Weekly Torah Commentary – Shlach June 17, 2011

In this week’s parsha, God tells Moses, “Send forth men to spy out the land of Canaan that I am giving to the Jewish people” (Numbers 13:2).  We assume that this is the beginning of the story.  However, in Parshat Devarim, when Moses reviews the events of the Jewish people’s 40 years in the desert, we read: “And you all drew near to me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead of us to spy out the land'” (Deut. 1:22). After the people made this request, Moses consulted God to determine what to do, and God allowed the expedition to take place.

As the story progresses, we see that most of the spies return with a negative report about the land. These people subsequently die in a horrific plague (Numbers 14:37). Obviously, the incident with the spies was considered to be a very serious mistake. How, then, are we to understand this week’s Haftorah, in which, 40 years after this incident, Joshua sends spies as well (Joshua 2)?  Aha – notice: the spies in the time of Joshua are not condemned or punished; on the contrary, their behavior is seen as permissible or even commendable. What is the difference between the two situations?

The Slonimer Rebbe, in Netivot Shalom, teaches that Moses and the Jewish people had different reasons for sending spies into the Land. Moses trusted God completely. He had no doubt that the land was good; he merely wanted to define its energy, to learn how to prepare for it in the best possible way. The Jewish people, on the other hand, had a different motivation. Their faith was weaker than Moses’ faith; they were leery of entering unknown territory — even though it had been Divinely promised to them — and thus were primarily interested in investigating the physical and material nature of the Land.  In other words, they wanted more information before truly committing to doing what Hashem had told them to do.  Hmmm – do we ever do that???

According to the commentator Ohr Gedaliyahu, the challenge to the spies was whether they should conduct their mission according to Moses’ perspective or the people’s perspective.  Whose agents were they going to be? Would they  look at the land through spiritual eyes, like Moses, or would they instead evaluate the Land from the physically-oriented perspective of the people?

This whole episode teaches us a valuable lesson. In our own lives, whenever we do a mitzvah, we must ask ourselves why we are doing it. Whose mission are we carrying out? Whose agents do we want to be? Are we doing the mitzvah for ourselves, or for God? Our focus makes all the difference. If we do a mitzvah for the right reasons, we grow in the right direction. If we do the same mitzvah, but for our own selfish motives (money, power, honor, etc.), we move in the wrong direction.

Now we can understand why Parshat Shlach begins with God’s response to the Jewish people, instead of their initial request. Since the people’s request is not mentioned, we can learn that the spies were not intended to be guided by the people’s motivations.  We also catch a hint to this idea in the wording of God’s response to Moses, “Shlach lecha (literally, “Send for yourself”). The Sages interpret the seemingly superfluous word “lecha” as meaning “from your [Moses’s] perspective.” In other words, God excludes the perspective of the Jewish people from His command, implying that the spies should not go on their mission for the people’s “logical” reasons but only as a means of preparing for an act of obedience, which was the motivation of Moses.

This explains why Moses selected spiritual leaders (and not professional spies) for this mission. Moses was not interested in physically spying out the Land; rather, he wanted to investigate the land’s spiritual makeup. The best-equipped people for such a task were those steeped in spirituality.

Now we can also understand the difference between the incident with the spies in this week’s parsha and the spies who were sent in the time of Joshua. In Parshat Shlach, when the spies return, the Torah tells us, “The spies came … to report to the Jewish people” (Numbers 13:26).  In the time of Joshua, however, the verse tells us that the spies “came to Joshua and told him all that had happened to them” (Josh. 2:23). The spies sent by Joshua reported back to him alone. Thus each group by its action upon returning demonstrates to us the overriding motivation of their action.

May we be blessed to go in the ways of the righteous, and follow the ways of God, in order to ensure that all of our actions are done for the right reasons.

In Tune with Torah this week = examining the motives of our hearts and determining to do all that we do out of love for Hashem – the kind of love that wants to live in obedience to His Torah.

Shabbat Shalom

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