Haftarah Parshat Shlach Lecha
June 16, 2012
26 Sivan 5772
How could Joshua think of sending out a spy mission, knowing how disastrous the mission sent by Moses was? It seems the height of irresponsibility to make the same strategic mistake twice. This question has been pondered by exegetes from time immemorial and the answer to this question tells us as much (and maybe more) about the interpreter as it does about Joshua’s strategy.
Among rationalist Jewish exegetes, two notable attempts have been made to explore this question. The first, Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (Ralbag – Provence 14th century) opens his presentation with a number of questions. He asks how is it possible that Joshua should send out spies when it was possible that such a mission might quash the people’s desire to enter the land and conquer it. Similarly, he asks, how it is possible that Joshua did not simply depend on God’s providence. He concludes his questions by asking why Joshua did not learn from Moses’ bad experience. Ralbag gives two answers. He asserts that the spies might have been sent to determine the best way to do battle against the enemy. He asserts, however, that it is more plausible to argue that the spies were sent in order to strengthen the will of the people to participate in the conquest when they hear from the spies of their enemies’ fear of them.
Rabbi Yitzhak Abrabanel (Portugal, Spain, Italy – 15-16th century) seemingly rejects Ralbag’s second explanation in favor of the first since the second explanation allows too much room for failure. He points out that it is possible for such a plan to backfire. Who can be sure what the outcome of this mission will be? Perhaps the spies will offer a report which will frighten the people instead of inspiring them? He, therefore lists Moses’ mistakes and how Joshua’s mission countered them: 1. Moses sent too many spies. This insured that their false message would spread; 2. He sent the heads of tribes lending any report they made added credibility; 3. Their mission was not focused on information relevant to their mission; 4. The mission was carried out due to popular pressure. Joshua countered these problems, according to Abrabanel, by sending two anonymous spies with a very specific mission. One notes in this analysis, the discernment born of Abrabanel’s many years of government service in Portugal and Spain.
The commentary of these two exegetes make it quite clear how great a part a person’s background plays in how one interprets what one reads in a book or how one sees the world. Sometimes, as in the case of Abrabanel, it gives us keen expertise and discernment into how to understand a subject. At other times, we can easily be misled by our false impressions and prejudices. What is clear is that with all things in life, true wisdom should be born of self-awareness and humility.
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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