Misplaced Trust

And Moshe sent them from the wilderness of Paran, at the direction of Hashem. They were all men [of stature]. They were leaders of the Children of Israel. (Sefer BeMidbar 13:3)

I. The selection of the spies

Parshat Shelach tells the story of the spies. Moshe sent the spies to the Land of Israel. They were to report on the obstacles that would be encountered in the land’s conquest. This information would be used to design the strategy for the conquest. They were to report also on the fertility of the land. The spies return. They describe the land’s remarkable fertility. They also enumerate formidable obstacles to its conquest. Their pessimism is obvious to the people. The nation becomes alarmed and disillusioned.

Two members of the company of spies oppose this report. Kalev and Yehoshua separate themselves from the other spies. Kalev contests their report. This incites the other spies to qualify their initial characterization of the land’s fertility. They question its suitability for Bnai Yisrael.

The above passage describes the men Moshe selected for this mission. They are described as anashim – men of stature or standing. Rashi comments that the term also communicates that at that point – when they were selected for the mission – they were all men of virtue and trustworthy.[1] My son Chaim pointed out that Rashi’s comment on the term anashim contradicts a latter comment of Rashi. 

And they went and they came to Moshe, Aharon, and to the entire congregation of the Children of Israel – to the wilderness of Paran, to Kadesh. They made their report to them and to the entire congregation and they showed them the fruit of the land. (Sefer BeMidbar 13:26)

II. The intentions of the spies

The Torah describes the departure of the spies and their travels through the Land of Israel. In the above passage, the Torah describes their return. However, the opening phrase of the passage states, “And they went.” This phrase is superfluous. The Torah has already described their departure and is now describing their return. The passage should begin, “And the came to Moshe, Aharon, and to the entire congregation of the Children of Israel.” 

Rashi comments:

[The intent of the passage is] to equate their departure to their return. Just as their return was with wicked counsel, so too, their departure was with wicked counsel. (Rashi, Sefer BeMidbar 13:26)

The spies returned with a plan. They would not deliver an objective impersonal report. Their report would be designed to undermine the people’s courage and desire to conquer the Land of Israel. Rashi explains that this plan was not a response to their travels. They were not overwhelmed by fear and crippled by timidity because of their observations. They embarked on their mission controlled by fear and panic. Their observations of the land only reinforced the crippling emotions that dominated them from the time of their departure. Chaim asked, does this not contradict Rashi’s earlier comment that when Moshe selected them, they were men of virtue and trustworthy?

III. Moshe carefully selected the spies

The simple answer is that in Moshe’s judgment, they were men of virtue. They were trustworthy. They were appropriate for the mission.  The message that Rashi is communicating in his earlier comments is that Moshe was not remiss in his selection of these individuals. The failure of the mission of the spies was not the result of Moshe’s inadequate diligence. Moshe selected individuals that any and every observer would agree were ideal for the mission. He could not have foreseen their transformation. However, there is a deeper more important answer to the question.

IV. New situation, new challenges

Our Sages declare, “Do not be convinced [of your virtue] until the day of your death.”[2] Life constantly changes and makes new demands. With these demands, sometimes new challenges emerge. A new challenge may evoke internal conflict or personal confusion. Extreme financial stress may tempt an otherwise completely honest businessperson to engage in unethical practices. The loss of a loved one may bring about a crisis of faith in a person who never questioned Hashem’s existence and wisdom. For virtually every person, there is some new or novel situation that can assail one’s commitment to Torah observance and tempt one to commit a serious sin.

Rashi’s message is that Moshe selected entirely suitable participants for the mission. They were individuals of complete virtue and integrity. He chose well. However, the mission posed a challenge they could not overcome. They departed for the Land of Israel knowing that they were initiating the process of its conquest. They were the first step in the campaign. Their contemplation of the coming battle for the land terrified them. Their mission evoked fears that had not surfaced during their travels in the wilderness. They could not meet the new challenge and they succumbed to their fears. 

This resolves the contradiction in Rashi’s comments. The earlier comment describes the spies as individuals of virtue and as trustworthy. This accurately depicts these individuals at the time Moshe selected them and sent them on their mission. But once they left Moshe and were on their journey to the land, fear and doubt overtook them. The latter comment of Rashi describes the spies at this point. Even before they arrived at the land, they were dominated by the emotions that would determine their assessment of it. 

V. Heeding Rashi’s message

Too often, Rashi’s message is ignored. Repeatedly, I worked with young people who were certain that attending a college that has very little meaningful Jewish infrastructure would not impact their commitment to Judaism. Generally, whatever their level of commitment, after a few years in that environment, they were less committed. They were sincere and honest in their assessment. When they confidently told me that they were prepared for the challenge, they were genuine. But they did not take seriously Rashi’s message. Even a person who is authentically committed to observance cannot know how he or she will respond to a new environment that derides religious observance, demonizes the State of Israel and those who support it, and exerts enormous pressure to conform to its community’s values. It is not easy to confidently and proudly declare one’s Judaism on that college campus. 

This is a single example of the impact of Rashi’s message. But we should heed it in choosing a community in which to live and in professional decisions. Our workplace environment has enormous impact on our commitment to observance. If we are attentive to Rashi’s message and the example of the spies, we are much more likely to sustain our commitment to Torah.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 13:3.

[2] Mesechet Berachot 29a.