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June 10, 2012 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shelach

This week’s portion contains “the sin of the spies.”  Moses sends some spies out to visit the Land of Israel;   The spies discourage the Jews from conquering the land, causing a near-riot.  God gets very angry.

Was sending the spies a good idea?  Rashi doesn’t seem to think so.  Even though it looks from the language of Numbers 13;2 like God is telling Moses to spend spies, Deut. 1:22 suggests that the people demanded that spies be sent, and God merely put up with it.  So Rashi says that God warns Moses  “I told them … [that Israel is a good land].  By their lives, I will give them an opportunity to fall into error through the incident of the spies.”  So Rashi believes, based on a Midrashic legend, that the spies were in principle an example of lack of faith.

Nachmanides has a different view.  He points out that there really was a good reason for sending spies.   According to him, the Jews were not necessarily uncertain about whether to take over the Land of Israel; they just wanted spies “to advise them which city they should attack first, and from which direction it would be easy to capture the Land… Now this is correct guidance to anyone who [plans to] conquer a counttry.”  (Commentary to Num. 13:2).  Indeed, Nachmanides points out that when Joshua enters the Land after Moses’s death he sends out spies.

So what?  What’s the broader theological point?  Nachmanides explains that man should not “rely on a miracle … Instead, [Scripture] commands those who go out to battle to arm themselves, to take precautions” [etc].

In other words, relying on Revelation is a fine thing, but use your common sense too.

On the other hand, Nachmanides is a man of his age, which means his views don’t always fit with post-medieval common sense.  Num. 14:9 says the Canaanites’ “shadow” (according to Nachmanides) is removed from them.  (Modern translations often say “defense”).  Nachmanides writes that Scripture may be “alluding to the well-known fact that there will be no shadow over the head of a person who is to die that year, on [Hoshanah Rabbah].”  It is hard to imagine a more blatant case of superstition by modern standards- which goes to show, I suppose, that the Middle Ages were really pretty backward.

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