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The word “Lecha” often means for your own benefit. G-d commands Avraham, “Lech lecha” (Bereishis 12:1), to leave his land and Rashi tell us that this was to Avraham’s advantage. When it came to the offering up of Yitzchak, G-d again commanded Avraham “Lech lecha el eretz hamoriah” (Berishis 22:2) – “go to the mount of Moriah” – for your own benefit.

Here too, in Parshas Shelach, G-d tells Moshe, “Shelach lecha.” What benefit was there to Moshe in sending the spies and what benefit was there to Avraham in offering his son for sacrifice?


Both Avraham and Moshe were concerned about the survival of the Jews and their continued presence in Eretz Yisrael. Avraham asked G-d, “Bameh eida ki iroshena – how will I know that the land of Israel will remain with the Jews?” We are told by Chazal that Avraham was worried that in the future, the Jews would no longer be deserving of the land of Israel on account of their sins. G-d responded to this question by asking Avraham to bring a sacrifice, a korban, thereby assuring him that the Jews would be forgiven for their sins and would hold on to the land of Israel if they offer up korbanot. They will also be forgiven for their sins each year by reminding G-d on Yom Kippur of the Akeidas Yitzchak, “Ve’akeidas Yitzchak lezaro hayom berachmim tizkor – may You mercifully remember today the Akeidah of Yitzchak for the sake of his descendants.” And so, even the Akeidas Ytizchak was of benefit to Avraham because it granted his wish that the Jews would eternally be forgiven for their sins, that they would survive as a nation, and that they would hold onto Eretz Yisrael for as long as possible.

Moshe was barred from entering Eretz Yisrael because of the sin of the spies (Or HaChayim, Devarim 1:37). This was also of benefit to Moshe who made it his life’s mission to protect the Jews. Had Moshe been allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael, he would have immediately built the Temple. If that would have happened, G-d would not have been able to vent his anger by destroying the Temple that Moshe built and He would instead have destroyed the Jews, (Rashi, Shemos 38:21; Bamidbar 24:5, and Tanchuma).

The Torah bookends the names of the spies with the words “Eleh shemos’” (these are the names) (Bamidbar 13:4 and 16). In so doing, the Torah is telling us that names have double meanings. They can reflect certain inherent powers that people are born with, but they can also reflect whether those people will use or abuse those powers. In choosing the spies, we are told (Sotah 34b) that Moshe analyzed their names. If their names suggested that they were trustworthy people, then they qualified for the job of spying out the land to confirm G-d’s promise that the land was good.

For example, one spy was named Shamua ben Zachur. This name sounded good to Moshe. Shamua means he listens and Zachur means he remembers. Another spy was named Michael, which means “Me ka’el,” G-d is great. But when it came to it, who did Shamua listen to? Did he listen to Yehoshua and Kalev, or did he listen to the rest of the spies? And what did he remember? Did he remember the miraculous way G-d sustained him in the desert with manna from heaven and water from the well of Miriam or did he only remember the delicious food he ate in Egypt (11:5)? Will Michael sanctify G-d’s name or will he defile it by making it “mach,” which means lowly?

Even Kalev’s name was ambiguous. Would he be loyal to his master like a “kelev,” a faithful dog? Or would he turn away from Him like a “yefuneh?” Even the name “Hoshea Bin Nun,” had a double meaning. “Hoshea” means he will save and “Bin Nun” means wisdom. Would Hoshea use his wisdom to cast his vote along with the spies not to enter the land of Israel and thereby postpone the death of his mentor Moshe, who was told he would die before the Jews would enter the land of Israel, or would he listen to G-d and oppose the spies, even at the terrible price of seeing Moshe die? With Hoshea, Moshe took no chances. He made sure his name was unambiguously on the side of G-d by inserting into it the letter “heh” which stands for Hashem and thereby insulated him from the bad influence of the spies (Rashi 13:16).

The spies returned after 40 days with a mixed report of the Land of Israel. On the one hand it was an “Eretz ocheles yoshve’ah,” a land in which people died young. On the other hand the people who lived in it were “Anshei middos’” powerful giants (13:32). Even the fruits of the land which these giants ate were huge. So how come the people who were powerful giants and ate healthy foods died young? The answer is that they thought of themselves as “Anshei middos,” big shots. They believed that their power and the prosperity of the land was all the result of their own doing, “Kochi ve’otzem yadi asa li es hachayil hazeh” (Devarim 8:17). We did it all ourselves, it has nothing to do with G-d. We are self-made men and we can do what we like. Our existence in the land does not depend on our observance of the seven Noachide laws. We can copy the abominable licentiousness of the Egyptians with impunity. But they were wrong. Eretz Yisrael is different from other countries. It will spit you out if you behave like that and you will die young (Vayikra 18:28), and you will swiftly be banished from the good land that G-d gave you (Devarim 11:17).

It was precisely this linkage between observing the Torah on the one hand and life and death and remaining in the land of Israel on the other hand that worried the spies. They had no confidence in their ability to uphold their part of the bargain and opted instead to live in a land like Egypt where their survival was not contingent on their good conduct. This is the meaning of “Vayashuvu mitur ha’aretz” (13:25). The word “tur” has the numerical value of 606, equivalent to the additional 606 mitzvot over and above the seven Noachide laws that the Jews would have to observe in order to keep the land of Israel. That was the problem.

Kalev gave the spies sage advice. “Alo na’aleh,” he says (13:30). Why does he use the double expression consisting of the word “Aloh,” which is in the present tense, and “Na’aleh,” which is in the future tense? The message is clear. If you focus intently on the present tasks at hand, the future will take care of itself.

But Kalev’s advice was shunned and the people declared their intention to appoint a new leader and return to Egypt (14:4). “Vayipol Moshe ve’Aharon al peneihem” – in response to this shocking declaration, Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces and Yehoshua and Kalev tore their clothes in grief (14:5-6). Why does the Torah use the word “Vayipol” in the singular when it tells us that both Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces? It is because each fell on his face for a different reason.

Moshe, who had carried the entire nation in his bosom as a nurse carries an infant (11:12) and who had spent his entire life teaching the Jews the Torah and its values, felt betrayed. He felt a failure. Aharon, who pursued peace, loved people and always judged them kindly, and gave them the benefit of the doubt, felt a fool. Only a handful of the 600,000 Jews remained loyal.

Yehoshua and Kalev tore their clothes, as one does when one hears blasphemy, because rejecting the G-d they had seen so clearly at Sinai and had experienced so directly through his constant miracles, was tantamount to blasphemy.

Vayivku ha’am baliyla hahu,” the people wept that night. That night was the night of Tisha B’Av (Sotah 35a). We know that the day will come when Tisha B’Av will be celebrated as a Yom Tov. When facing adversity, the people cried. When witnessing the destruction of the first temple, Rabbi Akiva smiled because he understood that just as Uriah’s prophecy of the destruction of the first temple came true, so too would Zecharia’s prophecy of the building of the second temple come true (Makkos 24b). King David had the same approach. He remained undaunted by the might of Goliath because he understood that the greater the power of Goliath, the greater would be the manifestation of the power of G-d in defeating him. The spies failed to understand that the greater the challenge posed by the seven opposing nations of the Land of Israel the greater the miracle of conquering them would be. The real challenge is to see opportunity in adversity as both King David and Rabbi Akiva did.


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Raphael Grunfeld received semicha in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Rav Dovid Feinstein. A partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, Rabbi Grunfeld is the author of “Ner Eyal: A Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zerayim” and “Ner Eyal: A Guide to the Laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed.” Questions for the author can be sent to [email protected].