The Sin of Misunderstanding

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Of the sins that the People of Israel commit in the Bible, the most serious of all takes place in our portion of Shlach. The spies’ severe report directly causes the death of the desert generation. However, it is difficult to understand that the suggestion to establish such an ill-fated reconnaissance team came directly from the Almighty. What did God want the spies to actually report?

Rabbi Elchanan Samet suggests that the answer lies in the verb form used in the charge given by the Almighty: “Send, for yourselves, men who will seek out [vayaturu] the land.” Crucially, the verb tur appears no less than 12 times in this sequence, the very number of the members of the delegation itself.

In Moses’ telling of the story [Deut. 1:22, 24], the people say: “Let us send men before us that they may check out [vayachp’ru] the land … and spy [va’yerag’lu] it out,” using two verb forms very different from the vayaturu used by God in our portion.

The power of the specific verb form tur used by God is even more clearly expressed in the very conclusion of this Torah reading, where we encounter that same verb form in a totally different but most revealing context.

The commandment to wear tzitzit [fringes] on the corners of our four-cornered garments includes a rationale: “so that you not seek out or lust [taturu] after your heart and after your eyes which lead you to commit acts of illicit lust [zonim] after them” [Num. 15:39].

And when punishing the People of Israel, God once again makes reference to the sin of the spies as having been an act of illicit lust (z’nut), “and your children shall be shepherds in the desert for 40 years, thereby bearing [the sin] of your illicit lust [z’nutekhem]” [ibid. 14:33].

God was not interested in a reconnaissance mission to scout out the land. God wanted to impress upon them the uniqueness of the land that He had picked for them. The people — especially the spies — did not understand the Divine command. Their sin was in misunderstanding the purpose of their journey; they took it to be a scouting enterprise rather than an inspirational foretaste of what waited in store for them after their conquest.

Our generation — so similar to the one that went from the darkness of Egypt to the light of freedom and stood at the entrance to the Promised Land — must do whatever is necessary to recapture and strengthen the love of the Land of Israel if we are to succeed in properly settling it and developing it into our haven of world redemption.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.

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