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Parshat Shlach: Holy Espionage


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The Mission

Parshat Shlach begins with Moshe Rabbeinu preparing the Jewish people for their entrance into the Promised Land, the Land of Israel. God’s original plan was that the exodus from Egypt be completed in three stages. First, the Egyptians would be drowned in the Red Sea. Then the people would continue to Mt. Sinai where they would receive the Torah. Finally they would enter the Land of Israel, with Moshe Rabbeinu leading the way and immediately make their way to Mt. Moriah where they would have constructed the Temple. But, as we know, this was not what actually happened. After an entire year at Mt. Sinai, the people were now finally on the eve of entering the Land of Israel. Without the Land of Israel, the Torah cannot become a way of life and the Jewish people would not be able to spread its light to the entire world. As part of the preparations, the Torah relates that Moshe Rabbeinu sent 12 spies to survey the Land of Israel. We all know that this mission too failed miserably.

However, through a careful reading of the text, Chassidic teachings reveal that though the mission contained an element of reconnaissance, its main goal was not espionage in the classic sense.1 Moshe sent the 12 men, all leaders of their tribes, in order to prepare the Land of Israel for the coming of the Jewish people. At that time the Land of Israel was still the Land of Canaan, inhabited by 7 Canaanite nations, with some of the most abominable practices and traditions on earth, both religiously and morally. Since the time of Noah, the land had been filled with these abominations and the spies were entrusted with the mission of preparing it as a home for the holiness of the Jewish people and the Torah. The image reflecting this preparation is that of a farmer plowing his land in preparation for sewing.

Jewish Walkabout

The etymological root of the word in Hebrew for “spy” (מְרַגֵל ) actually stems from the root meaning to tread, or to walk (רגל ).2 It is noteworthy that this word, either as a noun or as a verb does not appear even once in our parshah.3 Rather, the verb used to describe the mission given to the spies is “to survey” (לַתּוּר ).4 In fact, the verb “to survey” appears 10 times in reference to the spies and once more at the end of our parshah in reference to themitzvah of tzitzit.

The distinction between spying and surveying is quite clear and again seems to stress that Moshe Rabbeinu’s was not focusing on collecting intelligence, as stated above. Still, when reading the sages explanation of the events, Moshe’s emissaries are referred to as spies, a point that is also evident throughout Rashi’s commentary on the story.

The Ba'al Shem Tov teaches that when a Jew finds himself walking in a particular place, it is not by chance. Divine Providence has brought him there, so that he can reveal Divinity there. All Jews are emissaries of the Almighty and thus by their mere presence they illuminate their surroundings with the Divine Presence. The Divine emanating from a Jewish soul acts like a magnet. It awakens any sparks of holiness present in its surroundings and draws them closer. Indeed, this is part of the mission a Jewish soul is entrusted with. Sometimes a Jew is born just to walk in a place where no other Jew has previously walked. When a Jew is consciously connected to God, by reciting a blessing or speaking words of Torah, he or she elevates all the sparks that have fallen there.

Thus, the twelve spies, representing all twelve Tribes of Israel, circled all the borders of the Land of Israel, entrusted with the mission of awakening all the Divine sparks in the land—sparks of holiness that had been in exile all the time that the land was abominated by the Canaanites. Later, when the Jewish people would enter the land en masse these awakened sparks would have been revealed in full, proclaiming5 as it were their bond with the Almighty and with His chosen people.

The sages relate that had the spies been true to their mission and reported back in earnest—describing what they had seen, as surveyors and not interpreting this information in terms of war tactics, as spies do—then no battle would have been fought to conquer the Land of Israel. Rather, the Canaanite nations, who were sensitive enough to nature to hear the proclamation that the land was given to the Jewish people, would have simply picked up and left on their own. But, the spies returned and preferred to drown the people’s enthusiasm for entering the land.

Rectifying the Spies

The lesson to be learned and meditated upon from parshat Shlach is that it is up to us to rectify the sin of the spies by seeing ourselves as holy spies, holy emissaries sent by the Almighty (and Moshe Rabbeinu in our generation6) to enlighten our surroundings, preparing them for the revelation of the Divine.

Wherever life takes us, our role and mission is to make the place in which we find ourselves a vessel for Godliness. This principle applies not only in the holy Land of Israel but everywhere on earth. Once, when asked about this issue, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe answered, “Make the place where you are the Land of Israel.” The sages say that in the future, the holiness of the Land of Israel will spread outside its borders to encompass the whole world. Certainly the first revelation of this expansion of the borders of holiness begins with the spirituality invested by us wherever we live.

Sparks as Pearls

Even though Moshe Rabbeinu sent them with the purpose of surveying the Land of Israel, the emissaries acted as if their mission was to collect intelligence how best to conquer it. Even though this was a misguided decision, there is something that we can learn from it. Even the sins that are written in the Torah contain in them a measure of truth and holiness that needs to be revealed. What then would be a holy and rectified form of espionage, even in the Land of Israel?

If we focus on the notion of a “holy spy” (מְרַגֵל קָדוֹש ), we find that the value of “holy” (קָדוֹש ) is 410. In the Arizal’s teachings,7 the number 410 is represented as simply the letters tav (ת ) and yud (י ), whose combined value is 410. So it is a simple matter to transform the letters of “holy spy” into the letters of another word with an equivalent gematria—the Hebrew word for “pearl”8 (מַרְגָלִית ). Our meditation has now uncovered the connection between being a holy spy, one who spreads an atmosphere of holiness wherever he or she goes and pearls.

What this connection suggests is that just as pearls are hidden in the deep waters on the ocean bed, so one must know that the depth of all reality contains holy sparks of Divinity. This is the essence of holy espionage, of searching for the truly valuable secrets hidden beneath the surface of our reality. In order to be a holy spy, one must know how to dive into the depths of the ocean of reality and retrieve the holy sparks that are trapped there. When we do so, we have filled our present reality, no matter where that may be, with the holiness of the Land of Israel.

The Land of Israel is full of pearls, both spiritual and physical. The Ba’al Shem Tov spoke of the spiritual riches lying hidden in the Land of Israel, while the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke of the as-yet-unrevealed physical resources and wealth hidden in its depths.

Point-Line-Area Consciousness

One of the central questions asked about our parshah is why such great people, all leaders of the tribes, failed so poorly in their mission? Note that this is not a question about the reasoning of the spies—i.e., why they decided that they should dissuade the people form entering the Land of Israel.9 Rather, this is a question about the psychological mechanism that challenged their faith in God and in Moshe and deterred them from completing their mission faithfully. Put another way, if their faith had been strong that they were now really about to complete the exodus and settle the Land of Israel, they would not have reinterpreted their mission as implying that it might not be possible to conquer the land, for which additional intelligence was needed.

One of the most basic models in Kabbalah is that of point-line-area, a model we have discussed extensively elsewhere.10 This model provides a framework for understanding (among other things) the process by which psychological or mental maturity is reached. Let us apply it to the first redemption, the redemption from Egypt. While still slaves in Egypt, every Jew believed that God would eventually redeem His people. This was a clear prophecy given to Abraham. This was relatively a static or passive state of belief.

When Moshe Rabbeinu appeared on the scene, belief in the future redemption had to mature into a willingness to follow Moshe’s leadership and join the exodus out of Egypt. We know that not all the Jews were able to transform their passive belief in redemption into a willingness to act (even if it simply meant following Moshe out of Egypt and even after the miracles of the 10 plagues he performed). Still, only individuals (though many in number11) were left behind and those who left with Moshe became the Jewish people who received the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

Finally, after a year in the desert, it was time to enter the Land of Israel and complete the process of redemption. This required another shift in consciousness. From now on, the people had to see themselves as not just on the road to the Promised Land but as its rightful owners who have finally arrived to claim it and there enter a new state of being—true and complete redemption.

These three stages correspond to point, line, and area-like consciousness of the redemption.

  • Point: Reflects the point of faith in the heart of every Jew while still in slavery in Egypt. The static, unchanging point is very resilient and stable. Faith that is point-like is not easily disillusioned.
  • Line: Once the exodus had begun under Moshe’s leadership, faith in the possibility of attaining the goal of reaching the Land of Israel and completing the process became line-like. On the one hand a line represents a vector-force. It represents energy being invested and movement. On the other hand, the line is by its nature unstable.12 It can be shifted or simply cut-off. Faith that has reached the line-like state is by its nature vulnerable.
  • Area: Finally, the entering and settling of the Land of Israel represents the final shift in consciousness, a shift that brings faith in the redemption to an area-like state. Here again, consciousness settles into a robust state, where the sense of space and roominess in the mind allows for flexibility and comfort (unlike the point-like state, which though stable, has no room for flexibility or a sense of comfort).

Based on this analysis it is clear that contrary to what one might think, it is specifically when the Jewish people had already left Egypt that crises in faith worsened, though the opposite would have been expected. Most critical in the line-like consciousness is the moment of transition to the next stage of area-like consciousness. This is the most vulnerable part of the process and must be traversed as quickly as possible. It was exactly at this juncture that the spies were sent to survey the land. Their actions would have been the catalyst for transforming the consciousness of the entire people, readying them for an area-like experience of the redemption.

Thus, be the reasoning of the spies what it may be, it is clear that what they experienced was a breaking of their line consciousness. The energy invested in moving forward into the Land of Israel shifted in the wrong direction, diverting their focus and leading them astray. When they failed at their mission, the entire process of redemption collapsed. Their psychological breakdown became the tragedy of the entire generation as the spies transferred their individual breakdown to the people resulting in another 38 years spent in the desert before their children eventually entered the Land of Israel under Joshua’s leadership.

Area Consciousness

What is the secret of moving from line-like consciousness to area-like consciousness? Without a doubt it is earnestness and thanksgiving, the internal and external aspects of thesefirah of acknowledgment (hod). In order to smoothly make the shift in consciousness, a person has to simply and sincerely accept that God has led him to his goal and that the objective has actually been realized. It is the secret of having arrived safely under the Almighty’s providence. It is also the ability to understand that the energy that for so long has been invested in moving towards the goal now has to be invested in expansion, in seeking out bigger and greater objectives.

Today for instance, there are many people who believe that once the Mashiach comes, all of our troubles will be over and history will have ended. This is simply not the case. More than just a solution to all our problems, the Mashiach represents the ability to solve them in new and positive ways, made possible by the Divine consciousness he will illuminate our lives with and the ability to dream and aim higher in our expectations.

Zionism in Crisis

The same breakdown in the transition between line and area-like consciousness has occurred in the Zionist movement. The breakdown did not begin with the Oslo Accords, nor did it begin as far back as 1967 (the Six-Day War) or even 1948 (the War of Independence), its symptoms were felt as soon as its spirit was able to move Jews from around the world to re-settle the Land of Israel. Immediately after the League of Nations agreed to create a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel, the execution of which was mandated to the British, the Zionists agreed to divide the land between a Jewish homeland and an Arab state (subsequently called Jordan). This was theoretically done in the name of political pragmatism, but at its core reflected a disbelief that we had actually arrived; that 2000 years of exile were now over and that God had finally safely returned us home. This same breakdown in the line consciousness has plagued the Zionist movement since.13

Making the Shift Today

Meditating on the image of the land full of sparks of holiness is an important element in making the transition from line to area consciousness. Both for our individual and collective consciousness, this image facilitates attaining our goal of infusing our surroundings with an atmosphere of Divine consciousness and goodness. As an individual, each of us should focus on the fact that reality is simply waiting for us to radiate Godliness; reality is ready for us to find the spark of holiness it harbors. As a collective, we can be assured that simply speaking the Divine truth will create change. That the world is full of sparks of Divine holiness that like a magnet will be drawn to our conviction and steadfast faith that it is time for the redemption.

When all the sparks are uncovered and all the holiness has been revealed we will experience the ultimate revelation of Divinity, which is likened to the way in which water covers the ocean. Just as there is no real difference between the waters covering the ocean and the waters of the ocean itself so, Divine consciousness will envelop the earth—our normal human consciousness. Everything will be covered with consciousness of God. With this meditation in mind, we can tread on the ground covered with Divine sparks and pearls on our way to area consciousness of God.


1. See Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac of Homil’s Chanah Ariel on this parshah; Lubavitcher Rebbe’s discourse for parshat Shlach, 5751. See in length the article “Chet Hameraglim Veteshuvato” in our Hebrew volume, Melech Beyofyo.

2. Formed as a noun, this root simply means foot (רֶגֶל ). In Hebrew, nouns are formed out of verbs (and not the opposite as in English), indicating that the verb (action) is primary and the noun (static state) is secondary.

3. 38 years later, Moshe Rabbeinu once again sent spies to gather information on the city of Ya’zer (Numbers 21:32). There the verb used is indeed “to spy” (לְרַגֵּל ).

4. The English verb “to tour” and the noun “tourist” are probably originally loan words from this Biblical Hebrew root.

5. This is the positive meaning of the verse, “A stone will cry out from the wall…” (Habakuk 2:11).

6. See Tikunei Zohar 114a.

7Sha’ar HakavanotDrushei Kavanot Haberachot.

8. This word first appears in the Mishnaic era, see for instance Avot 6:9.

9. Various answers to this question have been offered. The simplest is that they really believed that a people just recently delivered out of bondage, but still with a slave mentality could not conquer the armies of the Canaanites. A deeper reason suggested is that it was not the Canaanites that deterred them, but their feeling that they needed to spend more time in the comfortable setting of the desert where their livelihood was ensured (manna descended daily) and Moshe Rabbeinu was teaching them Torah.

10. See for instance, Converting the Wisdom of the Nations.

11. In fact, 2400000 decided to stay behind, or died before the Exodus, according to the sages that state that only one fifth of the Jews left Egypt with Moshe.

12. Think of the difference between a wrestler crouching down on all fours and one that is standing upright, lunging towards his opponent. The first is very hard to either move or turn over. The second is relatively easy to manipulate because the energy that he is already expending can be used against him.

13. Probably many who do not speak Hebrew do not know that the word used by the Israeli left (who feel overwhelmingly compelled to give more and more land to the Arabs) in referring to the so-called “occupied territories” (Judea and Sammariah, conquered in the Six-Day War and the heart of the Land of Israel) is “areas” (שְׁטָחִים ). In other words, subconsciously, the very land that they want to give away represents area-consciousness. If they would only be able to overcome their fears and feelings of self-guilt, holding on to these areas would inspire them to attain area-like consciousness and play an active role in the redemption.

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