Parashat Shlah

Seeing Beneath The Surface

Unable to see beyond their own fears and insecurities, 10 of the 12 spies despaired of conquering Canaan.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.


As the Israelites approach the Land of Israel, spies are sent ahead to scout out the Land. They return with a discouraging report, and the people believe that it will be too difficult to possess the Promised Land. They long to return to Egypt; God wants to destroy the faithless people, but Moshe persuades God to relent. Instead, God lengthens their wanderings to 40 years, so that none of the generation of the Exodus will enter the Land. The parasha ends with various laws of sacrifice which will take effect when they are settled in the Land; the final paragraph contains the commandment to attach fringes [tzitzit] to the corners of their clothing.

In Focus

"And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, 'The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them'" (Numbers 13:32-33).


The story of the spies is one of the dramatic highlights of the book of Numbers; it contrasts the fearful majority of the reconnaissance team, with Calev and Yehoshua [Joshua], who urge the people not to be afraid--these heroes of faith believe that God will protect the people and bring them into the land. In the verses quoted above, the fearful spies are telling the people that the land of Israel is filled with giants, or semi-divine beings, who will surely defeat the Israelites if they attempt to settle there.


One of the greatest teachers of Torah of our age, Nehama Leibowitz, z'l (may her memory be a blessing), in one of her essays on this parasha, asks an important question: how did the spies know what the "giants" thought of them? They don't report any interaction with these bizarre "Nephilim;" if they really were giant beings, then one could understand the feeling that "we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes," but how did they know if the "giants" even noticed them?

Unfortunately, although Nehama Leibowitz posed this great question, she didn't give any hint as to an answer. Not only that, but it seems that this question has been around for a very long time. The contemporary Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom, in the Jewish Publication Society commentary, quotes a midrash from the ancient rabbis, in which God rebukes the spies:

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.