Spies in Israel, Again

This week’s Haftarah is taken from the second chapter of the book of Yehoshua. Just before entering the Land, Yehoshua sent two spies to Yericho to “see the land and Yericho”. These two spies went into the city and found refuge in the house of Rachav, the prostitute. She hid them in the roof of her house when the king of the city came looking for them and eventually encouraged them and pleaded that they should save her and her household.

The entire story of Yehoshua’s spies seems incredulous in light of the Parshah of the week. Shlach opens with an account of the spies that Moshe sent to check out the land of Israel. They were specially chosen as they were the leaders of each tribe and were given specific instructions as to what to examine. “See what the Land is like, and the people that dwell there are they strong or weak? Are they many or few?” (Bemidbar 13:18).

The spies spent forty days touring the country and then came back with their report. They should have led the people and encouraged them to be strong, believe in God and prepare to enter the Land of Israel. Instead, they told them how the Land grew strong giants, strange oversized fruits and how the Land was unconquerable.

All but two of the spies encouraged the Jewish people to reject the Divine gift of the Land of Israel. The Jews cried on that night and lamented their fate. “Oh, that we would have died in Egypt or in this desert” (ibid. 14:2).

God was incensed with their lack of faith and their rejection of Him and His plan for them to enter the Land. The Gemara teaches us that the night that they cried was the night of the 9th of Av. God declared “Because you cried unnecessarily, I will establish it as a night of mourning throughout the generations” (Ta’anit 29a). This day became synonymous with Jewish tragedy, with the destruction of both Temples, the inquisition, the Holocaust, all occurring on the 9th of Av.

What is most unusual is that one of the two spies who returned with a positive report was none other than Yehoshua Ben Nun himself. He witnessed the negative attitude and result of the spies. He saw how God punished the spies by instant death and the rest of the people by forcing them to wander the desert for forty years. He now led a new generation of the children and grandchildren of those who had rejected God. They stood on the banks of the Yarden river and were about to enter the Land.

All of this only strengthens the question, Yehoshua who knew only too well the danger in sending spies, why did he send two spies to Yericho? Surely he would not want to repeat the mistake that his teacher Moshe made forty years earlier, why send spies?

A Different Task for the Spies

The prophet uses one specific word to describe the two spies that Yehoshua sent. We do not know their names, we do not know whether they were leaders of the people or simple folk, we do not know anything about them. But the prophet calls them “silent”. What does this word mean?

We cannot fail but notice that the circumstances surrounding the sending out of the spies and their return is significantly different in the two cases. While Moshe gave the twelve spies specific instructions as to what to look for and how to assess the Land, Yehoshua simple sends them with no record of his assignment to them. When the first spies return they gather the entire people together in order to relate their findings. However, the two spies of Yehoshua only come and tell him what they saw and their findings.

This may be the explanation of the description “silent”. Their entire spying was silent and private, not an event for the entire Jewish people.

The reason for this difference lies in the distinct task that each set of spies was given. The first set of spies was instructed to spy out the Land to see the size and strength of the inhabitants. They were told to see “what is the Land, is it good or bad?” “Are there trees there or not?” (Bemidbar 13:19 & 20)

The reasons that these particular instructions were given seem to be connected to the military ability of the Jewish people to conquer the Land. (See Or HaChayim ad loc.) This had to be in the presence of all of Israel. The entire people had to feel safe and assured that they would be able to successfully fight in the Land. The idea was that the people would all see the spies leaving and on their return the spies would relay to everyone an assurance that they would be capable of conquering the Land.

But the spies brought back a spurious report and far from encouraging the people, they sowed discontent about entering the Land.

Yehoshua learnt from this episode. When he sent spies the task that they were given is not recorded, the people did not gather to see them off, nor did they wait to greet them on their return. They were indeed “silent” spies.

We only learn what it was that they hoped to find out about the Land from the extremely brief report that they give to Yehoshua at the end of this week’s Haftarah. “God has given the Land into our hands, and all the inhabitants are sacred of us.”

This satisfies Yehoshua and in the very next verse he prepares to enter the Land. It appears that the spies have fulfilled their purpose. They were interested in finding out whether the people were ready to enter the Land, and this would be reflected in the attitude of the inhabitants of Yericho. When Rachav tells them “I know that God has given you the Land and we all fear you” they knew that the time had come. Even though they entered the city stealthily the king of Yericho himself was worried when he heard that two men had come to Yericho. He sent to Rachav to hand them over. He and his people were terrified of the Jewish people and were sitting in wait for spies to check out ways to overcome the city. God had indeed delivered the city into Yehoshua’s hands.

Speaking Bad of the Land

When the ten spies brought back a bad report the people followed them, cried and the nation was punished. Yet are they really to blame? After all, Moshe sent them to report on the Land. They were to say if the people were big or small, if the land was lush or barren. They came back and gave their report. Indeed the people were giants and they lived in heavily fortified cities. This was true, so why were they punished?

The problem was not in the facts, the problem was in the way that they interpreted them. True, the people are big, so we need to make more of an effort to fight them. But the spies claimed “We cannot go up to the Land as they are stronger than us” (Bemidbar 13:31). This was already beyond the call of duty. They were told to report on what they saw, they were not told to give a decision as to whether the Jews would be successful in their battle or not. At this point they spoke bad of the Land.

Speaking badly about someone is not telling a lie, that is simply lying. Lashon harah is to tell the truth, but to interpret the facts in a derogatory way. If a person learns Torah one hour a day, that may be a positive trait, if he is very busy and yet still frees up one hour of the day to learn. Alternatively it may be wasting time if he is learning in yeshivah where he should learn all day and yet only learns one hour. The facts are the same, the interpretation depends on the individual.

So when the spies gave a judgement and assessment of what they had seen they spoke bad of the Land and for this they were punished. Not so the two spies in the Haftarah. They simply came and reported the facts, they trusted in God and knew that He would be with them when they needed Him in overcoming the city of Yericho.

When they made themselves like clay pots and were open to God’s forming His plan their mission was successful. “God has given us the Land” they claim at the end of the Haftarah, and indeed this is what happened.

We cannot often change facts, but we can see walls as challenges and obstacles to climb over. Or we can see them as dead ends that spell doom. It is up to us to speak well of the Land, not to ignore the problems, but to work hard to correct them, and to trust God that He will give us the strength to overcome all in our path.