Tisha B'Av & The Spies: An Origin Story
How the Sin of the Spies Led to Tisha B’Av
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
The Origin of Tisha B’av
The Ninth of Av, the most tragic day in the Jewish calendar, is known as the day that the Temples were destroyed and many other National tragedies. The Talmudic Sages, however, point to a much earlier event in Jewish History as the first Tisha B'Av: the sin of the spies in the desert. What does that seemingly unrelated event have to do with the destruction of the Temples? And what powerful ramifications can it teach us today on how to bring about the longed-for redemption?
Discover other great Tisha B’Aa’v videos and resources at Aleph Beta, including ‘The Book of Lamentations”, “The Meaning of Sinat Chinam”, and “Tisha B’Ava'v Customs & Rituals”
Tisha B'Av & The Spies: An Origin Story
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and you are watching Aleph Beta.
We think of Tisha B'Av as the date on which the First Temple was destroyed. The same date on which the Second Temple was destroyed centuries later, the ninth day of the month of Av. But the Sages actually tell us of another Ninth of Av tragedy, one which occurred many centuries earlier. That event was the episode of the Spies, told in chapters 13 and 14 of Sefer Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers.
Back when the Israelites were wandering through the desert, Moses dispatched spies to scout out the land of Canaan, the land that God had promised to the people. When those spies returned and delivered their report, the text actually castigates that report, it suggests that the spies spoke badly of the land, they denigrated it somehow, and when they did the entire nation gave way to convulsions of grief, crying that they were doomed to fail in their attempt to conquer the land. They feared that they were doomed to die at the hands of the Amorites. To fall by the sword. And the book of Numbers goes on to describe God’s response to all of this. The Almighty decreed that this entire generation of Israelites would die in the wilderness. The people would wander for forty more years, one year for each day the spies had spent on their mission, and only their children would enter and inherit the land.
So again, the Sages say that this disaster, it took place on the eve of Tisha B'Av. In saying this, they seem to suggest that it was, in some basic way, an antecedent to the destruction of the Temple, later in history, the terrible event that occurred on that same date. The roots of destruction on this day somehow had something to do with the Spies. But what, exactly? It isn’t obvious to see how a bad report of those scouts foreshadowed the destruction of the Temple, of all things. Those two events seem, to put it mildly, very, very different from one another.
So what were the Sages saying here? I think if we take a deeper look at the story of the spies, we just might be able to discern an answer to that question.
Okay, so let's take a deep breath and kind of immerse ourselves a bit in the story of the Spies, and I would like to do that by asking you a couple of questions to consider about the story as a whole. These questions, some of them at least, have been raised in some way, shape or form by the classic commentators, in particular, the Ramban, Nachmanides.
What Was the Spies’ Mission?
So maybe the most basic question we can ask about the story as a whole is a question that comes from the very first words of the story: Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe leimor, shelach lecha anashim vayaturu et eretz Canaan. And God said to Moshe, send for yourself people who will spy out the land. And the question is, why did God do that, why send spies in the first place? I mean put yourself in God's shoes if you like -- don't try that at home, God doesn't actually have any shoes -- but if you could imagine occupying the position of the Divine in the story, what exactly is in it for you with sending spies such that this should be your command?
Did God really need spies? God managed to pull off the ten plagues all by Himself, without the help of any reconnaissance on the ground. God managed to split the Sea of Reeds without any human military engineers on the ground measuring the depth of the water or the strength of the sand, or anything like that. So imagine you’re God and you're contemplating, gee, how am I going to get those Israelites to conquer those Amorites in the land of Canaan? None of this is a big deal if you are God! You don't need any military reconnaissance. So why command people to send spies? It seems utterly useless!
Now, some over the ages have argued that maybe God wanted the people to conquer the land in as, quote, ‘normal’ a way as possible. Ramban, Nachmanides, for example, suggests this as a possible theory. That sure, God would provide the military heroics, but if before people go to war they usually send spies, then that’s the way God would tell them to act, even if they had the might of the Divine on their side. God was ‘minimizing the miracle,’ so to speak, that would be necessary for us to conquer the land. But here’s a difficulty with that theory, with the whole idea that this was a military reconnaissance mission in the first place: You know, Moses doesn’t just tell the people to check out the fortifications of the land, or whether the people are strong or weak. He also tells the Spies to see how fertile the land is. Indeed, he actually asks them to go and bring back fruits from the land.
Why would he do that? You know, can you imagine the Allied Expeditionary Force, in advance of the 101st Airborne landing in Normandy, making a nighttime landing on Omaha Beach, climbing up into the hedgerows, and bringing back some grapes from the local vineyards – just so the soldiers back in England could see how delicious they were? That’d be crazy, right? So why bother sending scouts to the land of Canaan to do … that?
It sounds like, on some level, this wasn’t a standard military reconnaissance mission. So… what was it then? Is there a single rationale for sending the Spies that could possibly make sense of all these disparate instructions? See how fortified the cities are; see how strong the people are; bring back the fruits.
What Did the Spies Do Wrong?
And… whatever the answer to that question is… here’s another question: Was this whole thing some kind of elaborate setup?
Here’s what I mean by that:
The text seems to castigate the Spies for their report: Vayotzi’u dibat ha’aretz, they brought back bad reports about the land. But if in the end the Spies sinned because they brought back bad reports about the land… isn’t it strange that, in Moses’ instruction to the Spies in the first place, he specifically tells them to go see whether the land is good or bad? Right? That sounds like ‘bad’ was a live option.
וּמָ֣ה הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־הוּא֙ יֹשֵׁ֣ב בָּ֔הּ הֲטוֹבָ֥ה הִ֖וא אִם־רָעָ֑ה…
The land that they’re dwelling in, is it good or bad?
וּמָ֣ה הָ֠אָ֠רֶץ הַשְּׁמֵנָ֨ה הִ֜וא אִם־רָזָ֗ה
Is the soil rich or poor?
Is that some kind of setup? Was he kind of winking at them when he said it, is it a … good land, or a bad land, a fertile land, or a parched land, as if there was only one right answer to that question?
And, by the way, weren’t the Spies kind of faithful to those instructions? I mean, they did come back and they did say some bad things about the land, sure – they said the land would be hard to conquer; they said the cities were really well fortified; they saw strong people in the land, even giants; it was a land that ‘devours its inhabitants,’ whatever exactly that means – but they also said some good things about it. Very good things, even. They said:
בָּ֕אנוּ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֣ר שְׁלַחְתָּ֑נוּ וְ֠גַ֠ם זָבַ֨ת חָלָ֥ב וּדְבַ֛שׁ הִ֖וא וְזֶה־פִּרְיָֽהּ
We came to the land you sent us to, and it flows with milk and honey, and here is its fruit.
You know, that’s a nice thing to say about the land, isn’t it? So weren’t they doing more or less what they were told to do? Why get mad at them for that? Why does the text criticize their words by calling them dibbah, a bad report about the land?
Fruits of Unusual Size
Okay, and let me ask you one more question about the story of the Spies. When the Spies are originally sent on their mission to spy out the land, they are given this charge: ve’hitchazaktem, and make yourselves strong, u’leckachtem mipri haaretz, and take from the fruits of the land. So let me ask you something: If you were playing editor there and you could take out one word without changing very much in the way of meaning, what word would you take out?
For my money, I would take out the words that he asked them to ‘make themselves strong,’ vehitchazaktem. I mean, what would be so terrible if it just said, hey, bring back some fruits of the land so we can see what it looks like. Why do they have to be strong to bring back fruits of the land? I mean, it is true that they come back with this big, you know, vine and it takes two people to carry the vine. But you know, you've seen vines, vines can be big things, can take a few people to carry a vine.
Why go out of your way to say, and be very strong and bring back the fruits of the land? It doesn't say, and make sure you bring some screwdrivers and hammers and some saws so that you can cut down some of the trees, and we don't hear about the CamelBaks that they probably had to take with them so they didn't run out of water. So why is it that we need to hear about how strong they are when they take from the fruits of the land? It's such a strange thing. It could have easily been left out. What's its meaning?
So these are some questions I think we need to grapple with a bit as we begin to consider this strange and pivotal story of the Spies. Somehow, this story and what went wrong here leads straight to Tisha B'Av, centuries later. If we want to understand why – the answer might have something to do with how these questions might possibly get resolved. Come with me into our next video, and let’s do our best to try to resolve them.
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