Friday, June 27, 2008

R' Bazak on the Spies

I would like to critique R' Amnon Bazak's article in the Shabbat BeShabbato parsha sheet for parshat Shelach.

The Issues

In parshat Shelach, each tribe contributes one spy, and the list of spies along with their tribe is given. Here is the order of tribes from which the spies come. (In a few cases I have included the spy's name because it will later become relevant.)
Yehudah (Kalev ben Yefuneh)
Yisachar (Yigal ben Yosef)
Efraim (Yehoshua bin Nun)

This list raises the following questions:

1. The tribes are out of order. Most lists of the tribes in the Torah are by order of birth, by mother (Leah/Rachel/concubines), by encampment, or by eventual territorial inheritance. Here, no obvious order is followed. For example, in all four of the classification systems I just mentioned, the tribes of Efraim, Menashe, and Binyamin are adjacent to one another. But here they are separated by Zevulun, a tribe which bears no relationship to them. Why this order?

2. The tribe of Menashe is mentioned here as being a subset of the tribe of Yosef. This is normal procedure in the Torah for both Efraim and Menashe. But here it is done only for Menashe, not for Efraim. Why not for Efraim too?

3. The spies are supposed to be "prominent men, leaders of Bnei Yisrael". But they are not the same people who were previously listed as being the princes of each tribe. Why weren't the princes chosen as spies?

R' Bazak's Answers

R' Bazak assumes that Moshe, fearing that the spies' mission would end the way it did, maneuvered to have his trusted associate Yehoshua named among the spies. He hoped this would influence the other spies for the better. Unfortunately, in the end Yehoshua's influence was not enough to change the outcome.

In pursuit of this goal, Moshe decided to send not the princes (this would have disqualified Yehoshua who was not a prince) but rather people of slightly lower stature. (question 3) To emphasize Yehoshua's centrality to Moshe, Yehoshua and his tribe Efraim were moved forward from their expected spot in the list. (question 2) Beforehand Efraim had been listed next to Menashe and thus subsumed under Yosef. But when their name moved, the mention of Yosef did not move with it. (question 1)

My Criticism

1. It is hard to understand why, in R' Bazak's explanation, the reference to Yosef did not move along with the name Efraim. As it is, it would appear (wrongly of course) that Efraim is not a son of Yosef. If the mentions of Yosef and Efraim were moved up together, it would be clearer that Efraim is a son of Yosef, and then (after a digression) that Menashe was too. Alternatively, the mentions of Yosef, Efraim, AND Menashe could be moved up together, and all confusion about Yosef's descendants could be avoided. (We know that Binyamin "moved up" along with Efraim; as long as multiple tribes are moving, Menashe is a much more natural choice than Binyamin.) According to either of these suggestions, the "moving up" would make much more sense that it does with R' Bazak's choice. Yet the Torah did not choose either "sensible" option.

As further support for my point here, looking throughout Sefer Bamidbar, we see that Efraim is mentioned before Menashe in cases of leadership and war, while Menashe is mentioned first when discussing tribal structure and land inheritance. Our case seems to be in the former category, so Efraim should have been mentioned before Menashe, and the mention of Yosef which precedes both Efraim and Menashe should have "attached" itself to Efraim. Yet we see it did not move with Efraim.

2. It is not clear what is gained by moving Yehoshua from 7th to 5th in the list, as R' Bazak says was done to emphasize Yehoshua's role. If Yehoshua were so important, why wasn't he placed 1st on the list? 5th on the list does nothing more than confuse you. Nobody before R' Bazak saw a sign of Yehoshua's importance in his place on the list, hinting perhaps that such a sign does not exist.

3. Moshe's great faith in Yehoshua, according to R' Bazak, seem slightly misplaced when it was Kalev not Yehoshua who did the bulk of the arguing against the 10 evil spies. If Kalev too was chosen for his good qualities, why is he not "moved up" in the list too? More significantly, why weren't the other 10 spies chosen for their good qualities? Given that Moshe had abandoned the idea of sending each tribe's prince, couldn't he have found a worthy choice among any of the other 10 tribes?

For these reasons, I think R' Bazak's answers must be totally rejected as an explanation for the list's oddities.

Alternative Resolution

3. I am surprised that anyone would possibly presume that the spies would be the princes. When governments communicate with each other, it is rare for the highest executives to travel from one side to the other. For full-time communication an ambassador is used; on more special occasions a foreign minister or other envoy does the job. Summit meetings between top leaders are a rare occasion. When sending spies into hostile territory, it is all the more clear that the top leaders should not be used.

Thus it makes perfect sense that second-tier leaders are chosen to be spies. Yehoshua, who has already demonstrated himself as an able military commander but who is not yet a political leader, is as good a choice as any. His righteousness surely didn't hurt, but there's no indication that it was the most central factor.

2. Based on the above considerations, it seems to me that the "mention of Yosef" problem is insoluble if we approach it as R' Bazak has. However, there is a happy accident in the text which I think provides the correct solution.

Notice the name immediately preceding the tribe of Efraim in the list: "Of the tribe of Yisachar, Yigal son of Yosef. Of the tribe of Efraim, Hoshea son of Nun." The father's name is exactly the "Yosef" we thought was missing! I assume that having the name Yosef appear twice in a row, referring to different people, would have been confusing and weird sounding. Thus while Yosef should have appeared before both Efraim and Menashe, it was "removed" from before Efraim.

Of course, we all know that Efraim is a son of Yosef. Normally we would mention it anyway because that's the Torah's style. But here, where the normal style sounds bad, it is abandoned.

1. Why, then, was Efraim moved in the list, away from Menashe, in the first place?

I don't have a conclusive answer for this, but I don't think I need one. We really know very few details about the spies' mission. There are any number of possible reasons why the individuals should be mentioned in a specific order or grouping, and there is no a priori reason why the order of individuals should be the same as of the tribes. Of course, the fact that the list mostly corresponds to the normal tribal list is very suggestive, but it is easy to think of scenarios that account for that.

For example, imagine that the spies divided themselves into three groups of four, for tactical reasons. The first group included 4 tribes descended from Leah. The second group included the remaining Leah tribe as well as the 3 Rachel tribes. The third group included the 4 concubine-descended tribes. Within each group the spies were ordered by authority level. Due to his background Yehoshua was given the highest authority in the second group. This earned him the 5th spot on the overall list, putting him above the Zevulun spy and thus making the list incompatible with the order of tribal birth.

Another possible direction of inquiry would be to look back to Sefer Breishit where the 10 brothers were accused of being spies. There too Yosef and Binyamin have an anomalous position in a story about spies, perhaps related to their anomalous position on our list. I am not sure what consequences if any this comparison has, but it might be worth looking into.

In short, I see no difficulty with the fact that spies - not tribes - are not in the expected order.

Random Comments

R' Bazak's essay here, and others that he has published in Shabbat BeShabbato, are well below the standards that he has set for himself in such brilliant articles as this one.

This just goes to show that if you are expected to produce an original high-level thought every week indefinitely, at some point you will run out of interesting things to say and will occasionally have to post something of inferior quality.

It is a lesson I myself have learned well, through a long period of blogging.


Anonymous said...

דומני שהגזמת. אתה יכול להסכים או לא עם מאמר זה או אחר. אבל באופן כללי מאמריו של הרב בזק, שלא כמו הבלוג שלך, נקראים על ידי רבבות אנשים מדי שבוע, וככל הידוע לי הם מעוררים עניין רב. אני לא חש כלל וכלל שרמת המאמרים יורדת. נראה לי שקודם כל הייתה לך תפיסה שרמת המאמרים צריכה לרדת, ואחר כך החלטת שהיא יורדת. נהניתי מאוד ממאמרו של הרב בזק בשבת האחרונה, וכמעט באופן קבוע.

Beisrunner said...

אני לא אומר שרמת מאמרי הרב בזק בכל שבוע נמוכה באופן אבסולוטי, אלא שהיא נמוכה ביחס לרמת מאמרים אחרים שלו. ברור לי שהמאמר ה"ממוצע" של הרב בזק הרב יותר טוב ממאמר הממוצע שלי, וזה לא פוגע בי לומר שרוב העולם יותר מעונין בכתבים שלו מאשר בשלי. עם כל זאת, זה לא הפעם הראשונה שהיו לי קושיות חזקות על מאמריו בעלון "שבת בשבתו". מטרתי בסוף לא היתה לזלזל בו אלא דווקא הפוך, להסביר איך מומחה בתחום יכול שלא לחשוב על את הקושיות היחסית פשוטות שהעליתי.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, you tell him beisrunner.