Moses the Psychologist

Moshe Ben-Chaim

God told the Jews they would conquer Israel with His help. Therefore, the Jews’ desire for a preemptive surveillance was unnecessary. Moses recognized the insecurity unveiled in the Jews’ request. He therefore blessed Joshua so he not succumb to the spies’ counsel. Moses understood that due to the spies’ insecurity, despite God’s assurance of success, the spies might seek a pretense to avoid confrontation with the land’s inhabitants. 

Moses wished to change the hearts of the spies, and help them rest assured in God’s word. But how could he? Repeating God’s promise would prove futile; the spies knew that already. The spies sinned by evaluating their ability to succeed based exclusively on military prowess. How could Moses get the spies to consider that Divine help was as real as natural factors? 

Moses instructed the spies to bring back a report of the land and its inhabitants: are they many? Do they live in fortified cities or less protected, relying on their strength? The one oddity is Moses’ request that they report if their are trees (Num. 13:20). Rashi (ibid) says this alludes to men of merit who would be protected, ostensibly from the Jews’ attack. 

It appears to me that Moses developed a fine psychological plan. Moses knew the spies feared their own predicament purely from natural considerations, rejecting God’s promise of military success — not as certain as natural forces, i.e., the enemy’s might. By asking the spies if there were trees, (in Hebrew “aitz” which also means counsel) Rashi suggests Moses directed the spies to consider the concept of “reward and punishment.” More to the point, Moses wished the spies to reflect on the truth that God helps those He loves, i.e., the Jews. If the spies could consider that any righteous inhabitant would earn merit that could save him, they could then apply this idea to themselves and open their hearts to accepting God’s original promise that He would battle for the Jews. 

Moses knew he would not be successful merely repeating God’s promise. By asking the spies to consider the merits of others, Moses hoped he would successfully enable the spies to consider that they too could be beneficiaries of God’s reward, by winning the conquest. 

Rashi was of the opinion that a reconnaissance mission reporting of mere land and population, could not have been Moses only goal. Rashi felt Moses, the great leader, had a more fundamental plan: to address the expressed insecurities of the spies and win their hearts back towards trusting God’s word. This could be accomplished only through redirecting them away from natural factors, and trusting in God’s promise and His divine assistance. Furthermore, Moses’ request of asking the spies to determine the level of righteousness of the land’s inhabitants, must be for the benefit of the spies, and not for that knowledge per se. For it is unlikely that this knowledge might be attained without personal contact, and over a period of time.

Interesting too is that Maimonides states that the book of Job also references the “land of Utz” — another form of the word “aitz” counsel. Maimonides says as follows (Guide, book iii chap xxii):

First, consider the words, “There was a man in the land Utz (Job 1:1).” The term utz has different meanings; it is used as a proper noun. Compare, “Utz, his first-born (Gen. xxii. 21).” It is also imperative of the verb “utz,” to take advice. Comp. “uztu” take counsel (Isa.viii. 10). The name utz therefore expresses the exhortation to consider well this lesson, study it, grasp its ideas, and comprehend them, in order to see which is the right view.

Moses wrote the book of Job (Baba Basra 14b) and hinted to the reader to “take counsel” from this book. From Maimonides’ words, we may understand Moses to have acted similarly, suggesting the spies take counsel by referring to trees, “aitz.”