June 16, 2001
The episode of the spies at the beginning of the Parashah was a military, political and religious disaster. It damaged the morale of the people and threatened to destroy their relationship with God. Its consequences were of such enormity that it seems unconscionable that a leader of Joshua’s stature would repeat the same tragic error.
In light of this catastrophe it is no wonder that a number of the medieval commentators, among them the Ralbag, the 13th century French philosopher and Bible commentator, should question the strategic wisdom of Joshua’s decision to send out spies to scout out the city of Jericho. He asks: “How can it be that Joshua did not trust in the promise of God that no one would stand before him all the days of his life? Also, in the aftermath of Moses’ experience with the spies in the desert, how could Joshua accede to a mission fraught with such dangerous uncertainty?” (adapted translation)
Ralbag asserts that Joshua sent the spies to strengthen the morale of the people. He wanted them to know that the nations of Canaan feared them and that their conquest was a certainty. Don Yitzchak Abrabanel, the 15th century Portuguese/Spanish statesman and Bible commentator rejects the Ralbag’s explanation and offers a more plausible solution. Abrabanel, employs his understanding of statecraft to explain that Joshua was aware of the pitfalls of the original mission. Joshua, who was one of the spies sent by Moses, learned from the mistakes of his master and shaped the mission of his spies accordingly.
Moses’ spy mission was carried out with great fanfare. He sent the leaders of the people – men with a lot of clout. He gave them great latitude. Consequently, their message had great credibility with the people. When they returned, their message of despair destroyed the morale of all who heard it. Joshua took these factors into account when he planned his mission. He secretly sent out two spies with a specific plan. When they returned they reported exclusively to Joshua. These changes led to the successful conquest of Jericho.
Faith is not the abandonment of reason and common sense. Instead it requires it. This was Joshua’s strength as a leader. He had the wisdom and discernment to learn from experience avoiding the mistakes of the past. Abrabanel’s insight into Joshua’s vision should be ours as well.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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