The lesson of the 10 evil spies is one that should be internalized daily in each and every one of us, which is: Don’t be a pessimist!
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
The Torah portion called Shlach (Numbers 13:1-15:41) is an annual United with Israel favorite. This is because Shlach deals with the episode of the spies who were sent by Moses to check out the Land of Israel prior to the Israelites’ arrival there. Twelve individuals, one from each tribe, were sent by Moses to spy out and explore the Promised Land, the two most notable being Joshua and Kalev. The others, as we will see, were just trouble. The spies were to report back to Moses with all the relevant details needed for a military conquest: population, maps, cities, fortifications, produce, and more.
Coming from somewhere in the Sinai desert, without the assistance of a GPS, the spies ascended to Israel through the Negev – the southern part of the Land. They traveled the length and width of the entire Promised Land. After their 40-day mission ended, they returned to Moses and the Jewish people to report their findings.
The spies brought back with them beautiful gifts and souvenirs from the Land of Israel: huge and luscious fruits of the Land. They brought olives, grapes, pomegranates, figs, and more. What an encouraging sign! This was evidence that the Land they were about to enter was fertile with food in abundance!
Ten of the 12 spies turned out to be unsavory characters, though, and did whatever they could to ensure that the Jewish people’s enthusiasm for entering the Land of Israel ended there. The10 evil spies came up with all kinds of slander and gossip about the Land and the alleged inability of the nation to conquer and settle it. They convinced the Jewish people that they would be decimated by the inhabitants of the Land – the Canaanites. Only Joshua and Kalev brought back an encouraging message, but their message was silenced in favor of the message of doom.
One of the questions asked regarding this episode is: How did Moses, surely the wisest individual of the time, “mess up” and appoint what turned out to be 10 of the worst possible candidates to undertake this mission? Moses personally picked the spies… and only two of the 12 were good choices?! The rest… well the rest is history, and this episode led to the decree that the Jews would wander for 40 years in the desert.
The answer is that Moses was not entirely to blame. As the Torah says, Moses chose “leaders among the Children of Israel.” It seems quite reasonable that when searching for high-quality individuals with integrity and dignity, one would turn to the leaders. Keep in mind that just a short while ago these same people stood at Mount Sinai and witnessed the Revelation of God.
What Moses didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, was that these 10spies looked for the worst possible interpretation of everything they saw. They were professional pessimists. They saw every cup as half-empty instead of half-full. The problem with the 10 spies was that they brought back worst-case scenario reports of the Land. Joshua and Kalev, on the other hand, who traveled with the other 10 spies and saw exactly the same things, brought back an optimistic and motivational report. Same experience, different interpretations.
This slanderous report of the Land is especially shocking considering what took place right at the very end of last week’s Torah portion. Recall that in last week’s Living Torah portion, we discussed the sin of Miriam and the punishment she received due to having spoken poorly about her brother Moses. Not only did Miriam have the same problem as our 10 evil spies — speaking negatively and pondering worst-case scenarios — but the spies didn’t even learn their lesson after seeing what happened to Miriam! The story of Miriam happened just “moments ago” and yet the 10 spies committed the same sin!
The lesson of the 10 evil spies is one that should be internalized daily in each and every one of us, which is: Don’t be a pessimist! We must be optimists. The cup is always half full. Whenever challenges come your way, remember that cute little train who always said “I think I can, I think I can I think I can”. And I assure you – as Joshua and Kalev taught us — if you think that you’ll be successful, you will be successful.