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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Shlach Lecha

Hirsch At Your Table

The Mission to Spy

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary
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שלח לך אנשים ויתורו את ארץ כנען אשר אני נותן לבני ישראל איש אחד איש אחד למטה אבותיו תשלחו כל נשיא בהם. (Nm 13:2)
The nation has crossed the daunting מדבר פארן and has reached קדש ברנע , a city situated on the border of the Land of Canaan. God commands Moshe to choose representatives of each tribe, men who are tribal leaders, to spy out the land that He is about to give to the Jewish people.

The incident of the spies is recounted in two places in the Torah. Hirsch compares this narrative in Sefer Bamidbar to the one in Devarim 1:22, where Moshe, in his farewell address, fills in more details of the spy incident, including the people’s initiative in sending spies to reconnoiter the land/ויחפרו את הארץ. He finds two basic differences between the peoples’ request and God’s instructions as to the method of spying out the land. The first difference is that the people asked לחפור/to expose, whereby God commanded Moshe לתור/to search. The word לחפור is usually used in terms of excavations.

The word לחפור is from the root ח-פ-ר which means "to expose the hidden." The word לתור is from the root ת-ו-ר which means "to search for separate items".


The people wanted to find the weak spots in the defenses of the cities and the country in order to facilitate the conquest of the land. God, too, wanted the spies to look towards conquering the land, but his goal also was for the people to get to know the land in order to appreciate it and to be able to develop it for future Jewish living.

Thus, a second difference between the people's request as described in Moshe's address and in God's command in this verse involves the nature of the people to be sent on the mission. The Israelites asked only for people, אנשים/people, a word that suggests that they were looking for ordinary people to take on the mission. By contrast, God instructed Moshe to choose כל נשיא בהם/each one a prince. This noun refers to leaders elevated from the ordinary people. Moreover, the phrase used in this verse of God’s mandate contains the word בהם, strongly indicating that these leaders be from the people, i.e. men who wielded influence over large segments of the population.

The word אנשים is from the root א-נ-ש, which means "to cause weakness and frailty," The word נשיא is from the root נ-ש-א which means "to raise".



The people who suggested the spy mission would have been satisfied with anyone who would volunteer or any ordinary person who would be chosen by them, asking the spies simply to look over the lay of the land and bring back information that would help them formulate an effective battle plan. God, however, wanted local leaders, not necessarily the tribe’s princes, but people whose skills were respected and appreciated by the populace, who would be chosen by Moshe. Their mandate would go further than simple reconnaissance; their view of the land would influence the people’s understanding of the gift they were being given.

God's instruction to send these spies was a command not to be ignored. It was not a suggestion, as might be inferred from the word לך/for you, which follows the actual command word שלח. Although there are places where לך does indeed soften a command, here the charge is clear. This view is reinforced by the phrase in the following verse,על פי ד'/as God instructed.

Despite the differences between God’s and the people’s conceptions of the goal of the spy mission and who would be sent to fulfill it, Hirsch further states that the fact that the suggestion emanated from the people was perfectly legitimate. As they were about to enter the land they knew that they would have to rely on their own resources and not expect God’ miracles every time they had a problem. Their concerns were real. They were about to face a new situation. They did not know the lay of the land. They did not know the people, their strengths or their weaknesses. They wanted, they needed information. Thus, their suggestion of sending out men to find things out was valid and reasonable, even if God’s intentions for the mission were greater than mere military investigation.


Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
Rabbi Matityahu Clark
Served in principal/director positions throughout North America. One of the founders of the Educator's Council of America, and former president of the Council for Jewish Education. Former Director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington.
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