Surf A Little Torah
Yeshivat Har Etzion


by Rav David Silverberg


The sin of the meraglim (spies), told in Parashat Shelach, ranks among the gravest sins committed by Am Yisrael in the Torah. Testament to this is the fact that in response to this incident, God prepares to destroy the entire nation and begin a new one with Moshe (14:12). Only after the sin of the golden calf (Shemot 32:10) and in response to Korach's rebellion (Bemidbar 16:21; 17:10) does God react similarly by proposing such a severe punishment. In all three instances, of course, Moshe's appeal on the nation's behalf softens the divine response.

A close look at Moshe's prayers in these instances, however, reveals at least one important distinction. In truth, we need compare only Moshe's entreaties after the incidents of the calf and the spies. During Korach's rebellion, Moshe and Aharon claim that the nation should not be destroyed on the account of one man's incitement to insurrection: "When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?" (Bemidbar 16:22). This simple argument, of course, could never have been raised in the two earlier cases, when the entire nation, or at least the vast majority, participated in the given wrong (the worship of the calf or the refusal to continue to Canaan). We therefore need only to compare Moshe's appeals after these two sins. A cursory reading of the two petitions - Shemot 32:11-13; Bemidbar 14:13-19 - indeed reveals a general parallel between them. In both, Moshe warns of the conclusion other nations will reach should God destroy His people, namely, that He did so due to His inability to take them to the Promised Land. One important element, however, which Moshe includes in his appeal after the golden calf, is omitted from his prayer in our parasha: "zekhut avot." When defending the people after the calf, Moshe invokes God's promise to the patriarchs that would remain unfulfilled should their offspring be annihilated. Here, however, Moshe makes no reference to the divine covenant to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Why?

Rabbenu Bechayei explains that "zekhut avot" serves as an effective argument only to the extent to which Benei Yisrael avow their commitment to the patriarchs whose merit they seek to invoke. The sin of the spies, however, marked the people's refusal to fulfill the destiny and purpose for which God had made His promise to the patriarchs in the first place. Fearful of the armies of Canaan, Benei Yisrael declare, "Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt" (14:4). In effect, then, they sought to reverse the process of God's fulfillment of His "berit bein ha-betarim" - His promise to Avraham to save his descendants from oppression and bring them to Canaan (Bereishit 15). Quite reasonably, then, Moshe realized that the merit of the patriarchs would have no effect in his appeal to the Almighty on the nation's behalf. The merit of our forefathers can protect us only if we commit ourselves to fulfilling the destiny they so strongly desired for their offspring.


Yesterday we briefly compared Moshe's petition on behalf of Benei Yisrael in the aftermath of chet ha-meraglim (the sin of the scouts), as recorded in Parashat Shelach, with his prayer after the sin of the golden calf, as it appears in Parashat Ki-Tisa. We noted that in both instances, Moshe raises before God the concern of a "chilul Hashem," that the other nations will see the destruction of Benei Yisrael as indicative of God's weakness, Heaven forbid.

In truth, however, this parallel we drew is not entirely accurate. If we read the two prayers carefully, we will see that Moshe presents this argument differently in the two instances. After the incident of the golden calf, Moshe argues: "Let not the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth'" (Shemot 32:12). Destroying the people in the desert would lead the Egyptians to conclude that God took Benei Yisrael from Egypt simply to destroy them in the wilderness. In reaction to God's anger after the report of the spies, however, we find a slightly different focus: "… the nations who have heard Your fame will say, 'It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land… that He slaughtered them in the wilderness'" (Bemidbar 14:15-16). Here, Moshe expresses concern that the nations will attribute God's destruction of the people to His inability to bring them into Canaan; here, they would not claim that He took them from Egypt initially to destroy them, but rather that He could not proceed to the next step, of giving them the land He had promised them.

The Malbim explains this distinction based on the historical context of each incident. The sin of the golden calf occurred just several months after the Exodus. If God would destroy the nation so shortly after bringing them from Egypt, it would indeed appear to the other nations that He took them into the wilderness to destroy them there. The Malbim adds that the Egyptians denied the possibility of a single deity governing the conflicting forces of good and evil. They believed that the God who smote them with the ten plagues would assuredly do the same to Hebrews; He could not possibly deliver punishment to one people and bestow kindness upon another. The sin of the spies, however, took place over a year later, after God had miraculously provided Benei Yisrael with all their needs, producing water from rocks and showering bread down from the heavens. By the time the meraglim came around, no one could accuse God of having taken Benei Yisrael from Egypt simply to kill them in the wilderness. However, as Benei Yisrael had stood on the brink of entry into Canaan, their sudden annihilation would mistakenly lead the nations to question the Almighty's ability to overpower the nations of Canaan. He therefore had no choice but to destroy them.

In truth, this analysis of the Malbim appears already earlier, albeit in a more condensed form, in the Ramban's commentary to Sefer Devarim. In chapter 9 of that sefer, Moshe reminds Benei Yisrael of their sins in the wilderness and his intervention on their behalf. Towards the very end of that chapter, Moshe recalls his appeal to God, which consists of both the elements noted by the Malbim: "Lest the country from which You freed us will say, 'It was because the Lord was powerless to bring them into the land, and because He rejected them, that He brought them out to have them die in the wilderness." The Ramban there explains that these two concerns - that the nations will accuse God of despising Benei Yisrael, and of being incapable to bring them to the land - actually refer to two different instances. Moshe raised the issue of God's appearing unable to capture Canaan in response to the sin of the scouts; the possible misconception that He took them from Egypt to destroy them was raised by Moshe earlier, to defend the people after the golden calf.


Recording the scouts' excursion to Eretz Canaan in Parashat Shelach, the Torah informs us that the delegation arrived in the city of Chevron (13:22). Rashi, however, notes that the Torah surprisingly employs the singular verb form, "va-yavo," in reference to their arrival in Chevron - despite the fact that twelve spies, not just one, participated in this mission. (The Chizkuni explains quite simply that the Torah will often describe the actions of a group of people in the singular form. This appears to be the position of the Rashbam, as well. However, Rashi may have still been troubled by the fact that the first word in the same verse, "va-ya'alu," is written in plural form. The sudden shift within a single verse requires an explanation.) Rashi there explains, based on the Gemara (Sota 34b), that this verse refers specifically to Kalev, one of the only two scouts who opposed the majority's conclusion that Benei Yisrcannot conquer the land. Kalev made a stopin Chevron in order to pray at Me'arat ha-Machpela, the burial site of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, beseeching God to help him withstand the plan of his peers to discourage the nation from entering Canaan. Rashi here assumes, of course, that already at this early stage in the process the ten spies plotted to convince Benei Yisrael of the impossibility of the land's conquest. Rashi repeats this point a bit later in his commentary, to 13:26, where he writes that just as the scouts returned from their mission with the evil intention of discouraging the people, so had they initially embarked on their excursion with the same mindset.

This of course raises a number of difficulties. For one thing, Rashi himself had remarked that when they were dispatched on their mission, these men were righteous (see Rashi on 13:3). But perhaps even more troubling, could these men, the tribal leaders of Israel, have really concluded even before scouting the land that they could not capture it, or that it isn't worth settling? Did they really have no desire to proceed to the land? Had they come all the way to their present location just to declare, "Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!"?

It seems more likely that the scouts arrived at their conclusion over the course of their excursion, not earlier. Rashi perhaps meant that the general mindset of the spies when embarking on their mission naturally led them to this conclusion. The evidence is Chevron. The verse tells us, "They went up into the Negev and came to Chevron, where lived Achiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the giants… " (13:22). Recall that Rashi cited the Gemara that Kalev went to Chevron to pray at the graves of the patriarchs. Perhaps this Gemara seeks to draw a basic distinction in the perspectives of Kalev and the other scouts - a distinction that surfaced already at this early point. Upon arriving near or in Chevron, the scouts see the frightening, threatening warriors that the nation will somehow have to overpower; Kalev, by contrast, sees the burial site of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. We may even venture to say that even according to the Midrash, all the scouts physically entered Chevron. But only Kalev truly came to Chevron in the fullest sense, for only he appreciated the historical and religious significance of the city. (This is clearly not, however, the position of the Ibn Ezra, who explained this Gemara to mean that the spies scattered throughout the country and did not travel together.)

It was here that Kalev prayed for assistance, for it was here that the perspective of the spies surfaced. Kalev saw that his comrades scouted the country with suspicion, skepticism, fear and intimidation. Unlike Kalev, who went to discover the beauty and majesty of his ancestral homeland, God's chosen soil, the other spies went to assess the realistic possibilities of conducting warfare. When Kalev detected this discrepancy, he understood that the mission was doomed to failure and prayed for the strength to resist.

This approach we have taken follows the view of Rav Soloveitchik and others that the scouts sinned by perceiving their mission as a standard, military excursion. In reality, they were sent as a representative body to acquaint the nation with the land, to ignite the people's enthusiasm prior to their entry and conquest. The spies sinned by affording no more than mundane significance to their mission. We should note, however, that the Rashbam in his commentary to our parasha adopts a much different approach, claiming that the scouts were indeed sent strictly as preparation for battle.


Yesterday, we discussed Chazal's comment, cited by Rashi in his commentary to Parashat Shelach (13:22), that during the scouts' excursion in Canaan, only Kalev visited the city of Chevron. Noting that the Torah surprisingly employs the singular verb form, "va-yavo" in describing the spies' arrival in Chevron, Chazal conclude that only Kalev came to that city, to pray at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. He asked the Almighty to help him oppose the plot of the spies.

Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch, in his commentary, takes a slightly different direction to understanding this comment by Chazal than the approach we suggested yesterday. He suggests that on the level of peshat (the straightforward, rather than Midrashic, level of interpretation), "va-yavo" does not imply the arrival of only a single individual. Rather, it connotes a unity of heart and mind, much like the way Chazal famously explain the singular verb form, "va-yichan" describing Benei Yisrael's encampment at Sinai (see Rashi, Shemot 19:2). In other words, the twelve spies arrived in Chevron united in their sincere and honest commitment to their mission. However, the verse continues, "where lived Achiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the giants… " Upon observing the power of the men living in Chevron, ten of the twelve spies were overcome by fear. It was at this point that Kalev and his comrades parted ways. (Yehoshua's response is a bit more complex and deserves independent treatment.) At this point, the spies did not comprise a single body, but rather became divided.

Rav Hirsch suggests understanding Chazal's Midrashic interpretation along these lines. They never actually intended that only Kalev physically arrived in Chevron. Rather, all the spies came to Chevron together, but united in the spirit of Kalev. With his leadership capabilities, his healthy, positive outlook impacted upon the entire group as they embarked on their mission. The verse, according to this Midrashic approach, emphasizes that the spirit of Kalev dominated only until their arrival in Chevron. At that point, the ten spies became frightened and plotted to dissuade the nation against proceeding into Canaan. Kalev then made a pilgrimage to the Tomb of the Patriarchs to pray for the strength he would need to maintain his positive outlook and remain committed to encouraging the nation to enter Eretz Yisrael.


Over the last two days we have looked at the verse in Parashat Shelach reporting the scouts' arrival in the city of Chevron (13:22), focusing on the Gemara's comment that in truth only Kalev visited Chevron. Today, we will discuss the puzzling second half of that verse: "and Chevron was built seven years before Tzo'an of Egypt." Of what relevance is this bit of historical trivia to the narrative at hand, the story of the scouts' excursion through Canaan?

Rashi, in his commentary to this verse, raises another difficulty that emerges from the genealogical record in Parashat Noach. There we are informed that Cham, Noach's son, begot four sons, including Mitzrayim and Canaan (Bereishit 10:6), who, of course, settled the lands of Egypt and Canaan. However, Rashi notes, Mitzrayim was older than Canaan. It seems hardly conceivable, Rashi argues, that Cham would build the city of Chevron for his younger son, Canaan, seven years before developing the city of Tzo'an for his older son, Mitzrayim.

This question (and, presumably, our earlier question as to the relevance of all this) prompted Rashi to reinterpret this verse as speaking not of age, but beauty. Namely, Chevron was seven times more beautiful than Tzo'an. The Torah interjects this observation in order to underscore the beauty of Eretz Yisrael that the spies encountered over the course of their mission.

The Ramban, however, poses two other approaches to understanding this verse. As we know from Sefer Bereishit (23:2, 35:27), the city of Chevron was also named Kiryat Arba. In Sefer Yehoshua (14:15), we are told that Kiryat Arba was named after a man named Arba, whom that verse describes as "the largest among the giants." The Ramban suggests that the three giants, Achiman, Sheshai and Talmai, mentioned in our verse in Parashat Shelach, were either the sons or grandsons of Arba, and Arba built this city (Kiryat Arba/Chevron) for either them (if they were his children) or their father (if they were his grandchildren). The Torah here notes that this occurred many years before the current narrative - seven years before the ancienEgyptian city of Tzo'an appeared on the map. This is meant to underscore the longevity of these g; Achiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the children or grandchildren of the founder of Chevron, were still alive when the scouts arrived in the city. The Ramban here does not elaborate with regard to the significance of this fact, that the inhabitants of Chevron lived for many years. The Chizkuni and Rabbenu Yosef Bekhor Shor, who also understood this verse as highlighting the giants' longevity, explain that this is meant to contradict the scouts' claim upon their return that the land "consumes its inhabitants" (13:32). Quite to the contrary, the land's inhabitants enjoyed extraordinarily long lives. (From the Ramban's comments to 13:32, however, it appears that he did not adopt this explanation of the Chizkuni and Bekhor Shor.)

Alternatively, the Ramban suggests, this historical data emphasizes the land's superior agricultural quality. Despite its long history of settlement, the soil of Chevron still produced luscious fruits, as recorded in verse 23. (The Ramban here assumes that Nachal Eshkol, the site from where the spies took a sampling of fruit, is actually in the region of Chevron; the simple reading of the verses strongly implies otherwise, though this is topic for a separate discussion.) That the soil that had been tilled for many years can still yield high quality produce testifies to its strength and durability.


Yesterday, we discussed the verse in Parashat Shelach that claims that the city of Chevron "was built seven years before Tzo'an of Egypt" (13:22). As we saw, Rashi claims that one cannot take this verse at face value, as establishing that Chevron chronologically preceded the Egyptian city of Tzo'an. As we know from Sefer Bereishit, Cana'an, the founder of the nation later called by that name, was the younger brother of Mitzrayim, who founded the nation of Egypt. It is inconceivable, Rashi argues, that their father, Cham (son of Noach), would build his younger son a city (Chevron in Canaan) before building one for his older son (Tzo'an in Egypt). As discussed yesterday, Rashi therefore adopts a different interpretation of this verse.

Many later commentators, as early as the Ba'alei ha-Tosefot, note the apparent contradiction between Rashi's argument here and his comments in Parashat Lekh-Lekha - Bereishit 12:6. The verse there records that when Avraham Avinu first moved to the land as commanded by God, "the Canaanites were then in the land." Rashi writes, based on the Midrash, that this territory was actually allocated for the descendants of Shem, the righteous son of Noach. But Canaan, son of Noach's wicked son, Cham, embarked a campaign capturing the territory, which thereafter became known as Canaan. Whereas here in Parashat Shelach Rashi indicates that this land belonged to Cham, who bequeathed it to his son, Canaan, in Parashat Lekh-Lekha Rashi suggests that Canaan independently captured the land from Shem.

Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi (in his commentary to Rashi in Parashat Lekh-Lekha) concludes that we have no choice but to view these two Midrashim as conflicting with one another. It should not surprise us, Rav Mizrachi adds, that Rashi adopts both views in his commentary; in any given context he adopts the explanation that he feels best explains the local text, even if it contradicts a claim made to explain the text in a different context. The Mizrachi rejects an answer that was suggested by the Chizkuni and Rav Ovadya of Bartenura, that only a portion of what we know as Canaan was earmarked for Canaan. Part of the country - such as Chevron - was given to Canaan, and the rest he seized from the children of Shem.

Yet a third possible answer was posed by the Levush ha-Ora (Rav Mordekhai Yaffeh, well known halakhist as super-commentator on Rashi). When Rashi writes in Sefer Bereishit that Canaan captured the territory from Shem, he did not mean that Canaan launched an independent campaign. Rather, his father, Cham, assigned him the task of conquering the unsettled areas of the land for him, Cham. After Canaan completed the conquest, Cham rewarded him with the land and built the city of Chevron. We can thus reconcile the two comments of Rashi. On the one hand, the land originally belonged to Shem and was seized by Canaan; however, Canaan acted not independently, but on behalf of his father, who then built for him the city of Chevron.


Over the last several days we have discussed the Torah's description of the scouts' arrival in Chevron: "They went up into the Negev and came to Chevron, where lived Achiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the giants; and Chevron was built seven years before Tzo'an of Egypt" (Bemidbar 13:22). Today we will present the Netziv's interpretation of this verse, in his commentary, "He'amek Davar."

The Netziv begins by arguing that the twelve scouts did not travel all together in their survey of Eretz Canaan, but rather divided the country among them. This is reasonable to assume, he notes, for otherwise it is hard to imagine that they could complete their mission in just forty days. (The Netziv here does not accept the contention of Rashi, in his commentary to 13:25, that the Almighty "shortened their path" in order to reduce the year-for-day punishment issued against Benei Yisrael.) We noted parenthetically earlier this week that already the Ibn Ezra, in his commentary to this verse, posits such a theory. However, whereas the Ibn Ezra claimed that the scouts traveled individually, the Netziv contends that they walked in pairs. Our verse, he claims, describes the experiences of one pair of scouts, which consisted of Kalev and one other (apparently his identity is not of sufficient concern for the Torah to specify). While they both "went up into the Negev," the region assigned to them, only Kalev himself "came to Chevron." The Netziv here follows the explanation in Masekhet Sota, discussed several days ago, that the singular form "va-yavo" implies that only one of the scouts came to Chevron. In Parashat Devarim, Moshe recalls how Kalev, in reward for his opposition to the scouts, was given "the land on which he treaded" (Devarim 1:36), and in Sefer Shoftim (1:20), we read the Kalev was given Chevron, "as Moshe spoke." Combining these verses, then, Chazal conclude that Kalev was the single scout who arrived in Chevron. The Netziv adopts this approach in his explanation of the verse.

The remainder of the verse, the Netziv claims, comes to explain why Kalev's companion did not join him in Chevron: "… where lived Achiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the giants." Quite simply, he was frightened by the mighty warriors who dwelled in the city. What more, "Chevron was built seven years before Tzo'an of Egypt." Having been built many, many years earlier, the city of Chevron was solidly fortified and protected. The Netziv adds that ancient fortresses were reinforced annually; the older the city, then, the more difficult it is to break through it or escape afterwards. As a result, entering the city of Chevron entailed a particularly dangerous and life-threatening operation, one which Kalev's companion would not allow himself to undertake. Kalev therefore broke into the city individually.

The Netziv extends this approach to the next verses, as well, which discuss the scouts' seizure of fruits at Nachal Eshkol. Here, too, the Torah shifts from the plural to singular verb form. In describing the arrival in Nachal Eshkol and the removal and transport of the fruits, the verse employs the plural form: "va-yavo'u"; "va-yikhretu"; "va-yisa'uhu" (13:23). In the following verse, however, with regard to the naming of the location, the Torah uses the singular form, "kara." The Netziv claims that the story of Nachal Eshkol, too, involved only Kalev and his companion. While they both took the fruits, only Kalev deemed this act significant enough to warrant naming the location accordingly. ("Nachal Eshkol" is named after the cluster of grapes taken by the spies.) Only Kalev recognized the importance of bringing fruits from Canaan to show the rest of the nation, and it was he who inithe naming.

Thus, the events of Nachal Eshkol also reflect the differing perspectives of Kalev and his peers. Whereas they viewed their mission aa military operation, intended to collect data and reach strategic conclusions, Kalev understood that they were to inspire Benei Yisrael with the excitement and enthusiasm over what was to be their imminent entry into Canaan.




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