Slandering The Promised Land


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:02 p.m.
Torah: Num. 13:1-15:39
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24
Havdalah: 9:10 p.m.

Speech is powerful. In the Bible, unchecked speech can foment punishment, exile, even death. Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses in last week’s parsha, and this week the Miraglim (the 12 scouts/spies) speak against the Promised Land.

Moses sends the 12 into Canaan on a reconnaissance mission to determine whether the people there are strong or weak, few or many, and whether the towns are open or fortified. The scouts are leaders from each tribe; we recognize two of them: Caleb and Joshua. The scouts are to explore the land’s length and breadth for forty days, bringing back a sample of the fruit. They bring back a cluster of grapes so huge that it takes two men to carry it. The expedition seems to confirm God’s promise that the land He will give the Children of Israel is indeed “good and wide…a land flowing with milk and honey” [Exodus 3:8; Numbers 13:27].

So what goes wrong?

Ten of the 12 spies (Caleb and Joshua are the only ones who speak in favor of entering the land) deliver a public report saying that while the land does, indeed, flow with milk and honey, the people who inhabit it are invincible. “We cannot conquer them! They are stronger than we! All the people we saw are giants — the Nephilim and Anakites!” And of course, the spies’ damning but telling summation: “We felt like grasshoppers, and we surely must have looked that way to them!” [Num. 13:31-33].

The negative report disheartens the Israelites, instills great fear, and — unbelievably — incite some to want to return to Egypt. We think, “Don’t listen! Hearken, instead, to Caleb and Joshua who say, ‘We can do it! God has promised you the land and He is on your side!’ ” [Num. 13:30; 14:1-8].

These were the people who experienced, first-hand, God’s might: the plagues, the Exodus, the Red Sea. Why did they believe the ten spies, and disbelieve not only Caleb and Joshua but more importantly — God?

The answer is, the liberated slaves were suffering from “desert despair” (Binyamin Lau). They were terrified and insecure. Though 600,000 strong, they perceived their adversaries as giants and themselves as grasshoppers. The Talmud suggests that the spies’ intention from the very first was to bring back a negative report. They say “the enemy is stronger than mimenu” [Num. 13:31], a double entendre that can mean either “stronger than we,” or “stronger than He.” With this one word the spies subconsciously express their deepest doubts. “Not only are we unable to prevail against the Canaanites; even He [God] isn’t strong enough!” [Rashi; B.T.Sotah 35a]

At first, the spies spoke in public to Moses and Aaron in the presence of the people. [Num. 13:27-28] One could even argue that the spies at first spoke naught but the truth. [Abarbanel] But they went too far. When they saw that their fellow Israelites hesitated between their pessimistic view and Caleb’s optimistic, faithful one, they went from tent to tent, lobbying against conquering Canaan. They instilled their own terror into the hearts of their brethren [Ramban], So much so, that the people sought to stone Caleb and Joshua to death to silence their opposing words [Num. 14:10].

We begin to see the connection between Miriam’s dibur — her spoken words, and the spies’ dibah — their evil murmurings. Both “speeches” were potentially insidious, and flew in the face of God’s plan. God was not about to tolerate Miriam’s dibur against Moses, God’s favored prophet, even if Moses took no umbrage himself. And as for the spies’ dibah, God considered their inflammatory report to be a direct slap at Him! After all, it was God who said—ten times in the Chumash—that He would bring the Israelites up to the land of the Canaanites, a good and wide land, flowing with milk and honey. Speaking falsely against the land was in effect calling God a liar! [Sha’arei Aharon].

No wonder God became angry, speedily punishing the wrongdoers. In the Miriam incident as well as here, God is prepared to kill the wrongdoers straightaway; both times Moses intervenes. Ironically, Moses’s dibur — his speech — convinces God to mitigate punishment, but not for the 10 spies who spread dibah; they die outright from a Divine plague, but the Israelites who believed the dibah are doomed to wander the wilderness for 40 years until all the men older than 20 die off. Not one of them will enter the land they have spurned, except for Caleb and Joshua. We hear echoes of years before, when Joseph’s dibah ra’ah — his malicious speech about his brothers [Gen. 37:2] — led to his fateful sale, essentially beginning the Egypt episode.

Though the people were chastened and contrite, the punishment for wrongful speech stood. Neither Miriam, Aaron, nor the generation of the spies survives the desert exile. Even Moses, halting of speech, dies in the wilderness. The people’s consolation, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, was God’s assurance that their children would enter the Promised Land.

Will the next generation learn their parents’ lesson and curb their dibur, refrain from destructive dibah? Will we?

Sandra E. Rapoport is author of the award-winning book, “Biblical Seductions.” Find Sandra on Facebook. Her website is