Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41)


The Spy in Black (1939), Private Detective 62 (1933), Mata Hari (1932), British Agent (1934), Operator 13 (1934), Our Man in Marrakesh (1966), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and North by Northwest (1959).  I guess Thursday was Spy Day at Turner Classic Movies (No, I didn’t spend all day watching these.  Just bits of 4 of them.)  And, earlier in the week, I saw the spy movie parody Spy a second time.  But of prime interest for us at the moment are the stories of the spies sent out by Moses in this week’s Torah portion, Numbers 13:1-15:41, and by Joshua in the accompanying haftarah Joshua 2:1-24.

The reading starts innocuously enough.  The Lord tells Moses to send men to scout out the Promised Land, a chieftain from each tribe (not Levi, since they aren’t getting land). Moses gives the chosen men explicit instructions: They are to assess and report on the inhabitants, the terrain, the cities, and the fertility of the land.

 After 40 days, they come back and report to the whole people, including opinions, fatefully going beyond their instructions.  Ten say the land is great, but there’s no way we can conquer the land; the inhabitants are so formidable that we (the ten) felt like grasshoppers beside them.  Two, Joshua (né Hosea) and Caleb, protest that conquest will be a piece of cake.  The people believe the majority report, weep, rail against Moses and Aaron, and panic.  Some even want to go back to Egypt.  The Lord threatens to destroy them in favor of a Mosaic nation, Moses convinces the Lord otherwise, and sentence is pronounced: All those aged 20 and up, except for Caleb and Joshua, will die in the wilderness, and the next generation will enter the Promised Land.  As we’ll read in the haftarah (Joshua 2:1-24), when they reached the end of their extended journey, Joshua will draw on this experience to send out a proper, secret, militarily-oriented, small spy mission to Jericho with much happier results.

Why on earth did Moses send men out to report on the Land?  In retrospect, it was a gamble with the (later realized) potential for disaster and little apparent upside.  Here’s a sampling of commentary on “why” (see

Rashi: They were being set up to fail. שלח לך  (Shelach l’cha), “send for yourself,” means Moses was to do this at his discretion.  In Deuteronomy 1:22, it is revealed that the Israelites had already told Moses that they had decided to send men.  This demonstrated a lack of confidence in what the Lord had told them about Canaan.  Very annoyed, the Lord declared, “By their lives! I swear that I will give them now an opportunity to fall into error through the statements of the spies, so that they should not come into possession of it (the land)”.

Ibn Ezra: First, God said to the Israelites “Go up and conquer. “The Israelites then said to themselves: “Let’s send people first.” After this, God said: “Send forth men.”  The spies were sent to allay the anxieties of the people.

Nachmanides:  They wanted to gather information to develop a sound military strategy. Moses also asked them to spell out the quality of the fruit, land, etc., to increase their enthusiasm and desire.  

Sforno:  We know from Deuteronomy 1,22 that the initiative of sending out spies came from the people and that Moses was put under pressure to do this. “Send out men” means, Moses, not the people should choose the spies.  Unsuitable men selected by the people might give a faulty report that reflected badly on the country and, thus, the Lord. 

There’s something to be said about all of these, but Rashi’s in particular reinforces my thought that the slave generation was inherently doomed as it became clear they wouldn’t be up to the task.

The portion concludes with instructions concerning sacrifices, an incident of Sabbath desecration, and instructions for tzitzit (ritual fringes on 4-cornered garments) in 15:37-41, which is now the third paragraph of the Shema in our liturgy.  [BTW, Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann spoke at my synagogue a few months ago about the chemistry of natural and synthetic techelet, the blue dye prescribed here for selected threads of tzitzit.]   That reminds me of the laws following the Golden Calf incident back in Exodus, pertaining to what the Israelites would have to do after they entered the Promised Land, like the harvest holiday observances.  Also, in that section, the Lord announced to Moses what we call the 13 Attributes, about how merciful the Lord is, Ex. 34:6-7.  Here, in Numbers 14:18-19, Moses throws these words back at the Lord along with a request that the people be pardoned (now in the High Holy Days liturgy).

In Exodus, the people quickly repented and eagerly started work on the Tabernacle.  Here, can they similarly accept their fate with reasonable equanimity?  Tune in next week for a story of rebellions.

Shabbat shalom,


I’m on LinkedIn and occasionally get notices of jobs that, based on my background, I supposedly might be interested in.  I’m not.  One of the more interesting, which showed up several times, was from the FBI:

Special Agent

Company Name Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) 
Company Location Greater Philadelphia Area

Posted Date Posted 2 months ago  Number of views 23,911 views

“Interviewing a subject for an ongoing investigation in the morning, testifying in court before lunch, planning an operation in the afternoon and speaking at a community event in the evening. That’s just one day in the life of a Special Agent. In an organization made up of careers like no other, being a Special Agent can be a lifelong career of uncommon days and amazing experiences.”

However, aside from my probable inability to pass the medical exam and physical fitness test and likely inability to obtain Top Secret clearance, I’m over their 37 years old age limit, so that’s that.


A college graduate applied for a job as an industrial spy.

Together with several other applicants, he was given a sealed envelope and told to take it to the fourth floor. As soon as the young man was alone, he stepped into an empty hallway and opened the packet.

Inside, a message read: “You’re our kind of person. Report to the fifth floor.”


A trove of anti-Soviet jokes recently declassified by the CIA offers a glimpse of Cold War humor (excerpts)

Buried in a trove of recently declassified CIA documents is a list of Soviet jokes from the 1980s that offer a glimpse of how American spies during the Cold War enjoyed a good laugh at the expense of their enemy.

First picked up by Russian media, a two-page document titled “Soviet jokes for the DDCI” (PDF) contains a list of 11 jokes told in the form of anecdotes about Soviet leaders and daily life under communism. The document, addressed to the deputy director of counterintelligence at the time, is part of a 13-million-page CIA declassified document dump put online in January.

Here are a few:

Sentence from a schoolboy’s weekly composition class essay – “My cat just had seven kittens.  They are all communists.” Sentence from same boy’s composition the following week – “My cat’s seven kittens are all capitalists.”  Teacher reminds boy that the previous week he had said the kittens were communists.  “But now they’ve opened their eyes,” replies the child.

A joke heard in Arkhangelsk has it that someone happened to call the KGB headquarters just after a major fire.  “We cannot do anything.  The KGB has just burned down” he was told.  Five minutes later he called back and was told again that the KGB had burned.  When he called a third time, the telephone operator recognized his voice and asked, “Why do you keep calling back?  I just told you, the KGB has burned down.”  “I know,” the man replied.  “I just like to hear it.”

A man goes into a shop and asks “You don’t have any meat?”  “No, replies the sales lady, “We don’t have any fish.  It’s the store across the street that doesn’t have any meat.”

tph government-spy-759773


From  Babushkin’s Catalogue of Jewish Inventions

The book, illustrated by Richard Codor and edited by Lawrence Bush, presents 80 pages of funny don’t-you-wish-they-were-real inventions such as wi-fi tzitzit, genetically bred gefilte fish, and extra-large grandparents.

For example:

tph Babushkin-WiFi Tzitzit

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