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(5738) The spies were named after their actions Sotah 34b

The Spies thought G-d’s purpose expressed in learning, but not physical actions (the real purpose)

Tradition is in our “hands” in order to perform actual deeds



1. The Talmud tractate Sotah (34b) states:

“Rabbi Yitzhak says: This statement follows is a tradition of ours that was passed down to us from our ancestors: The spies were named after their actions, but we have obtained the interpretation of only one name, the name of “Sethur the son of Michael” (Num. 13:13). He is called Sethur, as he undermined (satar) the actions of the Holy One, Blessed be He. He is called Michael, as he made Him, G-d, appear weak (makh).

אמר רבי יצחק דבר זה מסורת בידינו מאבותינו מרגלים על שם מעשיהם נקראו ואנו לא עלתה בידינו אלא אחד (במדבר יג, יג) סתור בן מיכאל סתור שסתר מעשיו של הקב"ה מיכאל שעשה עצמו מך

Rabbi Yochanan says: We can also say an interpretation of the name: “Nachbi the son of Vophsi” (Num. 13:14): He is called Nachbi, as he concealed (hecḥbi) the Word of the Holy One, Blessed be He. He is called Vophsi, as he stomped (pisse’a) on the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He”.

אמר רבי יוחנן אף אנו נאמר נחבי בן ופסי נחבי שהחביא דבריו של הקב"ה ופסי שפיסע על מדותיו של הקב"ה

Rashi in the Talmud learns that the words “but we have obtained the interpretation of only (one)” (לא עלתה בידינו אלא אחד) means that “we do not know how to expound on it” (אין אנו יודעין לדרוש). This means that we only know how to expound on one of the Spies (Sethur ben Michael). According to this one must say that R’ Yochanan who also expounds the name “Nachbi ben Vophsi” (in other words, two names) does not hold like R’ Yitzhak that “but we have obtained the interpretation of only one”.

However, according to this there are many questions on the statement:

  1. How difficult is it to explain according to Derush (homily), the deeds of the Spies, according to their names? So much so that R’ Yitzhak and R’ Yochanan could only have done so for one or two of all of the names? How are these names different from all the other numerous names in the Torah of which we find on them, homilies of the Sages?

(Indeed, it is true that even in the style of Derush there are many principles how to expound. However, the style of Derush is connected with a broad style of study, since the aspect that is being expounded must not exactly concur with the simple translation (that is accepted according to all of its letters) of the word. So much so that it is as it states in Sefarim that “one does not reply to Derash” (אין משיבין על הדרש).

And especially since we explicitly find in the Sages, homilies on other names of the Spies. So much so that in the Tanchuma there are homilies on all their names.

  1. What is the meaning of the phrase of R’ Yochanan “even we say” ( אף אנו נאמר)? If he is coming to expound on another name, he should have said “we have interpretations on two of them” or state extremely concisely: “two”?
  1. From the statement: “says R’ Yochanan” (אמר רבי יוחנן) and not “R’ Yochanan says” (רבי יוחנן אמר), it proves that this is not a dispute between R’ Yitzhak and R’ Yochanan, but rather that R’ Yochanan just adds to the words of R’ Yitzhak.

(This is also the meaning of the word “even (we say)”. For this means that he does not argue on R’ Yitzhak (i.e. he does not say “we have two”) but rather he is adding a Derush on Nachbi ben Vophsi).

One must however understand:

Since R’ Yochanan gives a Derush on a second name, he is therefore indeed differing with R’ Yitzhak who says “but we have obtained the interpretation of only one”?

  1. And the main question:

Since “The spies were named after their actions” (even before Moshe chose them) –

and this is a “Masoretic tradition (מסורת) from our ancestors”, where in Masorah, argument is not applicable –

therefore how is it that Moshe chose them? And especially since there is a maxim: “one should always check a person by his names”?

  1. How does this coincide with the saying of the Sages that “they were (at that time) Tzaddikim”. For according to this it appears that the root of the conduct and deed of the Spies, can also be by Tzaddikim.

2. Seemingly one could answer (the 2nd and 3rd questions) by saying that R’ Yitzhak’s statement: “but we have obtained the interpretation of only one name” just means to say that there is no finding (דערגיינגען) of the Masoretic tradition from our ancestors except on one homily. (However not that one cannot find any homily on the other names).

And on this R’ Yochanan says that “Even we say”. In other words, indeed it is true that from the “Masoretic tradition from our ancestors” there remains a Derush on just one name, however we can expound another name: “Nachbi ben Vophsi”.

However, there remains the other aforementioned question: Why did R’ Yochanan expound just one other name and not all the other names of the Spies?


The precise wording: “it has not come into our hands except one” and not “we have just one in our hands” and so forth –

which seemingly means that the one (name) is that of R’ Yitzhak‘s Derush which he expounded. And the Masorah was just that “they are named after their actions” –

and Rashi writes the same, as aforementioned.

3. One must also understand the homilies themselves:

  1. What is meant by “he undermined (satar ma’asav) the actions of the Holy One, Blessed be He“? In what aspect do we see by the Spies that they undermined (צעשטערט) the work of G-d?

Rashi states the heading: “satar devorov“ (denied His Word) and explains that they “denied (הכחיש) and made the enemy of the Holy One, Blessed be He, (a euphemism for G-d Himself) (appear like) a liar. ( הכחיש ועשה שונאו (של הקב"ה) בדאי).

However that explanation cannot be said except according to the version of the Talmud that states “satar devorov“ (denied His Word).  However, this cannot be explained according to our accepted version that states: “he hid (satar) the actions of the Holy One, Blessed be He“

(for by “denying G-d’s word” and “making G-d appear to be a liar“, one does not undermine the work of G-d).

The Maharsha (R’ Shmuel Eidels) explains that “the work of G-d” here means the signs and miracles that G-d performed for the Yidden when they left Egypt” and “satar ma’asav/actions” means that “he hid and covered them as if he did not see them”.

(Note: In other words, he ignored the miraculous deeds that G-d performed for the Jewish people in Egypt).

However, this explanation is not straightforward, since the wording in the Talmud is “satar” (סתר) which means destroying (צעשטערט) (from the word demolishing a building).

And this is proven from the words of the Maharsha himself. For beforehand he translates “satar” as undermining (הסתיר) and immediately afterward explains that it can be translated as covering (וכסה).

  1. On the phrase “Nachbi: he concealed (hecḥbi) the word of the Holy One, Blessed be He” Rashi states:

“And he did not say them as they are” (ולא אמרן כמות שהן).

It is not understood:

He did not conceal G-d’s speech (רייד) and misstate them “as they are”, but rather he concealed what he saw in Eretz Yisroel – the goodness of the land.

  1. Further on, on the statement: “he stomped on the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He “ Rashi states:

“He skipped over for they did not say as they were” (דילג שלא אמרן כאשר הם)

– and he omits what are the “attributes of G-d”, that he hopped over (איבערגעהיפט) and did not give over to the Yidden, as he should have?

The Maharsha learns that:

The phrase: “as he concealed (heḥbi) etc.” means

(not that he did not say over the speech etc. “as they were” but rather)

 that he himself: “concealed the word of the Holy One, Blessed be He“ - i.e. that G-d’s speech was concealed within him alone. (This means that he did not believe) G-d’s speech that He “testified on the land that it is good”

And he learns that the phrase: “and “he stomped (pisse’a) on the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He” means that he alone “skipped over it“ (not believing in) G-d’s Middot that he “gives reward to those that believe in Him etc.”.

According to this one must understand:

What is the difference, that in regard to “the word of G-d” it states that it is “concealed” (החביא) - “Nachbi” whereas regarding “G-d’s Middot” – it states that is skipping (פיסע) – “Vophsi”?

Seemingly both of them (according to the explanation of the Maharsha) have the same meaning namely that they “did not believe”?

4. The gist of the explanation is:

R’ Yitzhak’s intent in stating “it has not come into our hands except only one” is

(not that we do not know how to expound the names of the Spies, but rather)

that the homily and teaching (of which 'study leads to deed'/ לימוד מביא לידי מעשה) on the other names of the Spies “has not come into our hands” (לא עלתה בידינו). This means that this does not cause us to act, which we need to learn from these names of the Spies.

The homilies of the other names of the Spies concern just (the Avodah) of “our ancestors”. They should have forewarned against all the errors of the Spies (which are depicted in these names). However “into our hands” it is “but we have obtained the interpretation of only one”. We must forewarn only one aspect – “Sethur ben Michael” meaning that we should not have any trace of “undermining the work of G-d etc.”

On this R’ Yochanan adds “Even we say an interpretation of the name: “Nahbi the son of Vophsi etc.“:

It is indeed true that in the same manner that it was by “our ancestors” - we must not forewarn more than “one” (Sethur ben Michael). However, the lesson of the homily of Nachbi the son of Vophsi must also concern us. However, not in the same manner as it was by “our ancestors” (for we are not applicable to that). However it is: “Even we say” – meaning that we must be concerned, the way that it is fitting for our level.

5. One can understand this by prefacing that which is stated in many places that the source of the sin of the Spies was that they did not want to go out of (their routine of life in) the desert and come to Eretz Yisroel, a settled land.

For they were told: “when you come to the land . . For six years you shall plant your field etc.“ meaning that a person must plow and sow and one must deal with physical things. And in the words of Chassidut: they did not want to lower themselves from the world of thought (עולם המחשבה) (into the world of speech (עולם הדיבור), and certainly not into) the world of deed (עולם המעשה).

In Avodat HaShem itself, this is the difference between Torah and Mitzvot:

  • Torah is “your wisdom and understanding”. It is studying with understanding and comprehension with intellect and thought (and also bringing it down into speech).
  • The aspect of Mitzvot is – deed (מעשה).

The Spies wanted to remain in the desert, where the main occupation of the Yidden was Torah study, and not go into Eretz Yisroel. For there, the main Avodah is in the performance of Mitzvot.

However, “deed, not study is primary” (לא המדרש עיקר אלא המעשה). The intent of Creation is to make an abode for G-d in the lower realms (בתחתונים). And this is accomplished (mainly) through Avodah in this world – the performance of Mitzvot with physical things.

However, it is difficult to understand this:

Since the Spies, “at that time were virtuous” (אותה שעה כשרים היו), how could they have erred in such a primary aspect, that one does not need the Avodah of the deed of Mitzvot?

One must therefore say that even they knew that there must be deed (and on the contrary: the deed is primary (המעשה הוא העיקר). However, they held that the performance of Mitzvot that are kept in the desert is sufficient (for even in the desert they fulfilled many Mitzvot, and they also fulfilled (Mitzvot) in mundane aspects – the “all of your deeds should be for the sake of heaven”). However, the occupation of deed must not be in the same manner as it would be in Eretz Yisroel).

6. The inner explanation of “deed, not study is primary” (לא המדרש עיקר אלא המעשה) is

(not just that there must be both study and deed (as two separate things) and from both of them, deed is primary, but rather) –

that the “primary” aspect of general service to G-d is, that this should come down into deed. This means that even in the study itself, and to express it differently – even in the methods of Avodah, in which one is removed from the world (and deed) - their main aspect, purpose and goal is to have an effect in the Avodah of deed. As the Sages state: “study leads to deed” (תלמוד מביא לידי מעשה).

However, in this aspect of “study leads to deed“– there are three manners:

  1. Deed is the “touchstone” (אבן הבוחן) that determines if the study (which leads to deed) is as it should be. From the breadth of intellect, there can be reasons in both extremes. And the test for which reason is completely true (לאמתו אמת), is when a thought holds true (extends) to the ruling (Psak-Din) according to Halacha (דהלכתא אליבא) – to deed (לפועל).

(In simple words this means when it concurs with the ruling which is stated in the Mishnah etc., the Shulchan Aruch – as it states: “the word of G-d is Halacha” (דבר ה״ זו הלכה).

In Avodat HaNefesh the means: The proof that a thought (for example – in the loftiness of G-d (May He be blessed) and the lowness of man) is with truth is when the idea brings with it a “resolve” () in actual Avodah.

  1. The completeness of the study is connected with “(study that leads to) deed “. As one actually sees, in order to decide which of the contradictory ideas which are in his mind, is the correct one (and why he is forced to decide so, since it affects actual deed), one must review again all the reasons, but at this time on a much deeper level, until he can come to a resolution in this. Therefore it states “study is great for study leads to deed” (תלמוד גדול שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה) which means (not just that deed is an indicative test for study, but rather) that deed makes the study great. This is connected with that which deed evokes greatness in study.

In the two manners, however, the emphasis in the aspect of study and its virtue (as this becomes known or brought out via deed).

  • In the first manner, the actual deed is not relevant – it is like deed is already in the “world” of thought, the Psak-din ruling, the “resolution” (בכן) of the thought.
  • Even in the second manner, where it speaks specifically regarding actual deed, it is, however, only that which, deed brings completeness in study – and not like the virtue is manifested in the deed itself (and of itself).

There is however another higher manner:

  1. The “study (leads to deed)“ the way it is (not due to “study”, but rather) for the sake of the deed itself. This means that he draws down the light of intellect in the “place” (ארט) of deed. So much so that at the time of his deed, at the time where concerning all of his deeds, the person is taken up with the light of intellect - this is a deed of a person where the strength of the light of intellect is visible.

7. How can “study”, whose aspect is intellect of the mind, permeate the person when he is in deed?

The aspect of this is:

When a Yid immerses in study just in a superficial manner - where because of the externality of the soul (הנפש חיצוניות), every power is limited in its place. Intellect in the brain, Middot in the heart, and deed in the hands etc. – then one cannot be at the same time (אחת בבת) with the light of intellect and in action. Therefore, when he is involved in study, deed itself (which is much lower than intellect) cannot occupy any place within him – only in the part that deed allows in study.

However, when one is immersed in study with the Pnimiyut of his soul, so much so that this becomes his entire being – then it is not applicable to say that there is a place in his soul which contradicts his wisdom.

And in this manner, it is not just that study influences deed

(Because of which, it is sufficient to have the resolution (which is synonymous with the sefirot of) Netzach and Hod which are outside of the body, the resolve),

but rather even more so - they can be at one time. The strength of the intellect is not diminished even when the person is acting (and in the words of Chassidut: from Mochin d’Gadlut (the essence of Mochin/ intellect) comes the light of intellect as it is (שהוא כמו) in all the powers as they are in their place, so much so that it reaches to deed).

According to this the words of Rambam:

Just as the wise man is recognized through his wisdom and his temperaments and in these, he stands apart from the rest of the people, so, too, he should be recognized through his actions - in his eating etc.“ are fitting.

The aspect of a truly wise person (לאמיתתו החכם) is, that wisdom becomes his entire being, so much so that this (his being a wise person) is recognizable in all of his aspects (and powers) in the same way (“Just as . . so, too“). Therefore even when he is involved with “his deeds” (which are external aspects and seemingly have no relation to his “wisdom”), it is recognizable in him.

(Not just that they become influenced by “his wisdom” (like one thing is affected from a second thing) –

for then, his occupation with “his deed” at the time he is in a lower state than “his wisdom”, and therefore that he is then, not so much “separate etc. from the rest of the people: than when he is occupied with “his wisdom” – but rather )

the same separation from “the rest of the people” as his separation from them when he is dealing with “his wisdom and his temperaments“. For when wisdom is his entire being, then even when he is immersed in “deed”, he remains at his level – “in his wisdom”.

8. And one could say that the root of the conduct of the Spies is (not that they did not want deed, in general, but) that they lacked the purpose of the completeness in their study itself:

The aspect of the generation of the desert is Torah. The Generation of Knowledge (דעה דור). They were in the desert where the Torah study was at the epitome of completeness. The Spies, However, did not have the epitome of completeness in the aspect of “study leads to deed“ - the highest aforementioned manner, namely that because of Mochin d’Gadlut (where wisdom becomes the entire being of the person) is not a separation between study and deed. That even when the person is immersed in deed, the light of intellect remains in force – and therefore their immersing (אריינגעטאנענקייט) in “study leads to deed“ was –

not in a manner of descending into the “world of deed” (Eretz Yisroel) and there bringing down the light of Torah of the desert, but rather -

like in the manner of deed as it is in the desert itself. This means deed as an innovation in Torah (study), as aforementioned par. 6.

9. According to the aforementioned – that the reason for the conduct of the Spies began, not due to an opposition to deed, but rather due to a lack of the completeness of the study, in their Avodah with their intellect (במוח) – one can understand the saying of R’ Yitzhak “but we have obtained the interpretation of only one etc.”

In the first generations - our ancestors – when the Avodah was with the intellect of the mind (מוחין שבראש), then it was required to know how to forewarn that the Avodah should be in a desired manner

– the epitome of the completeness of study (which is connected with the epitome of the completeness of bitul) –

not like it was with the Spies, that there was a separation between the inner Avodah (intellect) and deed.

(And since, in that Avodah, there are differences between one tribe and another (each tribe had its path and gate in Avodat HaShem) one had to know how to protect oneself from the errors of each of the Spies – the forewarning of everyone of then and according to the manner of the Avodah of his tribe).

However, in the latter times, after the first generation where they were compared to angels, when the generations were diminished (and especially when “the Sukkah of David fell to the level of feet and heels”) and the main Avodah is in deed (the performance of Mitzvot) – then it is not (so much) applicable to forewarn the error of the Spies, as it is still in its root and source. And this Avodah (not just plain learning, but the epitome of completeness in this, and in his self-abnegation - he only wants to come to the absolute truth of the thing that is learned – Avodah_ of intellect 9 which in this, each person is according to his level). However, in the result regarding the Avodah of Mitzvot – where it states “one Torah and one “

What was the result of the error of all of the Spies equally – is that the main Avodah must not be in the world of deed.

And this is what is meant by “but we have obtained the interpretation of only one name”:

The thing that “we have obtained” in our Avodah of the names of the Spies, is the “one”, meaning the common point that connects them all – namely that there must be the Avodah of deed. This is equally among all Yidden in all generations, without distinction.

And this forewarning is alluded to in the name Sethur, who “undermined the actions of the Holy One, Blessed be He“. G-d created the world of Action/Asiyah (the work of G-d) with the intent that Yidden should “build” it – meaning making from it an abode for G-d. Therefore, by not making the performance of Mitzvot primary, one, G-d forbid, undermines the work of G-d. The world of Asiyah remains, G-d forbid, unconstructed (צעשטערטער), not a built abode for G-d. Moreover, it is like the saying of the Sages that “Any generation that does not build (the Temple) in his lifetime, is accorded by Scripture as if he destroyed it”.

One could ask:

Since G-d created the world with this very intent, and he is Omnipotent and there are no obstacles before Him – how can a Yid, a created being, undermine the work of G-d (and not allow the intent to be carried out in every detail of the world of Asiyah)?

(One could understand this, if the intent had been spoken by G-d. For then one could answer that since G-d’s will remained in His thought (which is higher than an “other” (זולת) – the world), it did not force the person to fulfill it.

However, since G-d’s Will, that one should be occupied with the Avodah of deed, was publicly revealed in a spoken command (בדיבור ציווי) - “G-d’s speech is considered deed” (דיבורו של הקב׳ה מעשה). Therefore how can a Yid undermine the work of G-d?)

The answer to this is that “Sethur”, is a “son/בן”.  The word “son/ben” means that it is a result of “Michael, as he made Him, G-d, appear weak (makh)“ (מיכאל שעשה עצמו מך). The inner explanation of this, is that it speaks (not just regarding the effect of the Spies, but rather) regarding, as it were, G-d.

In order for a Yid to have free choice, G-d, as it were, made Himself “soft“ and weak (so that His speech should not force man’s actions). He gave a Yid the power to do, G-d forbid, the opposite of G-d’s will, so much so that he could undermine the work of G-d.

10. One could err and think that the only thing that must be forewarned in the generations that succeed the first generations, namely after our ancestors (אבותינו), is that there be no lack in deed. On this R’ Yochanan says:

“Even we say (אף אנו נאמר) an interpretation of the name: “Nachbi the son of Vophsi”: He is called Nachbi, as he concealed the word of the Holy One, Blessed be He”.

This means that even regarding us, there must also be forewarned and negation of “concealing the word of the Holy One, Blessed be He“. For specifically through this, is the Avodah of deed, proper.

“The word of G-d” – as it states “By the word of the L-rd the heavens were made (בדבר ה' שמים נעשו). This means the word of G-d that enlivens every created being (the work of G-d).

This must be forewarned from the “concealing His word “ meaning that the deeds must be in a manner that one should see in them the word of G-d (G-d’s speech) which enlivens the deed.

For, as has been spoken of many times, in order that G-d’s abode in the world of Asiyah – which Yidden “build”, through their Avodah of deed – should illuminate (ליכטיקע),

(Meaning that G-d-dliness should visibly illuminate there),

it is through that which a Yid’s deeds are “shining” deeds. In all the deeds one discerns (דערהערט) the word of G-d, which enlivens them (and therefore, the Avodah is done with vitality etc.).

And “Nachbi” (concealing His word) is a “son/בן”.  An outcome of “Vophsi, as he stomped on the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He”.

The reason that there could be by a Yid the “concealing the word of G-d“ (meaning that he does not feel  G-d’s Word which enlivens every being) is because he “skips over“ the Avodah that involves Middot (which are taken from “G-d’s Middot”).

Through awakening a love for G-d, the revelation of G-dly light in his soul, which is even higher than the world, gives impetus that even when one is occupied with physical things (deed) that it should not be “concealing the word of G-d“.

11. With this one can understand the precise wording “Even we say (אף אנו נאמר):

The reason that the Spies “concealed the word of G-d” resulted from their wanting to remain in the world of thought (המחשבה עולם) (where G-d’s Thought resides) and not descend into the world of speech (הדיבור עולם - the word of G-d which is enclothed in the world). So much so that G-d’s Word remains concealed (בהעלם/ החביא) in the world.

And “Nachbi ben (an outcome of) Vophsi who stomped on the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He” for them. is because they wanted to skip over the level of “G-d’s Middot” –

which have a relation with the world (like the Middot of a person which are connected with another)-

and immediately take from Supernal “Mochin/intellect” which “preceded the world”. (For this is the reason of the concealment in “G-d’s Word” – in the Sefirah of Malchut).

Whereas “we” must forewarn “Nachbi ben Vophsi” in the extreme opposite (קצה פערקערטן). One should not suffice with deed alone, but rather also do the higher levels of Avodah of “G-d’s Word” and “G-d’s Middot”.

12. A Yid could think:

Indeed it is true that even in the latter generations one must have (not just deed, but) also the inner Avodah of mind and heart (לב מוח). However, since he finds himself in “the level of the feet and heels” (בחי׳ רגלים ועקביים), it is not a true Avodah. (It is not intellect of the mind and Middot of the heart – but rather as intellect and Middot are in the level of “feet and heels”. Therefore how can his Avodah carry out the intent of “making an abode for G-d in the lower realms” which demands (not just deed alone, but) also the Avodah of study, which illuminates the Avodah of deed?

The explanation of this is:

Since all Yidden of all the generations are one complete unit (שלימה אחת קומה), it therefore comes out that the Avodah of the previous generations is the mind and heart of our Avodah (in the “feet and heels”). Therefore in our Avodah of performance of Mitzvot, there is also, hidden within it, the intent (the head and heart) of the Mitzvot.

And this is why R’ Yitzhak immediately forewarns in the beginning of his statement: “This thing was passed down to us from our ancestors: The spies were named after their actions“:

Indeed it is true that in our actual real Avodah: “we have obtained the interpretation of only one” (as aforementioned at length). However everything that was accomplished by the Avodah of our “fathers” (of which there must be the forewarning of all the names of the Spies) is a ”Masoretic tradition in our hands”. It is “in our hands”, in our Avodah.

(However this is in a manner of “Masorah“, a general tradition that is – concealed and it has “not arisen” (לא עלתה) from Galut and concealment and hiddenness of the degradation of the latter generations.

And regarding actual Avodah it is (nevertheless) “it has arisen in our hands, one”, namely the Avodah of deed)

And therefore through our Avodah in deed, the intent of making an abode for G-d in the lower realms, will be completed.

M'Sichas Shabbat Parshat Shlach 5723

Shabbat Parshat Korach 5728


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