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Who were the real culprits in the story of the scouts, and what was the nature of their transgression? That sin reverberates throughout Jewish history, with the night in which the entire congregation wept on hearing the scouts' report of a land of giants which devours its inhabitants (Numbers 14:1) being identified as the ninth of Av, the date of Jewish destruction, exile and persecution. Apparently God faults the entire nation, since virtually that entire generation had to die for the transgression, the only male exceptions being Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14:29, 30).
But why blame the nation for God's command to scout out the land (Numbers 13:1,2), and for Moses's immediate obedience (13:17)? Everyone understands that a feasibility study may result in the rejection of a plan. And here, according to our text in Numbers (13:1,2), it is God who suggests the scouts in the first place!
The classical commentator Rashi alerts us to the fact that in Deuteronomy, where Moses recounts the episode, the idea originates not with God but with the people: "All of you came near to me and said, 'Let us send out men in front of us; let them investigate [vayahperu] the land for us and bring back a statement, the path by which we ought to enter, and the cities which we ought to come into" (Deut. 1:22). From Rashi's perspective, the divine statement at the outset of our Torah reading must be understood to have come after the people insisted on the team, and is actually taking issue with it: "Send in accordance with your will [lecha] the menâ€¦,"
The Ramban (Nahmanides) disagrees with Rashi's interpretation, insisting that it was quite understandable - and even desirable - that a reconnaissance mission be sent out to discover the best way to approach the land and which cities to take in their initial attack. Such a request can hardly be called sinful.
Building on the Ramban (as well as on an interpretation of my rebbe, Rav J.B. Soloveitchik), I would suggest a different meaning. The people's request was legitimate, but also ambiguous. They ask for an advance team to "investigate [vayahperu] the land and bring back a report [davar]" continuing with a request for information regarding the best route of entry and the initial cities of conquest; does their latter request merely elucidate their initial words, or are they first requesting an investigation of the land itself (its topography, its fertility, its fortifications and the nature of its inhabitants) and then for a "statement" as to the feasibility of the entire project?
Moses, when he carefully instructs them in what to look for, clearly understands their mission to be solely one of reconnaissance (Numbers 13:16-20); this mandate had nothing to do with assessing the feasibility of a project commanded by the Almighty.
God, in His command to Moses, goes one step further: He uses a totally different - and unique - verb to describe their mission: vayaturu. Rav Elhanan Samet, in his magnificent work on the biblical portions, teaches that the verb tur appears no fewer than 12 times in our portion, paralleling the 12 tribes and 12 scouts. He likewise takes the verb to mean to show the way, uncovering the path to God's resting place (Numbers 10:13 in reference to the ark of the covenant, which travels a three-day distance in front of the Israelites to discover for them a resting place, menuha; Deut.1:29-33, and Ezekiel 20:6, where the place to be discovered is clearly the Land of Israel: "On that day I lifted up my hand to them [in oath] to take them out of the Land of Egypt to the land which I investigated or discovered - tarti - for them, the land flowing with milk and honey, a hart (tzvi) for all the lands").
God is telling Moses that this must be more than a reconnaissance mission, but rather a faithfulness study. The advance team must inspire the nation to become emotionally, spiritually and intellectually connected to the Land before they even get there; they must be moved toward Israel with passionate love, just as the sinner is moved to the prostitute with passionate lust (Numbers 14:33). Yes, Moses tells them that they must "look at the land, what it is" (13:18). But what they must see when they look is God and His covenant. And if they see God, they will view the inhabitants from a different perspective. If only the Israelites had understood that the Land of Israel was to be given to the People of Israel in order for them to fulfill their Divine mission, then they would have seen themselves as giants - i.e., God's emissaries - and the Canaanites as grasshoppers!
Now it becomes clear why our reading ends with the portion of tzitzit, the blue-and-white ritual fringes which every observant Jew attaches to his four-cornered garments "in order that he remember the commandments" and not lust after - taturu - his heart and eyes. Our clothing expresses our image to the world, our persona, the picture of ourselves we wish to present to those around us.
Look at the fringes of your garb, look at how you appear to the world, and what does God want you to see? The blue and white of the heavens, "like the making of the white of the sapphire, the essence of the heavens [blue-white] for sanctity" (Exodus 24:10), the blue-white glory of the Divine Presence which is the Unity behind all the colors of the rainbow, the eternal covenant of God with His eternal people. You will then remember the commandments of God, you will be adorned with the royal-blue (t'chelet) mitre of the High Priest (tzitz) in the form of your royal blue (t'chelet) ritual fringe, you will understand that God took you out of Egypt in order for you to teach the world of freedom and divine love, and you will not be directed (taturu) after the empty lusts of your heart and eyes.
God wanted the scouts to look at the Land and see God and His commandments, just as He wants each of us to look at our garments and into ourselves and see God. God wants us to understand that our nationality and our land is for the sake of our divine mission to perfect the world.
With this knowledge and commitment we will fear no human being, no earthly power.
Alas, the "princes" of Israel didn't see it then, and the "princes" of Israel don't see it now.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.