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Title: Miserable Failures

Major Focus: Spies

Minor Focus: Elders and Princes

Abstract: Moses deliberately picked spies from men who were chieftains of their tribes. How could they have failed so miserably in their mission to Israel?

Format: Rabbinic Argument


"God spoke to Moses, saying: Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each tribe, each one a chieftain among them."

Numbers 13:1-2

    If Moses deliberately picked men who were chieftains, how could they have failed so miserably?

  1. Rashi: These were the leaders, presumably the most capable and intelligent members of the community, men of experience and wisdom. Just prior to their mission, they had all witnessed God's punishment of Moses' sister, Miriam, after she slandered him. Such capable men should have learned that God does not approve of lying and slanderous behavior.
    1. Is it necessarily safe to assume that the leaders of a community are its most intelligent, wise, and experienced members? How did they get to be leaders if they didn't have those qualities?
    2. Considering that we see these events in retrospect, is it obvious that the episode of Miriam's slandering Moses, and her punishment, should have taught the spies the lessons of lying and slander?

  2. Bamidbar Rabba 16,17: It could be argued that the spies understood the lesson of slander, but figured it only applied to slandering people, not to slandering inanimate objects like the land. The spies slandered the land the same way evil people slander others. These men never really internalized the specialness of Israel. They looked at it as just another piece of property, like any other. Slanderers cannot appreciate the specialness of personalities or sacred things.
    1. Why would God not make a distinction between the slander of other human beings and the slander of inanimate objects? Can objects be sacred like living things? Are some objects more sacred to God than others?
    2. Why is the human personality special and sacred in God's eyes? Why should it be sacred in our eyes?

  3. Minchat Elimelech: Moses thought he was sending men of quality, men who were his peers, whose judgment he could trust. He did not want to send men who would think in narrow terms of whether or not they had enough military hardware or the latest thing in weaponry. He had hoped to send men who understood the power of God.
    1. Why might the availability of the latest military hardware and weapons technology tend to blind the military advisors' judgment?
    2. Do you think contemporary general and admiral staff professionals ever seriously consider God in their calculations? Do they consider the moral rightness of the cause in their calculations?

  4. Maimonides: Why did this whole incident take place anyway? God probably wanted to prove that the land could be conquered in the ordinary, human way. God did not want future generations to say that the Canaanites were a weak, spineless, powerless nation that was a pushover for the desert hardened Israelites. Moses wanted experienced leadership type men to go and give him an accurate report on the real strength of the enemy. They gave him an accurate military report, but they editorialized it away with fear, indecision, and outright cowardice.
    1. How would sending spies into the land, finding out just how strong the enemy was, and then having the Israelites conquer the land be a useful objective for God?
    2. Can you think of other historic or contemporary examples of where accurate military intelligence was badly compromised or wasted by editorializing?

  5. Pinchas Peli: It was a mistake to send such prominent men in the first place. Look at how the Torah presents them, as leaders, chieftains, princes of Israel. These were men whose name, and father's names, are listed (Numbers 13:4-15) in full. If the Torah came with photographs, we certainly would have had those too!

    Unlike the men Joshua sent to spy out the land again, years later (Joshua, Chapter 2), men who were anonymous secret agents, men who were able to hide their identity by staying in a prostitute's house, Moses unfortunately sent distinguished leaders. Since when do distinguished leaders on a public mission stay in humble, unsuspected quarters? No, they want five-star hotel accommodations!

    1. What is the comparison between the spies Joshua sent years later and the ones Moses sent? Do you think Joshua learned something from Moses' experience, or should Moses have known better?
    2. Can you think of a scenario where pretending to be a very wealthy, successful business person might actually be a better camouflage for a spy than the usual "cloak and dagger" stuff?

  6. Kli Yaker: The mission failed for two more reasons Rabbi Peli. First of all, the mission was too big. Who sends twelve guys on a secret mission that depends on stealth and concealment? Second, there were no women on the mission. If Moses had thought to send a woman or two, it might have come out much better. Women would have known how to love the land of Israel.
    1. Why was the mission too big? Could these guys have been the original "Dirty Dozen"?
    2. Why might women's presence have been helpful? What might a woman have brought to the mission that the spies obviously lacked?

  7. Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez: Also, there were no Levites on the mission. The Levites were probably left out of the scouting expedition because they were not destined to have any share in the division of the land. Only men from those tribes destined to have land were sent. Perhaps if a Levite or two had gone on the mission, it would have worked out better. At least they would have been more objective in their assessment.
    1. Why were the Levites left out of the mission? If the Levites were not going to get any land, what was their future job there going to be?
    2. How might the Levites have been more "objective"? Why is objectivity crucial to making tough, life and death, decisions?