Shelach Lecha: Making Mistakes

By: rabbi jay kelman |

Who should get the blame for the meraglim fiasco? Was it the report of the spies, or the lack of faith of the people that did us in? Might it be possible to question Moshe's judgment in sending spies in the first place? And might we even question G-d who, knowing the fickle nature of the Jews, allowed them to fail? When leaving Egypt, G-d "did not lead us the way of the Philistines, although it was the shortest route, because G-d said perhaps the people will lose heart when they see war and will return to Egypt" (Shemot 13:17). Why, then, did G-d "allow" the meraglim to be sent at all?

Our Sages note that G-d actually did not suggest spies be sent; it was Moshe who made that decision. Hence, the rabbinic comment that G-d told Moshe, shelach lecha—you, Moshe, send spies if you so desire; I do not command you to do so.

At times, freedom of choice must be curtailed. Only the most irresponsible of parents allows a child to do as they please. When people who had known nothing but slavery departed for the desert, they were in no condition to decide anything. Theirs was a life of miracles, and as with an infant, G-d had to make each and every decision for them. However, slowly but surely, the Jewish people needed to be weaned from this dependence on G-d. This would be a long process that would only culminate with the disappearance of prophecy during the Second Temple period, and the development of the Oral Law.  

After receiving the Torah, building a mishkan, and drafting an army, the time came for the people to make their own decisions. Life in Israel was to be a natural one—plowing, planting and pruning were to be the norm, with miracles relegated to a behind-the-scenes role. At some point, the child has to be given freedom, even if s/he is going to make mistakes.

As a great leader, and one who constantly tried to motivate his people, Moshe felt that such a time had arrived. "All of you then approached me and said, 'Let us send men ahead of us to explore the land, and let them bring back a report about the way ahead of us and the cities we will encounter'" (Devarim 1:22). Moshe was wary of such a request and fearful that this was not a good idea. Were the people ready for such independence? Yet he understood that sometimes one must take "risks", and prepare the people as best you can. And if they fail, hopefully, important lessons can be learned for the next time.

Moshe picked the best possible people for the mission; "they were all leaders, the heads of the Israelites" (13:3). He gave them very specific instructions as to what to look for, trying to steer them in the right direction. Yet he had a gnawing suspicion that even with these precautions, the mission was doomed. He prayed for his star student, Joshua, to be saved from the murmurings of the spies, even changing his name to reflect his prayer that "G-d should save you from the report of the spies" (Rashi, v. 16).

We can understand why neither G-d nor Moshe vetoed the mission. We can even understand the despair of the people. True, they displayed a lack of faith; but who wouldn't in such circumstances? The wandering in the desert was less a punishment than a necessary hiatus, to allow a new generation to be raised free of a slave mentality. But hardest to fathom is why the meraglim, hand-picked leaders, saw things in such a negative light. Our Sages note that such negativity had nothing to do with their journey. "As their return was with negative intentions, so, too, their going was with negative intentions" (Rashi, Bamidbar 13:26). Why?

It appears that while Moshe's goal was to allow the people to grow (and to allow for growing pains), the goal of the spies was to be popular. Not unlike many of our leaders, they had great potential. But instead of using it to elevate others, they squandered it in trying to satisfy them. They were, to put it in modern parlance, looking ahead to the next election. They were great people, in theory; but when the time came to give the nation the truth, they opted to pander to what they thought they wanted to hear. Many times already, the Jewish people had requested to return to Egypt and had questioned the leadership of Moshe. Here was an opportunity to "get in" with B'nei Yisrael. Unfortunately—for them and for us—they were so "successful" that they managed to dig a hole that took us forty years to climb out of.

Having the right leadership is the difference between success and failure—in business, politics, religion or anything else in life. Those living in democratic countries must work especially hard to ensure that the ingredients for success are in place.