Do It for Yourself*

Numbers 13

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 Send you men, that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I give to the children of Israel: of every tribe of their fathers shall you send a man, everyone a prince among them. 3 Moses sent them from the wilderness of Paran according to the commandment of Yahweh: all of them men who were heads of the children of Israel. 4 These were their names: Of the tribe of Reuben, Shammua the son of Zaccur. 5 Of the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat the son of Hori. 6 Of the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jephunneh. 7 Of the tribe of Issachar, Igal the son of Joseph. 8 Of the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea the son of Nun. 9 Of the tribe of Benjamin, Palti the son of Raphu. 10 Of the tribe of Zebulun, Gaddiel the son of Sodi. 11 Of the tribe of Joseph, namely, of the tribe of Manasseh, Gaddi the son of Susi. 12 Of the tribe of Dan, Ammiel the son of Gemalli. 13 Of the tribe of Asher, Sethur the son of Michael. 14 Of the tribe of Naphtali, Nahbi the son of Vophsi. 15 Of the tribe of Gad, Geuel the son of Machi. 16 These are the names of the men who Moses sent to spy out the land. Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun Joshua. 17 Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said to them, Go up this way by the South, and go up into the hill-country: 18 and see the land, what it is; and the people who dwell therein, whether they are strong or weak, whether they are few or many; 19 and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it is good or bad; and what cities they are that they dwell in, whether in camps, or in strongholds; 20 and what the land is, whether it is fat or lean, whether there is wood therein, or not. Be of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land. Now the time was the time of the first-ripe grapes.

Exactly thirteen years ago, on this very parashah that we read today, I spent my first Shabbat in Calgary. I recall how, on that Saturday morning, I miraculously found my way to the Calgary Jewish Centre, where our congregation held services prior to the completion of its own building. When I arrived, I was greeted by the synagogue president, who welcomed me as a newcomer, even as he informed me that the rabbi was home sick, so that I would have to deliver the sermon.

Not too long ago I was informed by our current president that I would be giving this week's sermon while our rabbi is at the hospital at the side of his wife and new-born daughter.

Back then it was easy to improvise a topic. The subject-matter of the week's Torah reading, about how Moses sent spies to scout out the new land, lent itself naturally to an appreciative discourse on how a newcomer should investigate a new Jewish community.

Perhaps it would have been appropriate this week to offer my retrospective about the wisdom of the move, analogous to the Biblical spies' kvetching about all the difficulties and shortcomings of the Promised Land. The truth is that we have been very pleased with our Jewish life in Calgary.

Instead, I would like to focus on some difficult, even disturbing, comments that Rashi makes about the opening words of the parashah.

The first of his comments relates the Hebrew phraseology of the verse in which God tells Moses to send ou the spies. The passage states Sh'lah lekha, which literally translates as "send you" or "send for yourself." Rashi cites the following midrashic interpretation, according to which God is saying:

[Send the spies] If you want to--I am not ordering you. If you wish to, then send them."

This strange comment implies that there was something morally or religiously unacceptable about Moses' decision to send out spies. As several commentators have noted, that is a difficult premise to accept. Nahmanides observes that the gathering of military intelligence is a normal practice before a military invasion. In spite of their expectations of divine assistance, the people had no reason to expect that the Canaanites would be overcome through an instant miracle. Joshua's armies would be fighting real battles, and therefore they should make use of the best military tactics available, including the sending of spies.

Indeed, the very fact that later Joshua did send out his own team of spies (as we read in today's haftarah reading), and that their mission was ultimately successful, demonstrates that there was nothing inherently improper about sending spies.

[The contrast between the two missions raises the possibility that if Moses, instead of instructing his spies to bring back fruit samples, had sent them directly to the house of Rachab the harlot, their report would have been much more favourable, and the people would have been spared forty years of wandering in the wilderness…]

Rashi proceeds to cite the following midrashic source:

The people has approached Moses saying "Let us send men before us, that they may search the land for us" (Deuteronomy 1:22)…

Moses took counsel with the Divine Presence… By their lives! I shall give them an opportunity to make a mistake with regards to the words of the spies, so that they shall not inherit the land…

This story is very troubling, suggesting as it does that a vindictive Moses was indulging in what the lawyers call "entrapment" in order to get the Israelites into trouble.

I wish to propose a somewhat different reading of the Biblical passage, and of Rashi's comments.

The first thing I wish to observe is that Moses had every reason to expect that the mission of the spies would lead to a successful outcome.

In many ways the cards were stacked in Moses' favour. As was noted by a midrash cited by Rashi, the timing of the incident, immediately after Miriam was punished for slandering Moses, should have provided insurance that the people would not be quick to fall into the same error.

He made his orders very specific, issuing a precise list of questions for which they were to bring back answers. He left them virtually no room for error.

Moses was careful to choose the finest, most upstanding representatives of the people, to participate in the reconnaissance mission. Rashbam argues that the word "nasi," used here to designate the station of the agents, does not carry its normal meaning of "princes," but indicates that they were volunteers, accepting their task out of strong motivation.

Furthermore, when Moses told the spies to get some of the fruit of the land, he could be confident that "the time was the time of the first ripe grapes" and that the spies would carry back impressive evidence of the land's bountiful produce.

In short, the circumstances were arranged in such a way as to guarantee that the spies would confirm Moses' assessment of the glories of the Land of Israel.

Somehow, however, things turned out differently.

In fact, the whole of Moses' career can be seen as such a series of disappointments and good intentions gone wrong.

When we think about it, this is a fundamental feature of the human situation. All our careful planning can never guarantee that events will turn out as we planned them.

Those of us who are teachers are repeatedly stunned when we get back examinations, and discover that our students managed to misconstrue statements that were completely clear and unambiguous.

One can imagine that by this point in his life Moses would have been overwhelmed with frustration: Why should I bother to make any efforts, when there does not seem to be any correlations between my intentions and the final outcome?

These are feelings that each of us can identify with. It can be very disheartening to discover how little control we have over the consequences of our actions, even after we have invested great efforts in their planning and implementation.

It was in response to such expressions of despair that the Almighty reassured Moses "Sh'lah lekha" -- "Send for yourself." All that I expect of you is to do the best you can, according to your understanding of the circumstances.

As Rabbi Tarfon taught in Pirkei Avot:

"It is not up to you to complete the task. But neither are you free to refrain from it."

This was a lesson that Moses took to heart. When he finally resolved to send out the spies, he made it clear to them that he was doing so in full awareness that, in spite of all his careful preparations and forethought, the outcome might be different from what he expected. "By their lives! I shall give them an opportunity to make a mistake with regards to the words of the spies."

This does not mean, as we initially understood, that Moses maliciously wanted the Israelites to respond blasphemously to the spies' report-- but only that he was open to the possibility that such a tragedy could occur. In spite of that daunting prospect, he could not forsake the responsibilities of leadership, and so he dispatched the spies nonetheless.

This is a lesson that must be taken to heart by all of us who hold positions of leadership and responsibility in the workplace, the community or the family. We must not be paralyzed by the uncertainties of life, nor demoralized by unexpected turns of events.

We must acknowledge realistically that, like Moses our Teacher, there are times when the best we can do is "send for ourselves."

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*Sermon delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, June 12 1999