1. The Debacle of the Meraglim Headlines the Portion of Shelach

The story of the 10 spies who brought back frightening reports about the Promised Land and caused the people to panic forms the bulk of the Torah portion of Shelach,1 and is told again briefly in Deuteronomy 1. In Hebrew, they are referred to as meraglim (scouts).

Read: The Story of the Spies

2. The People Asked for the Spies and Moses (and G‑d) Agreed

It seemed like the natural next step. It had been more than a year since the Israelites had left Egypt. They had received the Torah at Sinai, built the Tabernacle, and were ready to enter the Promised Land. But they worried about what they might face. So they asked Moses if they could send scouts to bring back information that would help them conquer the Land. G‑d (grudgingly) acquiesced.2

Read: Whose Choice Was It?

3. There Were 12 Spies for 12 Tribes

The Torah names of the 12 spies—described as “men of distinction, heads of the children of Israel3 —and which of the 13 tribes they represented. Only Levi, who did not have a portion of the Land, was not represented.

Read: Who Were the 12 Tribes?

4. Moses Changed Joshua’s Name

Representing the tribe of Ephraim was Moses’ disciple and eventual successor, Joshua. Until that time, he had been known as Hoshea, which is the same Hebrew word as Joshua (Yehoshua), but without the letter yud. Moses added the yud to Hoshea’s name, changing its meaning to “G‑d will save you ”4 in advance of the scouting mission. The added boost of spiritual power represented in his new name would serve him well in the difficult times that lay ahead.

Read: Name Changes in the Torah

5. The Spies Were Spooked By Giants

The spies spent 40 days scouting out the Land, where they discovered that the inhabitants were extraordinarily large, “the descendants of giants,”5 which frightened them terribly. They would later say that they felt like grasshoppers in their presence.6

Read: The Grasshopper Complex

6. Caleb Took a Detour

In the midst of the spies’ itinerary, we read, “ … and he came to Hebron.”7 Who was “he”? Tradition8 tells us that it was Caleb, representative of the tribe of Judah, who sensed that his fellow spies were getting edgy. He went off to pray at the Cave of Machpelah, asking G‑d to grant him the strength to stand up to his disheartened comrades. Years later, this very city was given to Caleb and his descendants.

Read: Who Was Caleb?

7. They Brought Back Giant Fruits

Following Moses’ instruction, the spies took samples of fruit from the Land. A cluster of grapes was so large that it took eight men to carry it. Two more carried a pomegranate and a fig each, leaving Joshua and Caleb (who were wary that the fruit would be used to portray the Holy Land as an abnormal place) to carry nothing at all.9

Watch: Freaky Fruits

8. The Spies Brought a Disparaging Report

“We came to the land to which you sent us,” they said, “and it is flowing with milk and honey … but the people who dwell there are strong, their cities are fortified and there are giants among them!”10

Read: Were the Spies Wrong to Tell the Truth?

9. The People Balked

Upon hearing the spies’ words, cries of despair rang out from the camp. “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert,” wailed the panic-stricken people. “Why does the L‑rd bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?”11

They even suggested appointing a new leader—one who would take them back to the familiarity of Egyptian bondage.12

Read: Should the People Have Known Better?

10. Caleb and Joshua Remained Strong

Watching the disaster unfold, Moses and Aaron fell flat on their faces,13 and Joshua and Caleb tore their clothes in mourning.14

But they did not remain silent. “The land we passed through to scout is an exceedingly good land. If the L‑rd desires us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us,” said the two brave scouts with confidence. “But don’t rebel against the L‑rd, and you will not fear the people of that land, for we will conquer them as easily as one can eat bread. Their protection is gone, and the L‑rd is with us; do not fear them.”15

11. The Spies Overstepped

The spies were tasked with going to the Promised Land and bringing back fruit and a report, which they did. But Moses did not ask them to provide an assessment as to whether or not the people would be able to enter the Land. If G‑d willed it, surely there would be a way. He asked them only to report the facts, leaving the interpretation open.

The chassidic masters tell us that we are like spies in our own lives. When we encounter challenges and difficulties, we need to hold back from becoming prophets of doom and gloom. We have G‑d on our side, and we can surely succeed.

Read: Belief in Yourself

12. Things Got Dangerous

The people went so far as to threaten to stone Caleb and Joshua. Just then, G‑d’s presence appeared in the Tabernacle.16 G‑d expressed His exasperation with the nation and His intention to annihilate them.

Read: Kind Punishments

13. Moses Begged for Mercy

Moses knew what to do. It was a year since G‑d had wanted to destroy the people following the sin of the Golden Calf. At that time, G‑d taught Moses the formula through which Divine forgiveness could be obtained.

Now, again, Moses begged for mercy, pointing out that if G‑d were to destroy the people right there, the nations would mistakenly think that He did not have the power to bring them into the Promised Land.17 After he invoked the formula, the 13 Attributes of Mercy, G‑d agreed to spare the people.18

Read: The 13 Attributes of Mercy

14. The People Were Condemned to Wander for 40 Years

While G‑d agreed to spare the children of Israel, it was clear that they were not yet ready to enter the Land. Rather, they would wander the desert for 40 years, one year for every day of the spies’ disastrous expedition.19

Only once most of the adult male population had died in the desert, would Caleb and Joshua be among the few to enter the Promised Land.20

Read: The Significance of the Number 40

15. The Spies Died in a Plague

The 10 scouts who had slandered the Holy Land died in a plague that originated in their tongues, appropriate for people whose sin began with speaking negatively about the Holy Land.21

16. Some People Tried Again

Unwilling to wander, there were some people who attempted to enter the Land without G‑d’s permission.

But that wasn’t right. “Why do you transgress the word of the L‑rd?” Moses pleaded. “It will not succeed. Do not go up, for the L‑rd is not among you to protect you.”

They defiantly ascended a mountain, leaving Moses and the Ark of the Covenant behind. The Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived on the mountain came down and trounced them soundly.22

Read: The Little-Know Warriors Who Disregarded Moses

17. We Mourn the Spies’ Mistake on 9 Av

The night the people cried was actually 9 Av, the day when the Holy Temples in Jerusalem would later be destroyed—a day that would become one of fasting and mourning every year. “You cried for naught,” said G‑d. “By your lives, I will make this a night of crying for generations to come.”23

Read: 18 Facts About the 9 Av Fast Day

18. The Spies Had Lofty Intentions

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains that they had the loftiest of intentions. In the desert, the people lived an idyllic life of spiritual bliss. Life revolved around the Tabernacle, and their major pursuit was to understand G‑d and His Torah. The spies feared that in settling the land—plowing, sowing and reaping—they would fall from their high spiritual peak. The giant fruit of the land, and the promises of material wealth that they portended, frightened them, and they shared their fears with the people.

Ultimately, they were wrong, because the purpose of creation is not for us to escape reality, but for us to embrace it and make it into a dwelling place for G‑d. And that can happen only when we engage with the world.

Read: The Generation Gap