5767 - #29


Rashi, Bamidbar 13:16 informs us that Moshe Rabbeinu changed Yehoshua’s name as part of his prayers that Yehoshua should be saved from the counsel of the spies. Rashi, Bamidbar 16:22 also informs us that Calev went alone to Chevron to pray, at the graves of the forefathers, so that he should not join with the other spies in their counsel. Calev and Yehoshua, of course, were the only two of the meraglim, spies, which emerged unscathed from the challenge that faced them in correctly reporting on the land. It would seem, according to Rashi, that this actually emerged from Divine intervention. Moshe prayed that Yehoshua should not make the mistake of the majority of the spies. Calev prayed, on his own, not to make the same mistake. What does this inform us of the whole episode? What does it mean to pray not to adopt the thoughts of the others?

             Many issues are subsumed within this one question. How could Moshe pray for Yehoshua not to succumb to the sin of the spies? How does one pray that another does not sin?1 Why would Moshe only pray for Yehoshua; should he not also have prayed for all the spies not to sin by giving a wrong report?2 The idea that Calev prayed for himself is somewhat easier to understand; we do pray for God to help us in our observance of Torah. The nature of this prayer still is somewhat difficult to understand. Rashi states that Calev prayed that he would not abide by the counsel of the other spies; what does this mean? Did Calev already recognize the evil perspective of the other spies and thus was praying not to succumb to the pressure they were exerting on him to join with them? Was Calev thus praying for God’s assistance in maintaining his backbone? This would make Calev’s prayer vastly different than Moshe’s prayer for Yehoshua. Moshe, it would seem, was praying for Yehoshua not to arrive at the same conclusions as the spies. Calev, it would seem, already had arrived at a different conclusion but was praying to maintain his fortitude. In both cases, though, it would seem that the spies already had arrived at their evil conclusion and the prayer was to avoid the effects of this conclusion. Yet Yehoshua’s name was changed before he even went on the mission?

             There is a disagreement amongst the commentators as to the origin of the sin of the spies. Ramban, Bamidbar 13:2 and 27-31 clearly is of the opinion that the evil of the spies only surfaced with their report. There was nothing wrong with the actual sending of the spies. Rashi, Bamidbar 13:2, though, is of the opinion that the sin of the spies was already reflected in the desire by the people to send out spies. If there was evil already manifest in the establishment of this mission, we can begin to understand Moshe’s blessing to Yehoshua even at the onset of the mission. There is evil in this behaviour; Moshe is praying for Yehoshua not to succumb to it. But why then even send out Yehoshua? Within the perspective of Ramban, that the sending of the spies was correct in that the nation simply wanted to know how to fight the war of conquest, the inclusion of Yehoshua, Israel’s military commander, in the spies had great merit. Perhaps Rashi also shares some aspects of this perspective. While the sending of the spies, according to Rashi, reflected some evil intentions, it still could not be summarily dismissed. Rashi, in fact, states that God declared, in agreeing to the request to send the spies, He would give them the opportunity to falter. In this language, is there also an implication of an opportunity not to falter? There are actions and events that clearly exhibit evil. There are, though, other actions and events that exhibit the potential for evil. How are we to respond to such occurrences? There is no simple one answer to such a question yet the concern for evil must not only detach us from actual evil. It must also make us wary of the potential for evil.

             If the actual sending of the spies was an evil event, the spies would not have been sent out. The disagreement between Rashi and Ramban rather focuses on the potential for evil within this event. Ramban saw the event as one similar to the basic nature of life. All of life has the potential for evil – but it also equally has the potential for good. The sending of the spies was no different than the very challenge that is human existence. Rashi, however, saw the event as leaning towards the potential of evil. It was too great a challenge to send spies requesting a good report; the odds weighted in the opposite direction. The very request reflected this perspective for the people should have been wary of the potential to question God that could emerge with this undertaking. Nonetheless there was enough merit in the request that led Moshe – and Hashem – to meet it. There was, though, a great need for caution.

             Within this perspective, we can understand both the prayer of Calev and Moshe’s prayer for Yehoshua as reminders of caution. Moshe did not only pray; he changed Yehoshua’s name. He thereby communicated to Yehoshua the need for caution, to be wary of the conclusions that may arise from the words of the other spies. This communication was specific to Yehoshua because of the uniqueness of their relationship. Yehoshua would greatly consider Moshe’s words of caution. It was for this reason that Moshe could only pray for Yehoshua. I am sure that Moshe was concerned about the entire group of spies – but only Yehoshua, Moshe’s special student, would truly hear these words of caution.

             Calev, though, recognized this need for caution on his own. I am sure that Moshe told the spies to be careful and all of them, most likely, felt that they were being careful in their words. They thought that they were doing the right thing. The fact is that the challenge to be cautious especially emerges when one thinks that they are doing what is right. Caution demands of us to question ourselves especially when we think that we are right. This is what Calev understood.   The very act of prayer itself demonstrates this recognition. Calev, in asking for God’s assistance, is also reminding himself to be cautious. The very act of asking for help from Hashem in arriving at the right answer should inform us that there may be a weakness in our ability to determine right from wrong. The various stories of the nation in the desert should be understood as important lessons in this regard. If they could be mistaken about what is right and what is wrong, so can we. Calev’s prayer was an indication of his recognition of this inherent weakness in the human condition. The very act of prayer was, itself, the answer.

. 4.


Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 See, further, T.B. Berachot 10a.

2 See, also, Rashi, Bamidbar 12:13.


Nishma, 2007


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