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Joseph's brothers were reincarnated as the spies sent into Israel

Souls of Spies and Princes

Souls of Spies and Princes

Intermediate Intermediate
Souls of Spies and Princes
Joseph's brothers were reincarnated as the spies sent into Israel

The portion of the Torah read this week opens with the story of the princes of each tribe who were sent to spy out the land of Israel before the Jewish people entered it. Joseph said to them, You are spies…

Commenting on the verse, "And Joseph said to them, 'You are spies…'" (Gen. 42:9) our Sages said that Joseph was hinting to his brothers that they would [be reincarnated and] spy out the land of Israel, but that Joshua - the prince of the tribe of Ephraim, the son of Joseph, would not be a [reincarnated] spy.

The patriarch Jacob had twelve sons, each of which became the progenitor of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. When Joseph told his brothers, "you are spies", he was in effect telling them that all eleven of them (including his brother Levi) would be reincarnated as the spies who spied out the land. The Arizal will explain how this worked, seeing that no spy was sent from the tribe of Levi.

Based on this, we will be able to understand this passage very well. Let us first note that when the Torah refers to the princes of Israel in an earlier passage (Num. 1:16) they are called "the heads of the thousands of Israel", whereas in this passage [about the spies] they are called "the heads of the children of Israel". (Num. 13:3)

The reason for this discrepancy is as follows: When G‑d foresaw that these princes would sin and that Moses wished to send them, He devised a way to fortify them, minimizing and rectifying, somewhat, the evil they would do. He therefore decreed that the souls of the actual sons of Jacob, the brothers of Joseph, who were literally "the children of Israel [i.e. Jacob]" would be infused into the [souls] of these spies, so that [their holiness would] help them not to sin completely. Nevertheless, this did not help them.

Jacob was also known as "Israel", so the phrase "the children of Israel", while usually denoting the Jewish people as a whole, may also be literally understood to mean "the sons of Jacob".

The infusion of the souls of the sons of Jacob, above, is an example of "ibur", literally "impregnation", a specific type of reincarnation, in which the soul being reincarnated does not become the full and only soul of the body into which it is incarnated, but is rather "grafted" onto the soul already present. The result is that the soul of the individual retains its intrinsic consciousness and identity, but its powers are augmented by those of the impregnated soul it "hosts".

This is the mystical meaning of the verse, "They were all men, the heads of the children of Israel were they", (Ibid. 13:3) i.e. they themselves were the [progenitors of the] tribes, who were in fact the "heads" of the Jewish people.

The word "head" also may mean "beginning".

This is also the mystical meaning of the verse "[Send for yourself men who will spy out the land of Canaan] that I am giving to the children of Israel". The verb "am giving" is in the present tense, meaning: "These men whom you are now sending to spy out the land that I am giving now to the Children of Israel are themselves the [progenitors of the] tribes, who are called 'the sons of Israel'. I will give it to them in the merit of this expedition, if they deserve it." The soul of Joseph was impregnated into the spy of the tribe of Menashe

Now, the eleven [souls of the progenitors of the] tribes [besides Joseph] were infused into the eleven spies. Since the tribe of Levi did not have any portion in the Land, they did not need to send a spy.

The tribe of Levi was not meant to make their living by farming or pasturing the land; their "job" was to serve as priests and Levites in the Temple and teach the Torah to the rest of the people. They lived off their sacrificial dues in the Temple, the various produce tithes, and so forth, which the other tribes were required to give them. They lived in special cities that were set aside for them, which were surrounded by parks, but they possessed no agricultural territory. Thus, since they were not "interested" in the land per se, no representative of their tribe was sent to spy out the Land of Israel.

In its place, the tribe of Joseph was divided in two: Menashe and Ephraim.

Menashe and Ephraim were the two sons of Joseph. Before his death, Jacob made these two sons progenitors of tribes in order to keep the number of tribes twelve in the cases when the tribe of Levi would not be counted.

The soul of Joseph was impregnated into the spy of the tribe of Menashe, it is therefore written: "Of the tribe of Joseph, of the tribe of Menashe…." (Ibid. 13:11)

In listing the princes of the tribes who were sent as spies, the idiom used in each case is "Of the tribe of X, so and so". Here, the name of the tribe (Menashe) is preceded by the phrase "of the tribe of Joseph". The tribe of Ephraim is mentioned earlier, so the phrase "of the tribe of Joseph" cannot be considered an introductory phrase that covers both tribes of Ephraim and Menashe. This phenomenon, the Arizal tells us, therefore alludes to the fact that the soul of Joseph was impregnated specifically into the prince of Menashe.

Even though in all cases Ephraim takes precedent over Menashe, Joseph was nonetheless associated with Menashe, in order to indicate what we have said.

When Jacob split Joseph into two tribes, he made a point of giving Ephraim precedence over Menashe, even though Menashe was the firstborn.

Thus, Joshua was left as the spy of the tribe of Ephraim, without the impregnation of [a progenitor of] any tribe. Moses was therefore afraid to send him, lest he sin. Therefore, Moses "called Hoshea bin Nun, 'Joshua'".

Joshua's given name was "Hoshea", but Moses changed it to "Joshua" at this time. In Hebrew the sole difference between the consonantal spelling of these two names is the addition of the letter yud to Hoshea, making "Yehoshua".

[He did this,] as our Sages say, praying for him: "May G‑d spare you from the scheme of the spies." (Sotah 34b)

The name "Hoshea" means "salvation". The addition of the letter yud to the name "Hoshea" makes the word begin with the two-letter name of G‑d, Y-ah (yud-hei). The name "Joshua" may thus be interpreted to mean "May G‑d save". Moses thereby drew into Joshua the soul of Levi…

The mystical meaning of calling him this new name is that [Moses thereby] drew into [Joshua] the soul of Levi, the son of Jacob, whose soul had not been impregnated into the prince of his tribe, as we mentioned. It was specifically Moses who was able to do this, for he [as the head of the tribe of Levi] should have gone on this mission and been the spy for the tribe of Levi. Instead, he sent Joshua, his student, in his place, for [one's student] is considered the same as his son, as is known. Thus, the soul of Levi, which should have been impregnated into Moses, became impregnated into Joshua.

We can now better understand a difference in the expression that occurs in this passage: First, G‑d says, "Send for yourself", addressing Moses in the singular. Later [in the same verse], He says, "Send one man from each of their ancestral tribes", addressing him in the plural.

In English there is no difference between the singular and plural imperative or single and plural second-person future. (In archaic English, there is "send you" and "send ye", and "you will send" and "ye will send", but there is no such distinction in modern English.) But in Hebrew, the first "send" in this verse is in the singular ("shelach"), while the second "send" ("tishlachu") is in the plural.

Furthermore, the expression "for yourself" seems to be superfluous.

In truth, however, these inconsistencies allude to what we have said. G‑d at first was referring to the greatest of all the emissaries, that of the tribe of Levi - Moses. He said to him: "Send for yourself", i.e. since you yourself are not going, send someone else in your place. In reference to the rest of the tribes, however, G‑d addressed Moses in the plural.

In sending out the other spies, Moses was acting on behalf of and as the representative of the whole Jewish people. He is therefore referred to in the plural. Even an individual's own soul withdraws from him when he sins…

Moses then sent Joshua [in his place] and drew into him the soul of Levi, as we said.

Now, while [the spies] scouted out the Land, they plotted an evil scheme, that is, to denigrate the Land. Therefore, the souls of the [progenitors of the] tribes that had been impregnated into them departed from them. As is known, a soul that attaches itself to a person via "reincarnation" [gilgul] does not depart from him until he dies (Shaar HaGilgulim, beginning of introduction 5), but one that enters into a person via "impregnation" [ibur] withdraws from him when he sins. It says: "Withdraw now from above the tents of these wicked people!" (Num. 16:26) As a matter of fact, even an individual's own soul withdraws from him when he sins. This is the mystical meaning of our sages' statement that "The wicked even in their lifetime are called 'dead'" (Berachot 18b).

This is alluded to in the verse "And they went and they came to Moses and Aaron". (Num. 13:26) [The words "and they went" seem to refer to the spies' expedition into the Land of Israel.] But we have already been told [in the preceding verse] that "they returned from scouting out the Land", so why does the narrative mention again their going, now that they have already come back? The verse should have simply stated, "And they came to Moses".

The answer is that the phrase "and they went" refers to the departure of those [impregnated] souls, and the next phrase "and they came" refers again to the spies themselves. When they came to Moses, the impregnated souls had already departed from them.

[These spies were then punished and died,] but, we are told, "Joshua and Caleb remained alive from these men". (Ibid. 14:38) Now, the word "remained alive" does not seem to be appropriate here.

The reason why it is nonetheless used is to indicate that in the case of these two, their impregnated souls did not depart from them. These were the souls of Judah in Caleb and Levi in Joshua.

Since Joshua and Caleb did not participate in the sin of the spies (i.e. did not denigrate the Land of Israel and discourage the people from entering it, there was no reason for their impregnated souls to depart from them.

They therefore possessed an extra measure of life force. Thus, the expression for "lived" is used in reference to them, rather than "survived."

The other spies, however, "died" as soon as they came to Moses, inasmuch as their impregnated souls departed from them, for "the wicked even in their lifetime are considered dead", as above. This is why [the narrative contrasts Joshua and Caleb with them, saying] "from among these men", which appears superfluous.

This is also alluded to in the verse: "And My servant Caleb, since there was a different spirit with him". (Ibid. 14:24) This refers to the fact that in the other spies there was a different spirit of the impregnated souls of the [progenitors of the] tribes in them. They did not "remain loyal to Me", and therefore departed [from their respective descendents].

The phrase "remained loyal to Me" is from the verse just quoted describing Caleb, and literally means "fulfilled after Me". The Arizal is thus saying that the impregnated souls of the sons of Jacob did not complete the task for which they were impregnated. This was not their fault, of course, so no blame is intended to be imputed to them. Caleb…prostrated himself in prayer on the graves of the forefathers in Hebron…

With regard to Caleb, however, there was from the outset a different spirit of the impregnated soul of Judah with him, and he therefore did not sin. He therefore "remained loyal to Me" and stayed as loyal at the end as he was at the beginning.

The reason these two [Joshua and Caleb had a "different spirit" with them] was because in the case of Joshua, Moses' prayer was effective, as was his permanent name-change. Caleb's own prayer was effective, for we are taught that he prostrated himself [in prayer] on the graves of the forefathers in Hebron. He therefore did not sin with regard to the [other spies'] evil scheme.

We have explained elsewhere (Shaar HaGilgulim, introduction 36) that Caleb was a reincarnation of Eliezer, the servant of Abraham.

This would add significance to the fact that he went to pray at the graves of the forefathers.

[Although Eliezer hailed from accursed seed, when Laban said to him,] "Come in, O blessed one of G‑d", (Gen. 24:31) he went out of the category of the cursed and entered the category of the blessed.

Eliezer was a Canaanite, a descendant of Canaan, whose seed Noah cursed to be a servant caste. (Ibid. 10:25-26)

It appears to me, Chaim [Vital], that this is alluded to in the verse, "And My servant Caleb", meaning that he was originally a Canaanite servant, i.e. cursed, but was now "My servant", i.e. blessed.

Translated and adapted by Moshe-Yaakov Wisnefsky from Shaar HaPesukim and Likutei Torah, parashat Shelach; subsequently published in "Apples From the Orchard."

Reprinted with permission from Chabad of California. Copyright 2004 by Chabad of California, Inc. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work or portions thereof, in any form, without permission, in writing, from Chabad of California, Inc.

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria […Ashkenazi ben Shlomo] (5294-5332 = 1534-1572 c.e.); Yahrtzeit (anniversary of death): 5th of Av. Buried in the Old Cemetery of Tzfat. Commonly known as the Ari, an acronym standing for Eloki Rabbi Yitzchak, the G-dly Rabbi Isaac. No other master or sage ever had this extra letter Aleph, standing for Eloki [G-dly], prefaced to his name. This was a sign of what his contemporaries thought of him. Later generations, fearful that this appellation might be misunderstood, said that this Aleph stood for Ashkenazi, indicating that his family had originated in Germany, as indeed it had. But the original meaning is the correct one, and to this day among Kabbalists, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria is only referred to as Rabbenu HaAri, HaAri HaKadosh [the holy Ari] or Arizal [the Ari of blessed memory].
Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky is a scholar, writer, editor and anthologist living in Jerusalem. He is a co-founder of Ascent Institute of Safed and one of the first contributing writers for He has recently produced two monumental works: "Apples from the Orchard: Arizal on the Weekly Torah" (available for purchase from KabbalaOnline here) and a Chumash translation with commentary based on the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Kehot).
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