Spies or Scouts?
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
The parasha for this week, Shlach Lecha, opens with the famous story of the twelve spies, also known as the twelve scouts… Wait a minute! Spies or scouts? It is certainly not the same thing! I will try to explain why we call them both and what the difference is between the two terms.
First, let’s review the story. Twelve men, leaders of their tribes, are sent to take a look at the Land of Israel and its inhabitants before undertaking the conquest of the land. Forty days later they return with beautiful fruits from the land, but ten of the twelve men warn that the inhabitants of the land were giants who were more powerful than them. Only two men, Caleb, and Joshua, insist that the land can be conquered. The people weep; they want to return to Egypt out of fear. God decrees that that generation will not enter the land of Israel, but instead will wander forty years in the desert. It is a powerful story that has captivated generations of rabbis, scholars, and artists, as well as children and parents alike.
The tradition calls “spies” (meraglim in Hebrew) to the twelve men that were sent on a mission to the Land of Israel. However, this word, or its associated verb (to spy, leragel) does not appear in our text. We do find, instead, the word latur, meaning “to explore.” It seems, so far, that it would be more appropriate to call the twelve men “scouts” or “explorers,” instead of “spies.”
However, when Moses retells this story before his death, he says that the twelve men “spied out the land” (Deuteronomy 1:24). This same word is used in another, similar story. When Joshua sent two men to the city of Jericho before starting its conquest, it is written that “Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies (meraglim)” (Joshua 2:1). Therefore, it seems reasonable to call the twelve men of our story “spies,” and not “scouts.”
So, should we say that Moses sent scouts or spies? Does it make any difference? Rabbi Jacob Zvi Meklenburg (a German rabbi and scholar of the 19th century, author of the well-known Torah commentary Haketav VehaKabbalah) explained the difference between the two words, scouting (or exploring) and spying. Regarding the land, he wrote that tiur (scouting/exploring) means to try to see the good that you can find on it (see for example Numbers 10:33). Rigul (spying), in contrast, refers to trying to find the bad on the land (see for example Genesis 42:9).
Therefore, following Rabbi Meklenburg’s explanation, Moses sent scouts to see the good things that the land of Israel had to offer. A good report about the land would have encouraged the Children of Israel to conquer the land. However, the scouts became spies, as most of them just tried to discover the defects and weaknesses of the Land of Israel. Their negative report brought pessimism and disappointment to the Children of Israel.
So, scouts or spies? Well, as I tried to explain above, both are correct. The twelve men were sent as scouts, as explorers of the good land. However, ten of them failed in their mission and became spies of the land, reporting only negative things about the land, and hence provoking a drop in morale among the people.
Next time you hear about the story of the twelve scouts, or the story of the twelve spies, you will know that it is the same story, and that either way of calling it is correct. Perhaps the lesson here is that it doesn’t take that much for a scout to become a spy. The consequences of this change, however, can be massive and tragic at the same time.