Parshat Sh’lach: Lost in translation

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Rabbi Craig Axler
Rabbi Craig Axler (File photo)

By Rabbi Craig Axler

When studying Torah, translation can make a world of difference in how we relate to the text. This week’s Torah portion opens, “Sh’lach lecha anashim VeYaTuRu et Eretz Cana’an.” “Send men to scout out the land of Canaan.” I am interested in the translation of the Hebrew “VeYaTuRu,” rendered variously as scout out, spy, reconnoiter, explore, search and view. How can a single Hebrew word yield so many variants, with substantial impact on what is being commanded?


These 12 individuals are typically referred to either as scouts or spies and perhaps that gets to the heart of what makes translation important. Imagining them as spies has an immediate negative valence. In Moses’ retelling of the incident in Deuteronomy, and in the parallel story of Joshua, the Hebrew lends itself directly to spies, as they are called “MeRaGLiM.” However, scouts is probably a better term for the beginning of our Torah portion.

The commentator Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865) points out that there is a definite difference between a TaYaR (a scout) and a MeRaGeL (a spy). The scout is sent specifically to look for and see the good, whereas the spy is searching for the places of weakness and defect. The mission may be the same: Go up and see the land, bring back a report. But in the case of this incident, these 12 are instructed to bring back the most favorable and positive report, which is where 10 of the 12 fail. With the exception of Caleb and Joshua, all of the others report a description that sets the people into a panic: giants, fortified cities, enormous grapes. All of these were what the 10 saw in the land, but they also produced the negative report they gave upon return. Caleb and Joshua saw the same facts on the ground but responded with the affirmative, the hopeful, “Let us, by all means, go up to the land!”


Of interest, the modern Hebrew word TaYYaR, meaning tourist, derives from this very same verb that was the scouts’ mission. The attitude we bring with us when we travel, and ever the more so when we travel to Israel, is different than ordinary vacationers, more akin to pilgrimage. Of necessity, visiting Israel involves seeking out and seeing the good, searching for the places of light and truth and viewing the challenges through a hopeful and optimistic lens. This does not mean ignoring or being blind to the challenges that are laid out before us, or traveling on a simple blind faith. But expecting and searching for the good will enable us to see it in all the places it is to be found.

Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton.

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