Shabbat Table Topics – Parashat Shelach

The Spies' Route and Slander

Did the spies really travel from the Wilderness of Zin all the way to Israel's northern border, evaluating the country's main cities, fortifications, and water sources along the way, then return to Moshe, all in less than forty days?

  • While Rashi Bemidbar 13:21-22, 25About R. Shelomo Yitzchakiasserts that special Divine providence hastened the Spies' pace and enabled them to explore the entire land, NetzivBemidbar 13:17, 21-22About R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin claims that the spies scouted in pairs, dividing up the country between them.  Some modern scholars,1 in contrast, suggest that the spies scouted only the southern region of the land, as that was intended to be their entry point into the land and the first stage of its conquest.
  • Which verses support each position? Which are difficult?
  • How do the different positions shed light on the nature of the Spies' sin as a whole?  How might our evaluation of the spies differ if Chevron was the sole city visited rather than merely one stop of many?  What difference would it make if only one or two of the spies encountered the giants or if all of them did?  See The Spies – Where Did They Tour?

Sins of the Fathers

When praying for the nation after the sin of the spies, Moshe mentions the attributes of Hashem, including that He is "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים".  The verse appears to suggest that, at least in certain circumstances, Hashem allows innocent children to be punished while their sinful parents go free.

  • How does such punishment manifest Divine justice?  Moreover, why would Moshe mention such an attribute as part of a plea for forgiveness?  Is there any way to interpret the phrase as an attribute of mercy?
  • When, if ever, is collective punishment justified?  Can the same reasoning apply to vicarious punishment?  Does the fact that the verse speaks of punishment within the family make a difference?
  • For extensive discussion of the issue, see Are Children Punished for Parents' Sins?

Contradictory Accounts

Several episodes in Torah found in Shemot or Bemidbar are then also recounted by Moshe in Devarim.  Often these accounts differ on key points, and in some case even appear to contradict each other. How are we to understand the variations? 

  • Compare the stories of the Spies as narrated in both Parashat Shelach and Parashat Devarim. What differences do you note?  Which are the most troubling? How might you explain them?
  • Some commentators suggest that Moshe, at times, purposefully recasts past events when telling them to the nation in the fortieth year in order to best get across his farewell messages. What do you think is Moshe's main agenda in retelling the story of the Spies to the new generation?  How might that account for the discrepancies?
  • Others suggest that the two books simply tell the same story from different perspectives. Thus, in our case, R. Medan2 suggests that the spies had a dual mission, both a military reconnaissance mission as well as a surveying mission to determine tribal inheritances.  While Devarim focuses on the former, Bemidbar highlights the latter.  How might this approach explain the discrepancies between the accounts? 
  • Which of the above approaches do you prefer?  How might they be applied to other stories?  For details, see The Story of the Spies in Bemidbar and Devarim.  For some other examples of varying accounts, see Appointing Moshe's Assistants and Decalogue Differences.


For more, see: Parashat Shelach Topics.