Torah for the Times
By Rabbi Heschel Greenberg




The Slander

Much has been said about the spies Moses sent to scout the Land of Israel at the request of the Jewish people. Moses asked them to survey the land, its strengths and weaknesses. Upon their return, they gave a mixed report. First they described the virtues of the land. They then described how powerful the inhabitants were and the how fortified their cities were. These words were clearly intended to frighten the Jewish people.

At that point Caleb, one of the two spies who remained faithful to G‑d and Moses, declared:

“We will definitely go up! We will take possession of it, for we are certainly capable of conquering it!

The other spies countered him by saying:

“We are unable to go up against the people for they are stronger than us.”

The word in Hebrew “memenu-than us,” Rashi says can also be translated as “from Him,” intimating that they believed the inhabitants of the land to be even more powerful than G‑d!

The Torah then states,

“They produced a [slanderous] report about the land which they had explored, telling the children of Israel ‘The land we passed through and explored is a land that consumes its inhabitants. All the people we saw in it are enormous men. We saw nefilim-giants there, supersized giants from the neflim giants. We appeared like grasshoppers in our eyes, and that’s how we were in their eyes.”

When they said that the land consumes its inhabitants, Rashi explains, they were referring to having seen how the Canaanites were constantly burying their dead. G‑d had intended this spate of deaths to distract the Canaanites from the spies. It succeeded but the spies interpreted it unfavorably.

Where Did It Begin?

The spies clearly slandered the Land of Israel in their report. The Torah implies that their slander began when they described the land as one that consumes its inhabitants. Hadn’t they slandered the land earlier when they spoke of the strength of the people followed by the statement that Jewish people would not be able to conquer it?

The Kli Yakar asks another question, why is their description of the land as consuming its inhabitants even considered slander when they were merely describing what they saw?

The truth is that the two questions cancel each other out. Until the spies actually stated that the people would not be able to conquer the land, what they had said previously about the land was not slanderous. They were merely describing the state of the land and its inhabitants, precisely as Moses told them to do. However, once they drew the rebellious conclusion that it would be impossible for them to conquer the land, anything they said afterwards would have to be considered slander because their intent was clear.

However, the question now reverses itself: If they were out to slander the land why did they leave how the land consumes its inhabitants until later in the report? Why did they wait to mention it only after they declared that the children of Israel could not conquer it?

Yet another question can be raised, the answer of which is the key to answering this question:

The spies did not initially say the land was unconquerable; they merely implied it by describing the strength of the people and cities of the land. Only after Caleb declared that the people would inherit the land did they state explicitly that it would not be possible. Why did they wait until then to draw their ill-advised conclusion?

The answer may be (see Ramban) that they were hoping that the Jewish people would reach that conclusion on their own from hearing the spies’ “objective” report about the land. Only when Caleb appeared to thwart their plan by declaring emphatically that it would indeed be possible, did they stridently respond that it would not be possible.

Once the spies vocalized their heresy it changed the whole tone of their opposition. Until then they were careful not to denigrate the land. On the contrary, they praised the land for its fruit. The fear they tried to engender concerned the land’s inhabitants and fortified cities; they did not openly disparage the land at the start.

Why Didn’t They Speak Openly?

One might suggest that their reluctance to speak openly against the conquest or disparage the land itself was to deflect blame for instigating the rebellion. The spies wanted the people to draw their own conclusion and then demand avoiding Israel. To disparage the land would have been a direct attack against G‑d’s description of the land as a good land.

However, when they saw how their plan was in danger of being defeated by Caleb they resorted to a full blown slander of the Land. The slander was, in effect, a declaration of war against G‑d, Moses and the Land of Israel.

A Land of Contradictions

To more deeply understand what the spies meant by adding that the land consumed its inhabitants and that it was inhabited by giants we must address two other questions:

First, how was their description of the land as one that consumed its inhabitants proof that the Jewish people would not be able to conquer it? It merely pointed to the unsustainability of the land.

Second, how could the otherwise righteous people, chosen by Moses himself, have so degenerated that they were willing to state that the inhabitants of the land were more powerful than G‑d?

When the spies juxtaposed the two critical pieces of information, that the land consumed its inhabitants and that there were giants there, they meant to color Israel as a land of contradictions. On the one hand, it consumed its inhabitants, which pointed to the land’s negative impact on life. On the other hand, its inhabitants were giants; people in whom life was pronounced and robust.

The Survival of the Fittest

To reconcile this contradiction the spies were suggesting that Israel was a land that could only be conquered and settled by giants. This was their version of the “survival of the fittest” belief. “Yes,” they argued “if you are a giant you could survive, but if you are puny grasshoppers like us then how could we expect to conquer such a land?”

The spies meant this as a metaphor. Just as only the strongest and fittest could tolerate the land, so too, spiritually, only those Jews who were “giants” could succeed in making Israel into the land G‑d had intended for them.

This metaphor was the spies’ attempt to temper their rebellion against G‑d’s promise that they could conquer the land. Sure, G‑d was right when the people were spiritual giants. But the fact that the people demanded to send spies, not being content only with G‑d’s promise to them, proved that they truly were “little” people (“grasshoppers”) whose faith was feeble.

Therefore, when the spies said the inhabitants of the land were stronger than G‑d, they were not so foolish as to think that G‑d could not conquer the land. Rather, they meant that the inhabitants of the land were more powerful than the G‑dly power dwelling within the Jewish people themselves. The people were “tiny” because they didn’t feel G‑d’s presence within themselves. How then, surmised the spies, could the Jewish people expect to conquer the land, when it could not sustain anyone other than a giant? Perhaps, at some later date, when their faith had become stronger, it would be possible for them to conquer the land.

They were woefully wrong. The Jewish people were indeed giants. As the Alter Rebbe points out in his classic work, Tanya (Chapter 29), the Jews had a change of heart as soon as they were rebuked by G‑d; they wanted to dash off and conquer the land. This, the Alter Rebbe states, was proof that they always had the requisite belief in G‑d. It was only their surface crust of evil that stood in the way. G‑d’s message removed the evil cover and their true faith emerged.

What the spies had failed to see was the G‑dly greatness contained within themselves and their fellow Jews; they grossly underestimated the true nature of the Jewish soul. We are all giants!

Yankees or Giants?

The Jewish people have two names: Jacob and Israel. The former describes us in our state of Galus-exile and the latter in the state of Redemption. Jacob is referred to as the “small one,” while Israel expresses greatness (Giants). As we stand now on the bridge between exile (Jacob) and Redemption (Israel) we too experience identity crises. Can we, the lowly Jacobs, be worthy of Redemption? Aren’t the forces of exile more powerful than the G‑dly spirit within us?

This week’s parsha is a powerful repudiation of this pernicious Galus mindset. It is true; Galus has imposed a certain measure of self-doubt in us. When we look around the world today and see the devaluation of so many of our values, even within the Jewish and Chassidic community, we can become apprehensive over the prospects of our being able to “conquer” the land and enter the Messianic Age.

The spy saga is meant to disabuse us of the notion that we are not giants. While we must be realists and recognize our shortcomings we may not do so by underestimating the giant that exists within us. Indeed, the Rebbe has taught us that while our generation may appear to be the “heels of the heels” of all of the past generations, we are, in one very significant fashion, the most unique generation of all of history. Precisely because of our devotion to the Torah and Mitzvos, notwithstanding the darkness and degradation of society, we are rightfully the strongest and most robust generation of history. We are the most worthy and receptive generation for entering the Geulah-Redemption!

We only need to remove the crust to reveal that we are all giants!


Moshiach Matters:

" 'Comfort, comfort My people,' says the L-rd. 'Speak to her heart of Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her time [of exile] has been fulfilled, that her iniquity has been conciliated, for she has received for the Hand of G‑d double for all her sins.' "