What a question!

In Jerusalem for women

Three classes at Nishmat July 7-11

Maimonides, Hassidut, Prophecy,

and Meditation in the evening


Parashat Shelach 5779

by Meir Sendor

I’m asked occasionally by a local hotel to give a tour of Tzfat and the surrounding area for its guests – not as an official tour guide, but as a teacher of Kabbalah, a personal tour of special areas of kabbalistic and spiritual significance together with the relevant teaching, and I’m pleased to do it. We’re also delighted to take visiting family and friends around the area as well. As much as we’re acculturating, we welcome opportunities to tour and see the Land of Israel with fresh eyes.

In this light, this week’s parashah, recounting the incident of the spies sent to tour the Land and pave the way for Bnei Yisrael to make Aliyah, is especially painful. What should have been a glorious opportunity turns tragic, as the spies discourage the people, who lose heart and are doomed to wander the wilderness for forty years. Some of that hesitance to take up our divinely granted destiny with a full heart dogs our people to this day.

The commentators question why a scouting expedition was necessary at all. God Himself was guiding the nation through Moshe Rabbenu – you can’t get better intelligence than that. Though in this week’s parashah it seems as if the idea to send spies comes from God, Rashi, comparing the parallel account in Parashat Devarim and the aggadic and midrashic interpretations, provides a more complex back-story. The people request spies, Moshe is reluctant, God warns of trouble but ultimately honors their free choice and permits it – and this is where our parashah picks up (Num. 13:2).

Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh, the great Torah commentator of Tzfat, explains that God warns Moshe that the people’s request arises from fear and doubt, but God permits it for the possibility to turn the expedition into something positive (Torat Moshe). We see this reflected in the questions Moshe asks the spies to consider:

במדבר פרק יג

יח) וראיתם את הארץ מה הוא ואת העם הישב עליה החזק הוא הרפה המעט הוא אם רב:

יט) ומה הארץ אשר הוא ישב בה הטובה הוא אם רעה ומה הערים אשר הוא יושב בהנה הבמחנים אם במבצרים:

כ) ומה הארץ השמנה הוא אם רזה היש בה עץ אם אין והתחזקתם ולקחתם מפרי הארץ והימים ימי בכורי ענבים:


See the Land and what it is, and the people who dwell on it – are they strong or weak, few or numerous? And what is the Land they dwell upon, is it good or bad? What are the cities in which they dwell, camps or fortified? And what is the Land, fat or lean, does it have trees or not – and be strong and take from the fruit of the Land. And the days were the time of the first fruiting of grapes.

It’s not just about espionage in preparation for war. Moshe poses questions to prime the spies to broaden their vision and to appreciate the Land itself and the experience they are about to have. The business coach Michael Bungay Stanier notes that

helping people learn is difficult. Sometimes it feels like even though you’ve hit them across the head repeatedly with an obvious concept (or a shovel perhaps), somehow the point you’ve been trying to make hasn’t stuck. Here’s why: people don’t really learn when you tell them something. They don’t even really learn when they do something. They start learning, start creating new neural pathways, only when they have a chance to recall and reflect on what just happened.

He suggests that asking a set of questions about the experience can facilitate this reflection, including the learning question: “What was most useful to you? (The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More and Change the Way You Lead Forever).”  Moshe’s priming questions here are a way of getting the spies to take an appreciative viewpoint to help process what they experience. For Yehoshua and Kalev it’s effective. For the rest of the spies – well, maybe Moshe needed that shovel.

Living in the Land of Israel is a privilege for which we are grateful every day. And we appreciate when family and friends give us the opportunity to see the Land with a new perspective and reflect upon its meaning for us and for the destiny of Am Yisrael. Those of us who live here, and those who visit and will eventually live here, walk in the footsteps of Avraham and Sarah, to whom God gave a command and a promise:

בראשית פרק יב פסוק א

לך לך …אל הארץ אשר אראך


Get yourself going… to the Land that I will show you.

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner in his Mei HaShiloah notes that God speaks here in the open future tense, and doesn’t tell Avraham exactly where he is going:

To the Land that I will show you. That is, your connection is to the place called “I will show you,” for it has no end. At every moment there will increase for you more and more insights of God the Infinite, Ein Sof.  And this you will discover only in the Land of Israel.

The Land of Milk and Honey and Ice Cream!

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