The Sotah and the Spies (Shelach Lecha)

Our parashah contains an account of the spies sent by Moshe to scout out the land of Israel before the Israelites enter to conquer it. Instead of simply reporting on the land, the spies issue a referendum on whether the Israelites will succeed in their conquest – a matter that was never really subject to question, since God had already promised repeatedly that He would lead the people to the land of milk and honey and drive out its inhabitants. The Talmudic rabbis read the incident with the spies as a story about trust and doubt, offering us insight into what it means to navigate the world with faith and confidence in spite of our fears.

The Talmud offers an extended exegetical analysis of the episode with the spies in tractate Sotah, which deals with the laws governing a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery. The immediate context of this discussion is the Mishnah’s statement that certain texts may be recited in any language, whereas others—like the oath that the priest requires the Sotah to take—must be recited only in Hebrew. Likewise, the blessings and curses that the Israelites are to proclaim after they enter and conquer the land of Israel must be recited in Hebrew. This mention of the conquest of the land leads the rabbis to a discussion of those who doubted whether the land could be conquered at all, namely the ten spies. However, the placement of this Talmudic discussion of the spies in tractate Sotah may also reflect a deeper thematic connection between the Sotah and the spies, both of whom are beset by problems of doubt.

Like the Sotah, whose husband suspects but cannot be sure that his wife has betrayed him, the people suspect but cannot be sure that God will fail to deliver on the divine promise to bring them into the land. Already in last week’s parashah, they “took to complaining bitterly against the Lord” (11:1), insisting that the food was better in Egypt and that they never should have left. The people are in need of proof that they will be able to settle safely and securely in Canaan, which is why they must send out spies. God’s promise alone is not enough for them. Like the husband who feels he can’t trust in his wife’s fidelity anymore, the people—exhausted and worn down by their desert wanderings—feel they can no longer trust in God. And so the mission of the spies becomes a sort of trial-by-ordeal in which the people put God to the test, ostensibly spying out the land but really wrestling with their own doubt about the divine promise.

The Talmud makes it clear that the negative report of the ten spies was primarily about their lack of trust in God. The rabbis imagine Caleb trying to restore the people’s faith by reminding them of how much God’s chosen leader, Moshe, has done for them: “He took us out of Egypt, and split the sea for us, and fed us the manna. If he says to us, Build us ladders and climb to the heavens, should we not listen to him? We shall go up at once and possess it’” (Sotah 35b). Caleb thinks the people should trust in God and Moshe even if they were told to build ladders up to the heavens, let alone to conquer a land down here on earth. But the people have no use for imaginary ladders or for a God they cannot see, and they resolve to pelt Caleb and Joshua with stones. The Talmud offers a creative reading of the biblical text so that it is not these two spies, but rather God, who is the object of the people’s fury. The verse states, “But the congregation threatened to pelt them with stones, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the Tent of Meeting” (14:10). Rabbi Hiya bar Abba explains that the juxtaposition of the two halves of this verse—one about stoning, and one about God’s glory—serves to teach that “they took stones and hurled them upward.” Fearful and faithless, they futilely hurl stones at God.

Ultimately the people’s lack of faith becomes the source of their undoing. When they hear the negative report of the spies, they stay up all night weeping and wishing for their own deaths: “If only we might die in this wilderness!” (14:2). And indeed, that is what happens to them. The very next day, God tells Moshe that all of that generation—except Caleb and Joshua—shall die in the wilderness, exactly as they wished: “None of the men who have seen My Presence…and have disobeyed Me shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers” (14:23). The people who were convinced that they would never be able to conquer the land will indeed never be able to conquer it. The forty years of wandering is thus not a punishment, but a wish fulfillment.

Whether we are traveling through the biblical wilderness or the thickets of our own lives, it is difficult to move forward without faith. None of us can know with certainty what the future will hold. But if we are guided by our fears, we are more likely to be led headlong into those fears. As the Talmud’s treatment of the incident of the spies in tractate Sotah reminds us, spouses cannot keep tabs on each other at all times; a marriage must be built on trust. Likewise, our relationship with God, whom we cannot see and whose presence we can only intuit, must be also built on trust. If we believe that God is leading us to a land of milk and honey, we are more likely to find ourselves there. If we believe we will succeed in conquering our fears, it is far more likely that indeed we will. Optimism need not be born of foolishness, but of faith in the future – and in the God Who leads us there.

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