It sure seemed like a great idea at the time. Sending scouts to check out the landscape is standard military operating procedure. So when Israel sends a reconnaissance team of 12, one per tribe, to Canaan, why does it fail so miserably?
A close reading of the story in our parshah, Shelah-Lekha, led me to new ideas. As Moshe dispatches the scouts on their mission, the Torah says “Vaya’alu va-Negev vayavo ‘ad Hevron–they went up into the Negeb and came to Hebron” (Numbers 13:22). The Hebrew grammar of this phrase is amiss, because the first verb is in the plural, while the second is in the singular–literally, he came to Hebron. Why the switch?
The best-known midrash to explain the grammatical issue says that the “he” in question is Calev, who we know will be one of only two scouts confident in Israel’s chances to conquer the land. “He” went to Hevron to pray at Me’arat Hamahpelah, the tombs of the patriarchs and matriarchs, for the strength to stand up to his colleagues, who were already convinced of the hopelessness of the cause.
But there’s another way to explain the grammar, a tried-and-true way, in fact! Back in Exodus 19:2, when Israel arrives at the foot of Mount Sinai days before the Revelation, the Torah also switches the grammar from plural to singular–“Israel encamped–vayihan–there in front of the mountain.” Here, rabbinic tradition explains the singular form of the verb to indicate national unity–they were so committed to the common cause, they were one entity. Why, then, is there no attempt to explain the arrival of the scouts in Hevron as symbolic of their group unity?
The easy answer is that the split decision of the group upon their return proves that the 12 weren’t united. But that’s 20-20 hindsight. How do we know that the 12 scouts didn’t depart for the Promised Land in true camaraderie, arriving in Hevron all for one and one for all?
In considering this question, think about the dynamic in any one “group” of which you are a part. That could be your family, your work team, a committee or board you serve, or a sports team. How does everyone get along? Do relationships ebb and flow? What factors lead to changes in the group dynamic? We’ll talk more about this on Shabbat morning.
Wishing you Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise