man wall city lonely empty illustration barrier alone isolated separate

Listen carefully to the report brought back by the spies sent by Moses to examine the promised land. They gave Moses this account:

"We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan."

This is the language of fear and demoralisation. They are big, we are small. They are strong, we are weak. They do not fear us, but we fear them. We cannot prevail.

Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said:

"We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it."

But the men who had gone up with him said:

"We can't attack those people; they are stronger than we are."

And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said:

"The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them."

Was this, in fact, the case? As the parallel passage in the book of Joshua - read as the haftarah to the sedra of Shelach - makes clear, the spies could not have been more wrong. A generation later, Joshua too sent spies. They stayed at the house of a prostitute named Rahab, who turned out to be a heroine in her own right. Hearing about the spies, the king of Jericho sent men to capture them, but Rahab hid them and saved their lives. What is more interesting is what she tells them of the feelings of her people when they heard that that the Israelites were on their way:

Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof and said to them, "I know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone's courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is in heaven above and on the earth below."

The people of Jericho were anything but giants. They were terrified. The spies of Moses' day should have known this. They had already said in the song they sang at the Red Sea:

The nations will hear and tremble;
anguish will grip the people of Philistia.
The chiefs of Edom will be terrified,
the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling,
the people of Canaan will melt away;
terror and dread will fall upon them.

It was not the Israelites who should have been afraid of the people of the land. It was they who were afraid of the Israelites. How did the spies come so to misinterpret the situation?

There is a fascinating midrashic passage - cited by Rashi in his commentary - with far-reaching implications.

How were they [the spies], to know [the people's] strength? [By looking at their cities], "are they unwalled or fortified? If they live in unwalled cities, they are strong and trust in their own strength. If, however, they live in fortified cities, they are weak and insecure.

The spies, suggests the Midrash, misread the signs. They correctly noted and reported that the cities were fortified, but they drew the wrong conclusion:

But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities of fortified and very large.

Moses puts it even more strongly in recounting the events 40 years later to the next generation:

But you were unwilling to go up; you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God. You grumbled in your tents and said, "The Lord hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us. Where can we go? Our brothers have made us lose heart. They say, 'The people are stronger and taller than we are; the cities are large, with walls up to the sky. We even saw the Anakites there.'"

Clearly, the sight of the cities made a deep impression on the spies. This makes psychological sense, and it accords with historical fact. The cities in ancient Canaan were indeed surrounded by high and thick walls which made them seem impregnable.

It is easy to enter into the mindset of the spies. They had been living in the wilderness, in fragile, temporary dwellings. They had not seen a city for some time. The fortifications surrounding towns like Jericho must have been awe-inspiring. But they did not stop to consider what this might mean in terms of the strength of the opposition they faced.

According to the Midrash they drew precisely the wrong conclusion: the cities are strong, therefore the people are strong. In fact the opposite was the case: the cities are strong, therefore the people are weak. People who are strong do not have to live behind defensive walls.

In the Guide of the Perplexed, Moses Maimonides gives a daring interpretation to the whole episode. It occurs in the context of one of the most controversial theories he advanced in that work, namely that sacrifices are not at the heart of Judaism as a way of serving God. Instead they were commanded because the people, children of their time, were not yet ready for a pure "service of the heart." They were surrounded by cultures, whether in Egypt or Canaan, that saw sacrifice as the natural way of winning the favour of the gods. To demand of them that they discontinue sacrifice entirely would be like lifting them from antiquity to modernity. It was impossible - humanly impossible.

But how can we speak of impossibility in the context of God, for whom all things are possible? Maimonides' answer is simple and profound. God desires the free worship of free human beings. Therefore even God must work with the grain of human nature - and it is simply impossible for human beings to change overnight. God never intervenes to change human nature, for were He to do so, He would take away their freewill which was the very point of creating humanity in the first place.

What support can Maimonides bring for this claim? The answer is the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. This is what he says:

There is a passage in the Torah which contains this idea, namely: " led them not through the way of the land of the Philistine is, although that was near; for said, less the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt. led the people about through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea" (Ex. 13: 17). Here, led the people by a circuitous route, not the direct one He originally intended, because He feared that they might encounter hardships too great for their strength. He took them by another road in order to achieve his objective . . . It was the result of 's wisdom that the Israelites were led about in the wilderness until they acquired courage. For it is a well-known fact that traveling in the desert, and being deprived of physical enjoyments such as bathing, produce courage . . . And besides, another generation arose during the wanderings that had not been accustomed to degradation and slavery.

What is striking about this analysis is that it does not mention that the Israelites were condemned to spend forty years in the desert only because of the sin of the spies. Maimonides almost makes it seem as if knew in advance that people would prove unable to muster the courage needed to fight the battles of conquest, and that it would take a new generation, born in freedom, to do so.

Thus understood, the episode of the spies is a powerful commentary on the experience of Jews in the modern age.

Jews were, in John Murray Cuddihy's telling phrase, "latecomers to modernity." Unlike Christians, they had not been prepared for it through the long centuries between the Reformation (1517) and Emancipation, which spread throughout Europe in the course of the 19th century.

It was an immense and sudden challenge. For the first time in the history of the Diaspora, they were being offered a place in the mainstream of society. But the promise came at a price. They were expected to integrate, adopting the manners and mores of the surrounding culture. It spelled the end of the ghetto.

In one way, this was good news. The ghetto condemned them to being - as Max Weber put it - a "pariah people." But in another, it was a momentous crisis. Until then, Jewish life had been a totality, infusing every aspect of existence with a distinctively Jewish flavour - dress, food, the Yiddish language, the Bet Din which resolved internal disputes, and the rich literatures, sacred and secular, which Jews had accumulated. Now they were being asked to fit their faith into essentially Protestant dimensions, a "religion" confined largely to private life. A measure of how radical a demand this was is the fact that before the nineteenth century there was no word for "Judaism."

There was Torah, there were Jews, and there was Jewish life. The question was: could Jews become Europeans in culture, while remaining Jews in faith and practice? Could they - as 19th century Jews themselves put it - be "people in the street, and Jews at home"?

It was a formidable challenge, a sudden break with 18 centuries of habit - all the more so because, underneath the veneer of tolerance, many European societies remained ferociously hostile to Jews. Within decades, it shattered Jewry into fragments. Some were only too keen to assimilate. They were willing to give up key elements of Jewish faith and life, from the dietary laws to belief in the return to Zion. Others, fully aware of the danger to Jewish continuity, retreated into a self-created ghetto. A few - the most famous was Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch - managed the delicate balancing act. Jews could be culturally European (Hirsch himself loved German poetry) while remained uncompromising in their religious practice. The synthesis was widely known as Torah im derech eretz, "Torah combined with [secular] culture."

The entire story, viewed in retrospect, is deeply tragic. The countries - France and Germany in particular - that most loudly proclaimed their liberalism gave birth to the most persistent anti-Semitism. Already by the end of the 19th century, far-seeing Jews, some religious, some secular, had already reached the conclusion that European emancipation had failed. That was when Zionism was born (a more detailed account can be found in my book Arguments for the Sake of Heaven). A half-century later, the Holocaust had taken place.

Looking back on those years, it is hard not to feel the force of Maimonides' analysis. People cannot change overnight. What was asked of Jews was unrealistic, even inhuman. It was precisely because of this that Western societies today have adopted a different policy. In Britain it is called "multiculturalism." The concept was first formulated by an American Jew, Horace Kallen, in 1915. He called it, as many still do, "pluralism." Minorities are no longer required to give up their identity, traditions and sense of community in order qualify as citizens. Indeed the change has gone further. Today we recognize that societies are not threatened, but enlivened and enlarged, by cultural diversity.

Time has passed, and the West has changed. To be sure, anti-Semitism has not disappeared, but that is another subject for another time. The question has therefore returned: what is the appropriate mode of engagement between Jews and the wider society? To this, the Midrash suggests a powerful answer. Those who are strong do not need to hide behind defensive walls.

Two centuries ago, segregation and the voluntary ghetto might have been the right response. Jews were not ready for the challenge of Europe and Europe was not ready for the challenge of the Jews. But now is not then. Ours is not the age of the spies but of their descendants, born in freedom. We have had time enough to realize that we can be at home in Western culture without it calling into question Jewish faith or Jewish life. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's dream - that Jews could become a moral and spiritual influence on the societies of which they are a part - did not come true in his lifetime, but it has in ours.

The model is Maimonides. For it was he who showed that one could be a supreme exponent of Jewish law (his halachic work, the Mishneh Torah, is perhaps the greatest ever written) while at the same time contributing to philosophy, medicine and many other disciplines of his time. Of course, there was only one Maimonides, and not everyone has the strength to live in a world without walls. But the story of the spies tells us that our fears are sometimes exaggerated. Judaism is strong enough to withstand any challenge. The question is now as it was then: do we have the confidence of our faith?

Wohl Legacy; Empowering Communities, Transforming Lives
With thanks to the Wohl Legacy for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation.
Maurice was a visionary philanthropist. Vivienne was a woman of the deepest humility.
Together, they were a unique partnership of dedication and grace, for whom living was giving.

More on Shelach Lecha

Two Kinds of Fear

One of the most powerful addresses I ever heard was given by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, on this week’s parsha: the story…

Assembling Reminders

Imagine the following: You are driving ever so slightly above the speed limit. You see a police car in your rear-view mirror. You slow down.…


It was perhaps the single greatest collective failure of leadership in the Torah. Ten of the spies whom Moses had sent to spy out the…

What Is Going On?

In March 2020, whilst launching a new book,[1] I took part in a BBC radio programme along with Mervyn King, who had been governor of…

Fear of Freedom

The episode of the spies was one of the most tragic in the entire Torah. Who sent them and to what end is not entirely…

Seeing What Isn’t There

In Philadelphia there lives a gentle, gracious, grey-haired man, by now in his late-90s, whom Elaine and I have had the pleasure of meeting several…

Freedom Needs Patience

Whose idea was it to send the spies?According to this week’s sedra, it was God. The Lord said to Moses, “Send some men to explore the…

Beyond the Fringe

Our Torah portion ends with one of the great commands of Judaism – tzitzit, the fringes worn on the corners of our garments as a perennial…

What Made Joshua and Caleb Different?

 The spies sent by Moses to explore the land came back with a wholly misleading report. They said: “We are not able to go up…