The 12 who didn’t go to spy

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By Rabbi Daniel Braune-Friedman

Special to WJW


This week’s Torah portion is Shelach, Numbers 13:1 – 15:41.

In Parshat Shelach, the Israelites approach the Promised Land and feel anxiety about conquering it. Seemingly contrary to the desire of Moshe, God allows 12 spies to go forth. We call them spies, but the verb used for the mission is l’tor. The early translation of Onkelos is v-ah-la-lun. This Aramaic translation of the original Hebrew translates to “just walk around in the area.” Worst spies ever. They are not there to secretly see which enemies they can conquer; they just want to take a tour of the land.

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But why bother begging God and Moshe to scout the land for potential risk if they weren’t actually going to get real intelligence?

At the end of the parshah, we read the paragraph of the Shema: V’lo taturu acharei eineichem asher atem zonim achareichim — “And you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray.” Again we see the Hebrew l’tor as we saw in the beginning of the parshah.


Rashi picks up on this wordplay. He tells us that just as the spies led the people astray, so do our hearts and our eyes lead us astray. Just as the spies led the people to fear entry into the land, so do our own eyes and heart lead the body to commit sin. The Ramban tells us that the heart leads us to heresy and the eyes lead us to idol worship.

This all seems like actions that happen in a moment. We see or feel something and that takes us away from what we thought before. But I think that could very easily happen when we grow into a feeling or grow into a perception. We start with a blank slate and throughout our lives we slowly begin to believe something. I would suggest this is also something to avoid.

We live in a world of constant sharing (for those that choose to enter it) opinions on social media, at the water cooler and in the five minutes before a Zoom meeting begins. In my work at Charles E. Smith Life Communities I am blessed to see people from all stripes of Judaism and all stripes of religiosity not only gather together, but live together, often for the rest of their lives. It is a wonderful moment when I can see our elders exchange new ideas and grow and change through this process.

How did we arrive at our opinions? How did we arrive at our political party or stance on issues? How did we arrive at our religion? We have observed the world, but also observed our heroes or simply were born into a certain family. These are all wonderful places to gain the closest thing to truth we can have.

The spies didn’t sin by entering the land. The 12 men that went to the land didn’t even go to spy. They went to simply walk around in a new place.

Let us allow ourselves to know there are many paths to truth, and to realize our deficiencies. And use our lives to hear it all.

Rabbi Daniel Braune-Friedman is director of spiritual life and senior rabbi at Charles E. Smith Life Communities.

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