April 17, 2024
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Parshat Shelach

Whenever discussing this week’s haftarah that relates the story of the spies sent by Yehoshua before the Israelite invasion of Eretz Canaan, the first issue that comes to mind is why. Why would he have sent spies when he himself was directly involved in the terrible events that followed the story of the spies sent by Moshe Rabbeinu that we read of in this parasha? Why repeat the same mistake? Why risk it all, now that you are but days before entering the Promised Land?

We have previously discussed a number of differences between the two missions, but perhaps the most basic difference is simply that Yehoshuas mission had a different purpose than that of Moshe’s. A close reading of the parsha would make us realize that the word “l’ragel,” to spy, or the term “meraglim,” spies, is never used in the parsha. The expression that repeats is that of “v’yaturu” or “latur,” to “tour” or pass through the land. Seemingly, this was never to be a “secret” mission—which is why these “agents” of Moshe brought back their report to the entire congregation. We never read that they had to hide from the locals—which is why Moshe didn’t hesitate to send 12 men, hardly an inconspicuous group. And significantly, the men reported the deductions they made from what they saw, but never did they speak to the local population to hear how they felt.

The haftarah, on the other hand, describes a very different mission, and one is tempted to suggest that the choice of this second perek of Sefer Yehoshua as the haftarah may very well have been based on the contrast between the two missions and the lesson we can derive from those differences. Yehoshua sends “meraglim,” spies, and he sends them “cheresh,” secretly. Their mission was limited to the first city the Israelites would attack after crossing the Yarden, the city of Yericho, and their purpose was to report on the mood of the people based upon what they heard from the locals. These secret spies had to hide (twice) because they were being pursued by the king of Yericho and his men, and they returned to deliver their report to Yehoshua alone, telling him exactly what Rachav, a resident Yericho, told them.

HaRav Yehuda Shaviv correctly points out that to “spy” (“l’ragel”) implies more than a superficial look; it indicates an effort to uncover that which is beneath the surface. And this is precisely the difference between the mission undertaken in the haftarah and that which was demanded by Moshe. It is the difference between coming to conclusions based only upon what you surmise from what you see or returning with a report that is substantiated by what those who knew the situation were saying and implying. It is the difference between spying and touring.

And it was the difference between success and failure.

By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler


Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.

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