Parshat Shelach, Secrets of the Torah with Rav Berland

Rav Berland explains the real sin of the spies in Parshat Shelach
Parshat Shelach: Secrets of the Torah with Rav Berland. (Picture by R' Yehoshua Wiseman)


“And he came unto Hevron” – Calev went there alone, and prostrated himself on the graves of the Patriarchs – Rashi’s commentary

All of Am Yisrael heard the prophecy of Eldad and Medad: “Moshe will die, and Yehoshua will enter [the land of Israel].” All of Am Yisrael heard this awesome prophecy, and this prophecy spread across the whole encampment. Eldad and Medad said: “Know, Moshe is going to die! The  moment that we touch the border of the Holy Land, Moshe is going to die!” And Yehoshua is going to be our leader [instead], and he’s the one who’s going to bring the people into the land.

All the people were panicking, some of them were trembling [from fright], everyone was sobbing – they said: “If we enter the land, then Moshe is going to die!”

Rav Natan explains that the controversy between the meraglim (spies) and Yehoshua Bin Nun boiled down to this. [The spies said]: “We love Moshe Rabbenu, we want Moshe Rabbenu [to live], we don’t want to part from him. We’re together with Moshe Rabbenu, and we want him to live, and not die. We don’t want to enter the holy land for one reason only, and that’s in order for Moshe to continue to live, and to continue to lead us. We don’t care that we’re going to stay in the desert, the ikkar (main point) is that Moshe should live.


The Ari HaKadosh says, (in Shaar HaPesukim, Parshat Shelach Lach) that this was the terrible argument between the spies and Yehoshua. The spies said to Yehoshua Bin Nun: “Here’s what’s going on: You heard the prophecy that ‘Moshe is going to die, and that Yehoshua will enter [the land]’ – and so you want to enter Eretz Yisrael, so that your rebbe will die.

“That’s simply what you want, you just want your rebbe to die, because you want to inherit him, you want to be the leader!”

This is what Yehoshua argued back: “Moshe is alive! Moshe is chai v’kayam (alive and present in the world), there is no such thing as Moshe dying, Moshe can’t die!” Yehoshua Bin Nun explained to the spies that Moshe Rabbenu, he’s going to live on forever.


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Tzaddikim are eternally ‘alive and present in the world’, there’s no such thing as Moshe Rabbenu dying. There’s no such thing, as the RASHBI (Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai) dying, there’s no such thing, as the ARI dying, there’s no such thing as the Baal Shem Tov dying. The Tzaddikim never die – Moshe Rabbenu is chai v’kayam. He descends and is revealed in every Tzaddik of the generation.

Moshe could be revealed in every one. The more refined and holy a person is, the more they can merit to have a revelation of Moshe, that the soul of Moshe will shine out of them.[1]

The spies argued back: “We love Moshe, and we’re not going to give up on Moshe. Yehoshua just wants to be the leader… OK, so he should go by himself, and he should take Am Yisrael with him – but we are not going to leave Moshe by himself. We are staying loyal to Moshe.”


So, what was really the error the spies made? Rabbi Natan explains that the spies humiliated Moshe Rabbenu, and shamed him in the worse possible way.  Not only did they not heed his voice, when he told them to enter Eretz Yisrael, Rabbenu tells us that they also didn’t believe in the eternalness of Moshe Rabbenu.

They didn’t believe that Moshe Rabbenu was immortal, and that his words and his leadership was chai v’kayam – that it would last and endure for ever and ever. And that he could be revealed in each and every person at any moment. Because they wanted Moshe Rabbenu to stay alive, physically, because they wanted the ‘body’ of Moshe Rabbenu to stay with them, they made him corporal. The made the whole matter of Moshe materialistic, and turned Moshe Rabbenu into a body.

Rav Natan explains that it’s precisely because they argued that they wanted to stay with Moshe that they revealed their opposite intention, that they were really waiting for him to die, and to go away. They showed that they wanted to be parted from Moshe, already, and to get away from Moshe’s difficult leadership.

Moshe was serving Hashem with all of his strength. Moshe used to get up for chatzot (midnight), and prayed with the vatikin (sunrise) minyan. He did hitbodedut (personal prayer), he learned Torah day and night, etc. And they said: “We’ll stay with Moshe Rabbenu, we’ll be in the desert another 10 years, we’ll be in the desert another 20 years, until eventually we’ll get away from him, and then we can get up at 10am, or 12am, and have some fun.

“Right now there’s no choice, we have to suffer a little while longer. We already fell into the trap of Moshe Rabbenu, what can we do?” But really, they knew that Yehoshua Bin Nun would continue along Moshe Rabbenu’s path, and to continue leading like Moshe Rabbenu. They didn’t want Yehoshua Bin Nun, they wanted Moshe, they wanted to stay with Moshe solely because they were waiting for him to pass away.”


Rav Natan asks, what did Calev Ben Yefuneh do? Where was he, in all this controversy? Calev was silent. Calev didn’t know who was right, whether Yehoshua was right, or whether the spies were right.

The spies were arguing that they wanted Moshe Rabbenu to live, so they didn’t want to enter the land, and they were calling Yehoshua Bin Nun a murderer! That Yehoshua Bin Nun wanted to enter the land, and was waiting for Moshe to pass away.

Calev said to Yehoshua Bin Nun: “Yehoshua, what are these whisperings? Look what’s being said here: You’ve got 10 saintly people, Tzaddikim, with beards down to the ground, big, bushy payot…Do you hear what they’re telling you? How are you not scared to enter the land, if Moshe Rabbenu is going to die [as a result]?”

Yehoshua said to Calev: “I know that Moshe will live forever! Moshe is not dependent on a body, I don’t even see his body. I see Moshe’s neshama, his soul, and his neshama is immortal, and can be found in every place, and can be revealed in all the princes [tribal leaders of Am Israel], in Elidad ben Kislon, in Gadi ben Susi. In whomever the soul of Moshe Rabbenu reveals itself, I will heed his words.

“I’m telling you, that at the moment Moshe passes away, his neshama will be revealed[2] in someone else, because Moshe chai v’kayam!”


Calev didn’t know who was right: Yehoshua, or the spies. He found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. How was he going to figure out who was right? How could he clarify something like this? So, what did Calev do? He went to Hevron, to the tomb of the holy Patriarchs, and there the truth was revealed to him. What was he shown, there?

At the very moment that he prostrated himself on the graves of the Patriarchs, he saw that the Patriarchs are chai v’kayam – they live and endure in the world forever! He saw that Avraham was alive! That Yitzhak was alive! That Yaacov was alive!

He realized that what Yehoshua had been telling him was the truth: a Tzaddik never dies, he never passes away. RASHBI is alive, the Ari is alive, the Baal Shem Tov is alive. It was revealed to him that 400 years’ after he passed away, Avraham Avinu was talking to him, and telling him that Yehoshua was right, and that Moshe would exist forever. Yitzhak told him, Moshe will be around forever. Yaacov told him, Moshe will be around forever.

Rav Natan tells us, this is what was revealed to Calev at the tomb of the Patriarchs – that

Tzaddikim are not bound by their bodies, and it’s not what you see with your eyes. The Tzaddik is an eternal neshama, that will last forever and ever.

  • (Translated and) reprinted with permission from the Tzama Nafshi

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[1] The Hebrew term is תתעבר בו – which translates literally as ‘will become pregnant in him’. This refers to the concept where a spark of a Tzaddik’s soul can be transferred to another person, to give them a particular spiritual quality, wisdom or strength.

[2] Again, the exact word in Hebrew is תתעבר, literally: to become pregnant in him

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