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This week, we read about the tragic sin of the spies. We know what the sin was: the Spies came back from their mission and essentially rejected the land of Israel. They convinced the people that, despite God’s promises, they would not be able to overtake Canaan’s commanding, mighty militaries. And as a result, that generation of Israelites would die out, and the people would wander aimlessly for 40 years before they’d be allowed to finally enter the land.
It’s a very frustrating story. Every time we read it, just as the spies are about to give their report, we want to scream out, “NO - DON’T DO IT!” We somehow wish that this time, the story will end differently. This time, they’ll give a positive report. Because to us, the sin seems unfathomable. How could they have doubted God? Shouldn’t the annihilation of Egypt, the mightiest nation in the world, have taught them that God’s power is infinite? Or, if they knew of God’s boundless strength, how could they have doubted that God would be with them during these battles, after everything God has done for them?
So, even though it’s a classic question, we still don’t get it. How could they have sinned so egregiously?
Join us as we explore this fascinating story, this week on the Parsha Experiment.
Hi, I’m David Block, and welcome to the Parsha Experiment.
So let’s look at the text and see what we can find. God tells Moses: שְׁלַח-לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים - Send out men. What’s their task? וּרְאִיתֶם אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, מַה-הִוא - see the land - what is it? וְאֶת-הָעָם, הַיֹּשֵׁב עָלֶיהָ--הֶחָזָק הוּא הֲרָפֶה - and the nation that dwells in it --- is it strong or weak? הַמְעַט הוּא אִם-רָב - are they few or many? … וּמָה הֶעָרִים, אֲשֶׁר-הוּא יוֹשֵׁב בָּהֵנָּה - and the cities that they live in - הַבְּמַחֲנִים, אִם בְּמִבְצָרִים- are they open or fortified? So, their primary mission was to scout militarily, perhaps figure out how to destroy the enemies. And interestingly, when Moses selects the spies, he singles one out. After listing all 12 names, the text concludes: וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה לְהוֹשֵׁעַ בִּן-נוּן, יְהוֹשֻׁעַ - and Moses called Hoshea son of Nun ‘Yehoshua.’ Of everyone chosen, it seems like Moses gave Joshua a special status.
Something about this story feels familiar. Was there another time in which someone was told to select just a few people from the nation? And those people were charged with the task of military victory? An event in which Moses singled out Joshua?
Take a look at one last piece of text from the Spy story - and this puts the whole thing together. When the spies come back from the land and give a grim portrait of the enemies’ power, look at the very first enemy nation they mention: עֲמָלֵק יוֹשֵׁב, בְּאֶרֶץ הַנֶּגֶב - Amalek dwells in the South.
Yes… this whole narrative seems to recall the earlier story of Israel’s war with Amalek, back in Exodus. When Amalek attacked Israel in the desert, וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוֹשֻׁעַ - Moses said to Joshua, בְּחַר-לָנוּ אֲנָשִׁים - choose men for us. Very similar to the later שלח לך אנשים. And what was the purpose of choosing those select people? וְצֵא הִלָּחֵם בַּעֲמָלֵק - Go and fight Amalek. So we see all three elements right here - choosing representatives, for military purposes - and Joshua is singled out.
So now that we see that the stories are paralleled, we have to ask, why?? These two stories seem incredibly different. The story of the spies is about a horrible sin by the nation of Israel. But in the Amalek story, there was no sin; the people were innocent victims of the attacking Amalekites. The stories really seem to be unrelated, and the few connections, coincidental.
But it’s not coincidental at all. To understand the connection, we first have to understand that story of the battle of Amalek, back in Exodus. Only then can we truly understand the story of the spies.
The battle with Amalek was really strange. We know what normal battle looks like - generally, two groups approach each other, and the stronger army wins. But...that’s not what happened here. Joshua and his men went out to battle...and at the same time, Moses...ascended a hill. וְהָיָה, כַּאֲשֶׁר יָרִים מֹשֶׁה יָדוֹ; and when Moses raised his hands, ,וְגָבַר יִשְׂרָאֵל Israel prevailed in battle. וְכַאֲשֶׁר יָנִיחַ יָדוֹ, וְגָבַר עֲמָלֵק - and when he lowered his hands, Amalek prevailed. It seems like military success was entirely dependant on Moses’ raised hands. What’s going on? Is this just magic?
Of course it wasn't. It was symbolic. To understand how, let’s think about the context of this surprise Amalek attack. A few chapters ago, God saved the people from Egypt with plagues and overt miracles. The people didn’t have to do anything, we passively watched God save us. Then, we have a series of Israel’s complaints - we had no water, then no food, and then again no water…and the people are suddenly unsure. הֲיֵשׁ יְהוָה בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ, אִם-אָיִן - Is God really with us, or not? And God says, yes! - and shows us, by giving us food and water. Just as He had annihilated our enemies in Egypt, we sat on the sidelines as He took care of us.
And immediately after, וַיָּבֹא, עֲמָלֵק - Amalek came, and Israel, a small band of people who had never before been in a battle, were able to defeat them. For the first time, we now have to be involved - sort of. Though we are technically in battle, we learn the same lesson as we learned before - that victory comes, not from swords, but from the hands of Moses, raised to the heavens, acknowledging God. And this lesson is the same one that we saw, first through the Exodus, and then through God giving us food and drink - He is there for us. The symbolism is poignant: Moses’ raised hands are a sign of recognition, that Israel’s strength is all from God. Only when they recognize the source of their success can they be successful.
In war, it’s so easy to think that military might is king. That I live and die by my strength and skill. When we have to put in effort, it’s easy to fall into the trap of: כחי ועצם ידי - my success is a result of my effort, of my greatness! But that’s the challenge of this world… to notice that, even when we put in the effort, even when it looks like ME, really, it’s all God. So by making our success contingent on the raised hands of Moses, God teaches Israel exactly that; that we can only succeed when we truly surrender control to God and trust God completely.
And with that in mind, let’s go back to the story of the spies in our parsha. As we said, it’s easy to get frustrated with the spies, and the people. How did they lose faith after all God had done for them? But...let’s think about it from their perspective. God tells Moses, send spies, scout the land. If I’m an Israelite, how does that make me feel? What sort of message does that send?
Wouldn’t it feel a little bit like God was pulling back? Yes, in the past God was there for us. But now, God’s saying we need spies, to scout the land, to figure out strategy for military victory. Strategy?? That must mean God wants us to do this on our own; that He’s pulling away.
So, when the spies get back, they’re nervous. We have to figure things out, and fight on our own, and the land is full of strong nations, like Amalek! If God won’t be there, we have to figure out how to do it ourselves - and that’s terrifying! That fear seems reasonable, doesn’t it?
And yes, maybe it would have been reasonable...but then God shows us these parallels, telling us...hey, look at the Amalek story, because you can’t understand the spies without it. God says, Israel, you think I’m leaving you? You think because you’ll have to put in effort, I won't be with you? Why didn’t you learn from the war with Amalek?
Because they never had to put in effort before! In the beginning of the people’s relationship with God, Stage 1, God showed his love of Israel through open miracles. God threw plagues down on Egypt until Israel was finally set free. Then, as the Egyptian army approached the Israelites by the Red Sea, Moshe emphatically told the people: יְהוָה, יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם; וְאַתֶּם, תַּחֲרִשׁוּן - God will fight for you… you just be silent, sit back and watch - and they did, as the mighty Egyptian military drowned in the Red Sea. And, in the desert, the people had to do nothing for food and drink - they were just sustained by God.
But then we got to Stage 2, the sudden attack from Amalek. Now, God wants Israel to fight. Because open miracles is not how the world works. God created the world such that we don't just sit back and wait for miracles --- we have to put in effort. We have to take action.
But, even when Israel is fighting, even when we must put in effort, ultimately, it’s still all from God. And how would the people understand that lesson? Think about that battle. Israel had no army, no military experience. It was a mismatch of the highest order. But the people were about to learn that none of that mattered. Success wouldn’t be dependent on their military skill. It was dependent on only one thing: can they recognize that even when they seem to be doing the work, it’s still all from God? We know that God is pulling the strings when He does the work… but can we see that He’s also pulling the strings when we do the work?
But the war with Amalek wasn't the end goal, it was a transition. Because later, there would be a Stage 3. A time when the people would have to put in even more effort, and it could seem even more like the people were in charge, and God’s providence would be imperceptible to the naked eye. That’s how life would be in the land of Israel. There, Israel would have to fight their own wars and make their own food. That’s Stage 3 - the responsibility of the people to recognize that even when it seems like God isn’t part of the picture anymore, really, he’s just as present.
So when the people are just 11 days away from entering, God tells Moses to select a few people to spy out the land. They’d have to plan, and scout, and strategize. And the spies saw that, and were scared that maybe, this is it. God helped us before, but now we’re on our own. But what they didn’t see was the lesson they should have learned from Stage 1, and from Stage 2: that regardless of human effort - in any amount, in any situation, God is always with you. The spies cried out, “We can’t do it! We can’t conquer the land!” But they should have thought… God can do it. In fact, only God can do it. We can, we must, plan, and strategize, and that’s why the spies were sent. But we have to recognize the lessons from Amalek - that at the end of the day, only God will be able to win these wars.
And in this way, the people of Israel failed in their relationship with God. When we only see God in the obvious miracles - when he is killing our enemies in the sea, when we lift our arms and He is right there, then...it’s not so hard to have a relationship with Him. But what about when we don’t see God? When He says, I’m here, even if you don’t see Me, and we don’t trust that? When we don’t trust Him, that’s when the relationship is devastated.
Today, we live in Stage 3. When a bully comes up to me on the playground, I can’t just step back and watch God give him what’s coming to him. And I can’t raise my arms to God, and know He will take care of it. It’s just not so easy to see God. So if I want to be close with Him, it’s up to me to create that relationship. It’s incredibly difficult, but I have to give God that trust, and let myself say, God, no matter what, I know you’re there. I know you’re with me. Only then can we have that epic relationship with God that the spies, and that whole generation, were meant to have.
1. The Parsha Experiment - Bereishit: Is The Torah One Big Story?
2. The Parsha Experiment - Noach: The Failure of Humanity
3. The Parsha Experiment - Lech Lecha: Was Abraham The First Wandering Jew?
4. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeira: the Power of Abraham's Influence
5. The Parsha Experiment - Chayei Sarah: Find Me A Find, Catch Me A Catch!
6. The Parsha Experiment - Toldot: All's Well That Ends Well
7. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeitzei: To Deceive Or Not To Deceive, That Is The Question
8. The Parsha Experiment - Vayishlach: Difficult Conversations
9. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeishev: Harlots & Coats & Goats, Oh My!
10. The Parsha Experiment - Miketz: Hello From The Other Side
11. The Parsha Experiment - Vayigash: A Speech That Turns The Tide
12. The Parsha Experiment - Vayechi: We Are Family - Culmination of Abrahamic Legacy
13. The Parsha Experiment - Shmot - Every Saga Has A Beginning: Meeting Moses
14. The Parsha Experiment - Va'era: The Exodus and Babe Ruth
15. The Parsha Experiment - Bo: The Flight of the Firstborn Nation
16. The Parsha Experiment - Beshalach: Are We An Ungrateful Nation?
17. The Parsha Experiment - Yitro: Does God Care About ME?
18. The Parsha Experiment - Mishpatim: Can Laws Be Meaningful?
19. The Parsha Experiment - Terumah: Is God Talking To Me Through The Laws of the Mishkan?
20. The Parsha Experiment - Tetzaveh: The Hidden Secrets In The Walls Of The Mishkan
21. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Tisa: Will God Always Forgive Me?
22. The Parsha Experiment - Vayakhel: How Can I Take A Step Towards God?
23. The Parsha Experiment - Pekudei: God Choosing Man, Man Choosing God
24. The Parsha Experiment - Vayikra: How To Read the Book of Vayikra
25. The Parsha Experiment - Shemini: Is There Meaning Behind The Laws of Kashrut?
26. The Parsha Experiment - Tzav: How Can I Confront Sacrifices?
27. The Parsha Experiment - Tazria: What do Tumah and Tahara Mean Today? Part I
28. The Parsha Experiment - Metzora: What Do Tumah And Tahara Mean Today? Part II
29. The Parsha Experiment - Kedoshim: How Can We Achieve Holiness?
30. The Parsha Experiment - Emor: Holiness In Space and Time
31. The Parsha Experiment - Behar: A Spiritual Economy
32. The Parsha Experiment - Bechukotai: The Epic Conclusion To Leviticus
33. The Parsha Experiment - Bamidbar: How Can We Transmit God's Values?
34. The Parsha Experiment - Naso: Adding Godliness To Our Lives
35. The Parsha Experiment - Beha'alotecha: Can I Be Vulnerable With God?
36. The Parsha Experiment - Shelach: How Can I Trust God When I Don't See Him?
37. The Parsha Experiment - Korach: Rejecting Israel's Leaders
38. The Parsha Experiment - Chukat: A Turning Point In Israel's Relationship With God
39. The Parsha Experiment - Balak: What Is Israel's National Mission?
40. The Parsha Experiment - Pinchas: Intimacy and Holiness
41. The Parsha Experiment - Matot-Masei: Israel's Psychological Journey
42. The Parsha Experiment - Devarim: Finding Inspiration From Our Past
43. The Parsha Experiment - Va'etchanan: Building An Intimate Relationship With God
44. The Parsha Experiment - Eikev: Appreciating Our Creators
45. The Parsha Experiment - Re'eh: Why Would Anyone Want to Worship Idols?
46. The Parsha Experiment - Shoftim: Is This Just A Boring Parsha?
47. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Teitzei: Is There Spiritual Guidance Within Our Legal System?
48. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Tavo: How To Make Sense Of The Terrible Curses
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