Posted by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
The discrepancies between the story of the spies as narrated in Shlach, and the way that the story is retold in the first chapter of Dvarim are significant and numerous. They include (but are not limited to):
(1) Whose initiative was it to send the spies? (God’s or Israel’s?)
(2) What was the nature of the spies report when they returned? (Negative or positive?)
(3) Who chastised the people when they depaired of being able to enter the land? (Caleb or Moshe?)
Every major parshan (exegete) addresses these discrepancies, each in his own way. I often wonder whether Abarbanel’s effort in this arena contributed to his commentary on humash being banned (or its use highly discouraged) in many quarters of the Orthodox world.
Abarbanel’s alleged heterodoxy here begins with the general observation that he makes about the first several chapters of Dvarim. Abarbanel states concerning these chapters, that “Moshe himself spoke them”, and that it was only through a subsequent Divine decision that they were included in the Torah (see pages 11 and 12 in the standard edition of Abarbanel on the Torah). He proceeds from this premise of human (albeit the greatest of human prophets) authorship of these chapters, to explain the genesis of the discrepancies between the telling and the retelling of the spy incident.
In Dvarim, Abarbanel teaches that as Moshe is offering the first of several farewell addresses to the children of Israel, he seizes his prerogative as leader and teacher to knowingly and deliberately alter the details of the original story. Knowing that the Israelites he is now talking to were by and large not present at the time that the event unfolded, Moshe is concerned about what might happen if “they would hear the truth of the incident as it actually occurred” (p. 21). If they were to know that in fact it was at God’s initiative that the spies were sent, the people would say, “why did God place an obstacle in front of the blind?”. And if it were revealed that it was in response to Moshe’s own questions (“Are the people mighty?”, and the suchlike) that the spies said what they did, then the people would “complain against Moshe, contending that he too caused the [38 year] delay” in entering the land. The dissent and tension that would result could be terribly destructive to the people’s relationship with God and Torah, and might even trigger an additional generational delay. So Moshe adjusted the story, for the people’s own spiritual benefit at that moment.
Abarbanel continues to systematically solve many of the other discrepancies using similar tactics, and the reader is encouraged to take a look at the balance of his commentary. But I want to return at this juncture to a memory from 1981, when my sister reported to me that Abarbanel’s commentary had mysteriously disappeared from the shelves of her prestigious Jerusalem Seminary, now to made available only upon special request, and under the supervision of one of the rabbis. This passage of Abarbanel’s commentary was one of those that immediately leapt to my mind.
There is of course, nothing heretical about the passage. Ramban takes a similar approach to much of Dvarim, and the Zohar regards all of Dvarim as the work of Moshe. (See Dr. Yaakov Elman’s fine article, “The Book of Deuteronomy as Revelation: Nahmanidies and Abarbanel”) Why then is Abarbanel treated as if he is radioactive in many places? He is a victim of the progressive closing of the Orthodox mind that has ensued now for several decades, as we have been sniffing out and snuffing out any idea, philosophical or exegetical that might intersect in any way with contemporary academic or literary or critical methodology. This fear of the larger world of biblical scholarship has narrowed our options, smothered our creativity, and has led even to the dismissal of classical voices (Don’t make the mistake of citing Rambam concerning the existence of angels, or Rashbam concerning the Biblical day starting in the morning rather than in the evening). Our children come home from day school with the same tired “divrai Torah” year after year, presentations which usually amount to little more than a cute “vort” or a gematria. This is a not only a terrible shame in terms of our ability to creatively engage our study of Torah and Nach, though this by itself is bad enough. But beyond that it has contributed to Orthodoxy’s being simply unattractive to the vast numbers of our co-religionists. If we are reflexively unable to engage in anything that smells even remotely like modern study of the Torah , how much could we possibly have to say to a Jew who thoroughly lives in the modern world?
Abarbanel and so many others belong back on our shelves, in our schools, and in our conversations. And we Orthodox Jews belong at the forefront of dynamic, creative, and even broad-minded study of our most sacred texts.