Shelach contains the episode of the spies sent by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan.

G‑dspoke to Moses saying, “Send out for yourself men who will scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel. You shall send one man each for his father’s tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst.”

So Moses sent them from the desert of Paran by the word of G‑d. All of them were men of distinction; they were the heads of the children of Israel . . . (Numbers 13:1–3)

Ten of the twelve spies returned with disparaging reports about the Land, instilling fear and discouragement in the heart of the nation. The Jewish people’s reaction was despair and lack of faith in G‑d, whereupon they were punished by a decree to remain in the desert for forty years. The generation who did not want to enter the Promised Land would die in the wilderness.

The nation’s cry of despair occurred on the ninth day of Av. G‑d said, “They are weeping now for nothing, but I will fix this day as an occasion for weeping for generations.”(Sotah 35a) The effect of their sin reverberates throughout Jewish history, as this day has repeatedly been marked as a day of mourning, sadness and destruction.

Two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua (“Yehoshua” in Hebrew), did not join in the negative report of their fellow spies, but attempted to encourage the nation not to lose heart.

Before sending off his close disciple, Moses added the Hebrew letter yud to his name, changing it from Hoshea to Yehoshua.

“Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun, Yehoshua.” (Numbers 13:16)

“Yehoshua” is compounded of the Hebrew words for “May G‑d save you,” and by changing his name, Moses was thus praying on his behalf that “G‑d should save you from the counsel of the spies.” (Sotah 34b).

A person’s Hebrew name has immense spiritual significance and power. That is why, when someone is seriously ill, it is customary to give him or her an additional name—such as Chaim (meaning “life”), Refael (“G‑d shall heal”), or some other name suggesting longevity or blessing. By adding a name, we hope to add a new channel of spiritual, life-giving energy. Moses, too, was hoping to supply Yehoshua with additional spiritual powers to withstand the counsel of the spies.

The Talmud explains that the yud added to Yehoshua’s name originated in the name of our matriarch Sarah, and was thus representative of her spiritual powers. G‑d changed Sarah’s name from Sarai to Sarah by replacing the letter yud at the end of her name with the letter hei. The yud that was taken from Sarah’s name fulfilled its function generations later, in providing Yehoshua with the courage to refrain from sinning with the spies. (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 2:6)

What aspect of Sarah’s special powers assisted Yehoshua in his challenge?

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:11) tells us that while the spies’ negative report influenced virtually the entire male population, the women retained their faith in G‑d and His promise; they did not participate in the sin of rejecting the Land.

The twelve spies sent by Moses were all, by the Torah’s attestation, “men of distinction” and “princes of each tribe,” specially selected by Moses for this task. How could these great men provide such a slanderous report of the land of Israel and be so fearful of conquering its fortified cities, when they were constantly surrounded by G‑d’s protective miracles? What were the calculations of these great men, which caused them to err so profoundly, and which Moses feared would be powerful enough to sway his faithful disciple Yehoshua? And what did the women of Israel intuitively understand that kept their love for the Land so strong and steadfast?

Chassidic teaching(Likkutei Torah) explains that the spies were motivated by their fear of spiritual defeat. In the wilderness, the nation’s needs were provided miraculously by G‑d. (There were “clouds of glory” that protected them from the rough elements and the manna provided physical sustenance. The “well of Miriam” traveled with them as a constant source of water, and their clothes did not even need repair. The nation’s time was spent in the spiritual pursuit of Torah study.

Once they entered the Land of Israel, however, they would face an entirely new existence; the miracles would be replaced by physical labor. The spies feared that being occupied with working the land would leave them little time and energy for their divine service.

“It is a land that eats up its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32) was the spies’ fearful cry. They meant that their preoccupation with the materialistic world would “eat up” and consume all their energy for G‑dly endeavors. In their mind, spirituality could flourish only with the protection and withdrawal from the needs of our physical world.

The spies were mistaken in their approach. G‑d desires a relationship with us here within the physical, not removed from it. G‑d is not outside of our world, but is found, too, within its dimensions. The women, whose role is specifically to work from within physical reality to find the divine, intuitively grasped this. This knowledge was a part of their spiritual heritage, passed down from mother to daughter, derived from our matriarch Sarah’s example.

Throughout Sarah’s life, three miracles took place in her home: a protective cloud hovered over the entrance of her tent, her Shabbat candles would burn from one Shabbat to the next, and a blessing was present in her dough. (Rashi, Gen, 24:67)

Sarah transformed her physical home into a spiritual sanctuary by using it to positively influence her surroundings. The clouds represented G‑d’s presence and demonstrated how she had infused the physical reality with an awareness of G‑d. Her Shabbat candles burned brightly for an entire week, demonstrating how she brought a glow of spirituality into the darkness and mundanity of the weekday. The blessing of satiation in her dough represented how even (and especially) within physical needs she brought a spiritual recognition and sensitivity.

Sarah’s tent exuded the message about the unlimited spiritual potential of the Jewish home. Her descendants, the women of the generation of the wilderness, absorbed this understanding and were eager to put it into practice in their own land. They eagerly awaited the moment when they, too, could transform their physical abodes into spiritual sanctuaries infused with G‑dliness, spreading holiness throughout the world.

This was the spiritual heritage that the women of Israel received from Sarah—and which she imparted to Yehoshua by offering him a letter from her name. (Perhaps Caleb, too, internalized this understanding, as he strengthened himself against the spies’ slander when he prayed at the gravesite of the patriarchs and matriarchs in Hebron.)

Unlike the spies, the women recognized that spirituality is not self-contained. Our responsibility is to change and elevate our world. Mitzvot use physical, natural reality to create a dwelling place for G‑d.

Specifically through the material, we suffuse creation with its G‑dly mission.