On whose initiative were the spies sent? The way the story is told in Numbers 13, it was by divine command:

G‑d spoke to Moses, saying: “Send you men, that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel. One man, one man per tribe shall you send, each a prince among them . . .” (Numbers 13:1–2)

But when Moses recounts these events 40 years later, he tells the people of Israel,

You all approached me, and said: “Let us send men before us, that they may search out the land and bring us back word regarding the road by which we shall go up and the cities to we shall enter.” The thing was favorable in my eyes; and I took twelve men from amongst you, one man per tribe . . . (Deuteronomy 1:22–23)

The commentaries reconcile these two accounts of the sending of the spies by explaining that the initiative indeed came from the people of Israel. “Moses then consulted with G‑d, who said to him, ‘Send you men . . . ,’ to imply: Send them as dictated by your understanding. I am not telling you what to do. Do as you see fit” (Rashi). Thus, the spies’ mission, while receiving divine consent, was a human endeavor, born of the desire of the people and dispatched because “the thing was favorable” in Moses’ eyes.

The result was a tragic setback in the course of Jewish history. The spies brought back a most demoralizing report, and caused the people to lose faith in G‑d’s promise of the Land of Israel as their eternal heritage. The entire generation was then deemed unfit to inherit the land, and it was decreed that they would live out their lives in the desert. Only 40 years later did Moses’ successor, Joshua, lead a new generation across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. (Joshua and Caleb were the only two spies to speak in favor of conquering the land, and the only two men of that entire generation to enter it.)

Up until that time, G‑d had imparted specific directives to Moses and the people of Israel virtually every step of the way. The case of the spies was the first instance in which G‑d said, “I’m not telling you what to do; do as you see fit.” Should this not have set off a warning light in the mind of Moses?

Indeed, it did. Our sages tell us that Moses sent off Joshua with the blessing, “May G‑d deliver you from the conspiracy of the spies” (Rashi to Numbers 13:16). So why did he send them? And if, for whatever reason, he thought it necessary to send them, why did he not at least bless them as he blessed Joshua? Even more amazing is the fact that a generation later, as the Jewish people finally stood at the ready (for the second time) to enter the land, Joshua dispatches spies! This time, it works out fine; but why did he again initiate a process which had ended so tragically in the past?

Obviously, Moses was well aware of the risks involved when embarking on a course of “do as you see fit.” For man to strike out on his own, without precise instructions from on high, and with only his finite and subjective judgment as his compass, is to enter a minefield strewn with possibilities for error and failure. Yet Moses also knew that G‑d was opening a new arena of human potential.

Free Choice

A most crucial element of our mission in life is the element of choice. Were G‑d to have created man as a creature who cannot do wrong, then He might as well have created a perfect world in the first place, or no world at all. The entire point of G‑d’s desire in creation is that there exists a non-perfected world, and that we choose to perfect it. It is precisely the possibility for error on our part that lends significance to our achievements.

The concept of choice exists on two levels. When G‑d issues an explicit instruction to us, we still have the choice to defy His command. This, however, is choice in a more limited sense. For, in essence, our soul is literally “a part of G‑d above” and, deep down, has but a single desire: to fulfill the divine will. In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi: “A Jew is neither willing, nor is he able, to tear himself away from G‑d.” When it comes down to it, each and every one of us desires only to do good, as defined by the will of G‑d. The only choice we have is whether to suppress our innate will or to express it in our daily life.

Up until the episode of the spies, this was the only choice offered the Jewish people. G‑d provided unequivocal guidelines for each and every issue that confronted their lives. They had the choice to disobey, but to do so would run contrary to their deepest instincts.

The second level of choice was introduced with G‑d’s reply to Moses regarding the spies. When Moses heard G‑d saying, “Do as you see fit,” he understood that G‑d was opening another, even deeper and truer dimension of choice in the life of man. By creating an area in which He, the creator and absolute master of the world, states, “I am not telling you what to do,” G‑d was imparting an even greater significance to human actions. Here, and only here, is the choice truly real; here, and only here, is there nothing to compel us in either direction.

When we enter this arena, the risks are greater: the possibility to err is greater, and the consequences of our error more devastating. But when we succeed in discovering, without instruction and empowerment from above, the optimum manner in which to enter the Holy Land and actualize the divine will, our deed is infinitely more valuable and significant.

The Self of Joshua

This was why Moses dispatched the spies, though fully aware of the hazards of their mission, without so much as a blessing that they be safeguarded from the pitfalls of human endeavor. Were he to have blessed them—to have imparted to them of his own spiritual prowess to succeed in their mission—he would have undermined the uniqueness of the opportunity that G‑d had granted by consenting that their mission be “by your understanding.” The entire point was that both Moses (in deciding whether to send them) and the spies (in executing their mission) be entirely on their own, guided and empowered solely by their own understanding and humanity.

The only one to receive Moses blessing was Joshua, who was Moses’ “faithful servant . . . never budging from [Moses’] tent” (Exodus 33:11). The unique relationship between Moses and Joshua is described by the Talmud by the following metaphor: “Moses face was like the face of the sun; Joshua’s face was like the face of the moon.” On the most basic level, this expresses the superiority of Moses over Joshua, the latter being but a pale reflector of the former’s light; on a deeper level, this alludes to the depth of the bond between the greatest of teachers and the most devoted of disciples. As the moon has no luminance of its own, but receives all of its light from the sun, so had Joshua completely abnegated his self to his master, so that everything he had, and everything he was, derived from Moses.

For Moses to bless Joshua was not to empower Joshua with something that was not himself: Joshua’s entire self was Moses. Armed with Moses’ blessing, Joshua was truly and fully on his own—this was his essence and self, rather than something imposed on him from without.

Thus it was Joshua, who had successfully negotiated the arena of true and independent choice, who led the people of Israel into the land of Canaan. For the conquest of Canaan and its transformation into a “holy land” represents our entry into a place where there are no clearcut divine directives to distinguish good from evil and right from wrong, and our independent discovery of how to sanctify this environment as a home for G‑d.1