Parshat Shelach

Parshat Shelach

Bamidbar 13:27-33 (Robert Alter, trans.)

“We came into the land to which you sent us, and it’s actually flowing with milk and hone, and this is its fruit. But [efes] mighty is the people that dwells in the land, and the towns are fortified and very big, and also the offspring of the giant we saw there. Amalek dwells in the Negeb land, and the Hittite and Jebusite and the Amorite dwell in the high country, and the Canaanite dwells by the sea and by the Jordan.” And Caleb silenced the people around Moses and said, “We will surely go up and take hold of it, for we will surely prevail over it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We cannot go up against the people for they are strong that we. And they put forth an ill report to the Israelites of the land that they had scouted, saying, “The land through which we passed to scout is a land that consumes those who dwell in it, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of huge measure. And there did we see the Nephilim, sons of the giant from the Nephilim, and we were in our won eyes like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”


Bamidbar 14:2-4 (Robert Alter, trans.)

And all the community lifted their voice and put it forth, and the people wept on that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and against Aaron, and all the community said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness would that we had died. And why is the LORD bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our women and our little ones will become booty. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said one man to another, “Let us put up a head and return to Egypt.”


Midrash Tanchuma Shelach 7 (Avivah Zornberg, trans.)

They said, “We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes.” God said, “This I can overlook. But, ‘And so we looked in their eyes’– here I am angry! Did you know how I made you look in their eyes? Who told you that you didn’t look like angels in their eyes?”


Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 16:6 (Avivah Zornberg, trans.)

  1. Joshua says: To what might they [the Israelites] be compared? To the case of a king who secured for his son a wife who was beautiful, of good parentage, and rich. The king said to him,”I have secured for you a wife who is beautiful, of good parentage, and rich.” The son answered, “Let me go and see her!”For he did not believe his father. His father was sorely vexed and said to himself, “What shall I do? If I tell him, ‘I will not show her to you,’ he will think, ‘She is ugly; that is why he does not want to show her to me.'” At last, he said to him, “See her and you will know whether I have lied to you! But becauseyou did not have faith in me, I swear that you will never see her in your own home, and that I will give her to your son!

Similarly, God assured Israel, “The land is good,” but they had no faith, and said, “Let us send men before us that they may spy out the land for us.” Said God, “If I prevent them they will say, ‘He does not show it to us because it is not good.’ Better let them see it. But I swear that not one of them will enter the land,”; as it says, “Surely they shall not see the land which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of them that despised Me see it!” (Bamidbar 14:23).


Avivah Zornberg

The narrative of the Spies, with its tragic aftermaths, lies at the very heart of Sefer Bamidbar — at the very heart, we might say, of the midbar, the wilderness, itself.

Returning to Egypt is … a core fantasy of the people; from the outset, it secretly organizes their inner world.

According to a classic mishnah, this narrative is dated the ninth of Av, which is to become a fatal date in Jewish history. … Far from being an isolated incident, then, this story gives expression to profound movements in the Israelite soul. It becomes the rootstock of many future national sorrows.

Efes carries the sense of the “Delete!” key on a computer keyboard. “All the goodness of the Land is ultimately irrelevant: we are powerless.”

So far from registering an empirical view of the Land, seeing and seeing oneself precipitate the narrative into a dynamic of madness, of images, fantasies, and projections. … What the Spies see, therefore, convulses them not simply with fear, but with a sense of intimate efes: they are annihilated. The word aliyah — going up to the Land — is suffusted with the sense of looking upward at the contemptuous eyes of the gigantic inhabitants of the Land. To see, for them, is to allow the world to mirror their deepest life. The Spies evoke in the people that same sense of efes, of annihilation. They fear to die, because they are, in imagination, already dead.

the people cannot figure themselves as lovable to God. Rashi strikingly catches the projection implicit in their fantasy: “Really, He loved you, but you hated Him — as the proverb has it, “What you have in your heart about your friend you imagine he has in his heart about you!”