainly and fear.  They were not confident in their ability to confront and defeat the inhabitants of the land.  Neither were they convinced that the land’s fertility and richness merited the danger they perceived in its conquest.  The spies’ mission was designed to address both of these doubts.  The composition of the group reflected that these spies were selected in order to address the concerns of the entire nation.  Their success in addressing the fears and doubts of the nation would depend upon their credibility.  The representative composition of the group would assure its credibility.


This explains and interesting nuance in the behavior of the spies.  Upon their return, they presented their report.  We would have expected them to report to Moshe.  Moshe would then decide how to best use the information the spies gleaned.  But instead, after reporting to Moshe and Aharon, the spies immediately presented their report to the people.[13]  This is understandable given the origin of the suggestion to send the spies.  The spies were sent in response to the urgings and anxieties of the nation.  They were sent as the nation’s representatives.  Therefore, when they returned, they reported to the entire nation.


We can now better understand Yehoshua’s behavior.  He did not send spies in response to a popular request.  The spies he sent were not a national delegation.  Two individuals were sent.  They were sent in secrecy.  Rabbaynu David Kimchi – Radak – explains that the nation was unaware of the mission.[14] The spies were selected by Yehoshua; he sent them, and they reported only to him.


But what was Yehoshua’s objective in sending these spies?  As noted above, the narrative does provide an account of exact instructions provided by Yehoshua.  Perhaps, the objective of the mission can be deducted by its outcome.  As explained above, Rachav hid the spies and then assisted them in their escape.  She did this in exchange for a promise that she and her family would be spared during the conquest.  But she also explained that she and all of the inhabitants of the land had heard of the destruction of the Egyptians and the other nations that had opposed Bnai Yisrael in its march towards the Land of Israel.  The nations of the land were terrified.  She was eager to win the favor of the spies because she was fully confident that Bnai Yisrael would conquer the land.  The spies brought back to Yehoshua this message that nations of the land were demoralized and disheartened.


This suggests a new perspective from which we must consider the detection of the spies.  This detection was an essential step in their success in gathering the intelligence that they reported.  Once they were detected, Rachav was forced to choose between her allegiance to her own king and the opportunity to forge an agreement with these representatives of Bnai Yisrael.  She chose to create an agreement.  In the process, she explained her reasoning and the fear and desperation of the nations of the land.  This was the very intelligence that the spies were sent to gather.  In other words, the detection of the spies was not the result of an absence of providence.  It was an expression of providence.


Now, we can easily understand why Yehoshua was not concerned with a repeat of the disaster brought about by the first spies.  These spies were sent by Yehoshua and reported only to him.  They were not a delegation.  They were two people.  Their absence would not be immediately noticed.  But most important, these spies were not sent to perform an evaluation of the land or to gather strategic information.  Their sole purpose was to report back on the morale of the nations of the land.  Yehoshua could not predict the details of the report but he was confident of its general tone.  Radak explains that he knew that the spies would bring back a report that he could share with the people and that this report would build their confidence.[15] 


[1]   Rabbaynu Yitzchak Karo, Toldot Yitzchak, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 13.

[2]  Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 14:28

[3]  Mesechet Sanhedrin 104b

[4]  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ma’aseh Karbanot 3:15.

[5]  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 13:1.

[6]  Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 15:34.

[7]  Mesechet Sanhedrin 80b.

[8]  Mesechet Sanhedrin 80b.

[9] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 13:3.

[10] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 13:18-20.

[11] Sefer Devarim 1:22.

[12] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 122.

[13] Sefer BeMidbar 13:26.

[14] Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Yehoshua 2:1.

[15] Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Yehoshua 2:1.