Here is the basic story of the spies with some help from Rashi: A group of Israelites approached Moses suggesting that a delegation be sent to scope out the Land of Canaan ahead of their planned entry. Moses was skeptical, given that he had been explicitly told that they were heading to “a land of milk and honey.” Moses felt that the Israelites had no reason to fear the inhabitants, as they had all seen the great miracles wrought against the much more powerful Egyptians.

But, fearing that his people would think he had something to hide, Moses agreed to organize the mission despite his misgivings. He picked 12 distinguished leaders and instructed them to bring back a detailed report about the land. Moses felt the undertaking was in excellent hands, although he still had his concerns. Those concerns proved justified when 10 of the delegates returned with pessimistic reports, suggesting that the Israelites had only a slim chance of defeating the land’s powerful inhabitants. This led to a revolt by a good number of the people against going forward to the Promised Land and caused a prolonged stay in the desert.

There are some significant questions about this story; two particularly pressing ones. First, why did Moses allow the mission to proceed if he had misgivings? Second, how did the members of such a prestigious delegation become corrupted?

Let us examine each question in turn.

The Hebrew word the Torah uses to describe the leaders Moses selected is “anashim,”1 often used to denote men of distinction. Rashi, therefore, states that “at that point in time they were fitting (literally ‘kosher’).” From this comment we get the impression that Moses was confident about the mission because he had entrusted it to outstanding individuals.

This impression is significantly dented by Rashi’s explanation for why Moses’ changed Joshua’s name from Hoshea to Yehoshua: “He [Moses] prayed for him: may G‑d save you from the plan of the spies (Yehoshua means “G‑d save”).”2 Why would Moses pray for Joshua’s salvation if all was well?

If something had changed in the very short duration from the men’s selection to their actual departure – which seems unlikely in itself – why didn’t Moses abort the operation? Rashi later comments on the Biblical words, “They went and they came to Moses,”3 that their going on the mission and their return were of the same kind: “As their coming was with an evil plan, so their going was with an evil plan.” So why did Moses allow them to depart?

It is true that from the outset Moses was aware that the Almighty was unhappy with the whole idea. As Rashi explains elsewhere, when Moses first presented the idea to G‑d, he was asked, “Why do they need to inspect the land? Is it not enough that I told them that the land is good?”4 The reason Moses did not veto the idea is also provided by Rashi in some detail: Moses was calling their bluff. He hoped that by agreeing to send a group to check out the land, they would see that he had nothing to hide and would drop the idea. When they did not drop their demand, Moses felt he had to follow through to prove all was fine.

But we have evidence that Moses was specifically worried about the fate of the mission, so how did he allow it to proceed?

It is also difficult to understand how outstanding men, carefully chosen by Moses because of their suitability for the role, could have been so quickly and easily corrupted. They not only deviated from their mission, but ended up advocating for the complete opposite agenda, declaring the prospect of entering the land unviable. What can explain such a dramatic transformation?

These are core questions that critically undermine our understanding of the story.

The Rebbe characteristically suggests that the reason we have these questions is because we are missing something fundamental.

We are accustomed to calling this group “the 12 spies.” Every child learns about “the 12 spies” in school. No one would think to question this. But the Rebbe does – dramatically so. “Where,” the Rebbe asks, “are they called spies?” Astonishingly, the answer is: not once. The Torah never refers to them as spies! Rather, they are repeatedly called “tourists,” visitors. Moses never sent spies; he sent tourists!

Spies and tourists are not only different; they are complete opposites. The tourist is an innocent visitor who is just trying to have a good time. The spy is a sinister figure who comes with devious intent. A tourist has nothing to hide, while the spy conceals a devious plot. Tourists go to see the nicest and most impressive parts of the place. Spies do the opposite – they are looking to see all the unsavory aspects, searching for every weakness. Moses told them to go on a tour and return with impressions of their travel. He did not send them to spy and scheme.

What happened was that members of the delegation felt their talents were not being put to full use. “If we are going to visit the land anyway,” they contemplated, “why not do some helpful spying while we are there?” So, the idea began to develop that they would throw in a little spying for good measure. This is what is known as “mission creep.”

When Moses prayed for Joshua, his request was that he be spared their “plan.” Rashi says that Caleb, the only other member of the delegation that stuck to the mission, prayed at the graves of the forefathers that he not be persuaded to “join his colleagues’ plan.”5 The word “plan” seems an odd choice here. It is a highly neutral term that does not imply any wrongdoing. Would it not have been better to use the term “plot” to describe their scheme? But “plot” would be the wrong term, because they never hatched any plot. All they had was a plan – a little extra spying on the side – and that seemed pretty innocent to start with. These were highly suitable people, let us remember. Moses trusted them and their abilities. But that “plan” of theirs was not the intention of the mission, and it ended up derailing it entirely.

Moses was sufficiently concerned to pray that Joshua not join their plan to become spies, but he did not expect things to go so badly wrong that it would justify canceling the trip. Pulling out would have been highly controversial, and there was nothing of substance to point to for aborting it. Of course, in hindsight, we can see that it had the makings of an “evil plan” from the outset, even though to start with there really was no devious intent. By flipping from tourists to spies they fundamentally changed mode and became ripe for steep deterioration and a sharp turn towards a corrupted mission.

We have all been recruited by G‑d for a mission, which is to study Torah and observe its mitzvot. Just as those spies did, it may be tempting at times to add our own ideas for the mission – purely to enhance the mission, of course. For example, one may think that as we are commanded to put a mezuzah on our doorposts, that perhaps we should put one on both sides of the door, to make them even more visible. But that is how things get derailed. We need to stick to the designated goal, so that we do not lose our way and find ourselves losing track of our mission.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichot, Vol. 33, Parshat Shelach I.