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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Shlach Lecha

Hirsch At Your Table

Love the Land

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary
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וראיתם את הארץ מה היא והעם היושב עליה החזק הוא הרפה המעט הוא אם רב. ומה הארץ אשר הוא יושב הטובה היא אם רעה ומה הערים אשר אשר הוא יושב בהנה הבמחנים אם בהבצרים. (Nm 13:18-19)
After choosing the twelve leaders who will spy out the land, Moshe gives them specific instructions as to what they should look for. He wanted information on topography and demography, including the lay of the land and the characteristics of its inhabitants. He wanted to know whether the population was rural or urban.

Hirsch differs from most commentators in his explanation of the specific instructions that Moshe gave to his spies. He rejects the view that says that the mission of the spies was purely strategic. That view states that the entire purpose of the mission was to see/וראיתם) the land. The word וראיתם is from the root ר-א-ה which means "to see and understand,"and most commentators see in this word instructions to check out the land and its defenses in order to understand the military implications on the ground and to prepare for a more effective military campaign. By this interpretation, it was a reconnaissance mission, pure and simple. As the above discussion suggests, however, although the Israelites who initiated the mission may have viewed the expedition in this way, God’s vision of the operation was far wider, and Moshe’s instructions were therefore focused less on military matters and more on understanding the society that was to be conquered.

According to Hirsch the conquest of the land was guaranteed by God and it was therefore not really necessary to plan for the attack. Nor was it necessary to obtain information on the military capabilities of the land’s inhabitants. The purpose of the mission was essentially educational, to give a lesson for the people, to teach them to appreciate the wonders that will come with living according to God's Torah in the Land of Israel. All of the questions that were incorporated in the spies' instructions relate to people/עם. The spies’ mission was to see and report on the developed corruption of the nations whom the Israelites would be replacing with a society based on God’s words. Even those issues that seem to focus on the land/הארץ, are essentially questions as to the impact of the land on the people. The spies’ task was actually far more sociological than military.

The word עם is from the root ע-מ-ם which means "to develop without outside interference," The word הארץ is from the root א-ר-ץ which means "to solidify basic needs." The land provides physical essentials.


In line with this approach, all of the questions about the nation are geared to provide answers as to the current status and lifestyle of the population. The purpose was not to contrast strengths and weaknesses but to determine health conditions. Is the nation strong/חזק or weak/רפה means, are they healthy or unhealthy? Is the population numerous/רב or few/מעט means, do they propagate or not? God wanted the people to get a picture of the current circumstances so that they can appreciate the tremendous improvements that the future would bring when they would be living in the land according to God’s Torah.

The word חזק is from the root ח-ז-ק "to strengthen and hold." The word רפה is from the root ר-פ-ה "to weaken and release control." The word רב is from the root ר-ב-ה which means "to multiply." The word מעט is from the root מ-ע-ט which means "to lessen."


Even Moshe’s specific questions about the land essentially relate to the people who are living there. Is the land good/טובה or bad/רעה? Are the cities open and camp-like/במחנים or are they fortified/במבצרים? Hirsch explains bad or good in terms of people working the land and their ability to enhance or degrade a spiritual and moral culture in that agrarian society. Even the references to walled or open cities reflect the character of the people. People living in open cities rely on their stamina and bravery to protect their society. Those living within walled and fortified cities are not considered brave since they require the physical protection of walls and ramparts.

The word טובה is from the root ט-ו-ב which means "to advance benefit of man." The word רעה is from the root ר-ע-ע which means "to break into pieces" and destroy the whole. The word במחנים is from the root ח-נ-ה which means "to rest temporarily" in makeshift condition. The word במבצרים is from the root ב-צ-ר "to protect from outside forces."


Subsequent verses continue to pose questions about the people and about the land and its impact on the people. The sum total of all this is to provide a detailed picture of how the existing population of the land functions. These conditions obtain among people whose lack of morality has earned their expulsion from the land. This picture will be contrasted with the future when the Jewish people will be living in the land and observing God's Torah. That future would bring the Jews’ societal living in the land to an unprecedented new level of physical and spiritual well-being.


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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