The parashah describes the tragic story of the spies sent into Canaan by Moses, who come back with a report that shows no confidence in the Israelites’ ability to conquer the land. As a result, the people as a whole lose heart and are then punished by God by being told they will have to wander in the wilderness for a further 39 years, until all the generation of unbelievers – the generation with a slave mentality – have died out. It will be their children who inherit the land, those same children who the people currently think will be at risk if they were to try to enter Canaan now. The parashah then moves immediately to a set of rules about offerings once the people have entered the land, taken by the commentators to be a way in which God reassures them that, despite everything, the promise of inheritance will come true; then there is an episode in which a shabbat-breaker is stoned for his misdoings, and a final section on tzitzit that is used as the third paragraph of the shema.
There is an enormous amount of commentary on this sedrah, but here I want to highlight just one point. The big question for many is, what exactly are the spies punished for? For one thing, it is clear that this is not a foolish group of men – they are described as ‘leaders’ of the tribes and are specially selected by Moses for their mission. There is a tradition that mocks them, as reflected in the way at least two of them have absurd names (Ben-Susi and Ben-Gamli, sons of horse and camel); however, several of the others have names that indicate distinction – Ben Zachor (indicating remembrance), Yigal ben Yosef (implying greatness); ben Rofu (healing); Shafat (judge). Secondly, the spies actually do what Moses asks them: they bring back a report on the land, saying it ‘indeed flows with milk and honey’ and they report on the nature of its inhabitants, saying how strong they are. They go further than asked in making an assessment of whether the Israelites are strong enough to conquer the land, and it is this assessment – which is wholly negative – for which they are punished, but one could argue that this is simply an extension of the task with which they have been charged.
Rashi gives one of many answer to this, linking the episode of the spies with the end of the previous parashah, in which Miriam is punished with temporary leprosy for speaking ill of Moses. Rashi writes on this that ‘although the spying mission took place shortly after her experience had taught the nation the gravity of malicious gossip, nevertheless the spies did not learn their lesson.’ What this means is that Miriam was punished not (just) for criticising Moses, but for doing so publiclyand so undermining him in the eyes of the people. Similarly, if the spies had concerns about the readiness of the Israelites to go into battle against the inhabitants of Canaan, they should have discussed this privately with Moses, not publicly in a manner that immediately spread despair and dissension. It was one thing to lack confidence, another to use the opportunity to challenge Moses’ judgement openly and thereby create consternation amongst a people who were always in a fragile state, still not free from the legacy of generations of enslavement.