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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Shelach(63)

The sin of the Spies is described in this week's sedra. We look at a central theme of this story.

Numbers 13:18

"And see the Land, what it is and the people that dwell therein, whether they are strong , weak, whether they are few or whether they are many."


Whether they are strong, weak: RASHI: He (Moses) gave them a sign. If they live in open cities, they are strong since they are confident of their strength. But if they live in fortified cities, they are weak.


Rashi suggests an insight into the psychological self-image of the inhabitants of the Land. He does so by referring to one indication (what Rashi calls a "sign") which was the type of cities they dwelt in. From the type of city they saw they were told that they judge the strength of its inhabitants. Ironically the reality which they saw was deceptive. If the inhabitants lived in STRONG walled cites this is a sign that they are weak. While if they lived in unfortified cites (apparently, more vulnerable to attack) this is a sign that they are in fact strong people.

What would you ask here?

Hint: See the lead words that Rashi chose to make this comment on.

Do you see anything strange about his comment and his lead words?

Your Answer:


A Question: Since Rashi says the sign is based on the types of cities they dwelt in, why didn't he make this comment on the words "If in open cities etc." (verse 19) ?

Can you see what's bothering Rashi in our verse?

Hint: Look closely at our verse and the following verses.

Your Answer:


An Answer: Moses had instructed the Spies to evaluate the Land and its inhabitants. He told them to look for certain things. They were to see whether the Land was either/or.

Do you see any difference between the either/or in our verse and the either/or other verses? (In the HEBREW TEXT)

Did you spot a rarely noticed difference? Our phrase is the only phrase in this list that does not contain the word "or".

All the phrases are of the format of: Is it good or (Hebrew "Im" (is it bad?

But our verse, by leaving out the crucial word "im" , allows for other ways to read this verse.

How does Rashi's comment deal with the different phrasing in our verse?

Your Answer:


An Answer: In Hebrew we ordinarily read the verse this way:

החזק הוא? - הרפה ?

Is he strong or weak?

But since the "Im" ("or") is missing, we can read it:

החזק - הוא הרפה !

"Hachazak - hu harafeh

The strong - he is the weak.

Meaning, the one that appears strong (fortified cities), he is really the weak one!

This is the sign Moses gave them, his words have a clever dual message.


The lesson is clear. Appearances are deceiving. The spies were told to bring back an objective report of the lay of the land. They were not to judge by what they saw, only to report what they saw. This was because they had G-d's promise to enable them to conquer the land. Unfortunately, they forgot this and followed appearances and concluded, wrongly, that the strong inhabitants were stronger than G-d's people.

History has shown over and over that "not by armies and not by might, but by the spirit of Hashem" is victory achieved. The history of the People of Israel is the best evidence that "appearances are deceiving."

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

"What's Bothering Rashi?" is produced by the Institute for the Study of Rashi and Early Commentaries. The five volume set of "What's Bothering Rashi?" is available at Judaica bookstores.

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