Send Women to Spy Out the Land

If women, rather than men, had been sent to spy out the land of Canaan, would we then have been spared 40 years of wandering in the wilderness?

What would have happened if women, rather than men, had been sent to spy out the land of Canaan? Suppose Moses had chosen 12 prominent women, one from each tribe, to make that journey, and they had all brought back to the wilderness the fruit of the land and the giant clusters of grapes? Would we then have been spared 40 years of wandering in the wilderness? Would there have been no outcry from the congregation then and for generations to come?

I know that sounds like one of those “nudnik” feminist questions, but it’s not (at least, it’s not just that). Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Lunshitz, commonly known as “Kli Yakar,” who lived in Poland and Prague in the 16thcentury, believed that God had wanted just that, but that Moses chose men. When reading the sentence: “Send for yourself men,” he focuses on the words “for yourself.” As he points out:

“The men hated the land for they said ‘Let us turn around and return to Egypt,’ (Bamidbar 27:4) whereas the women loved the land, for they said ‘Give to us a holding’ in it. Therefore, the Holy One said, ‘From my perspective, for I know the future, it would have been better to send the women, who love the land, and would not speak ill of it.'”

It is perfectly clear: The men are constantly complaining, “each to his brother,” among the guys, getting one another worked up. The daughters of Tzlafechad, on the other hand, do not hesitate to demand their place in the land of Israel, without hesitation or contemplation over the nature of the land, never having been there, never having seen it: “Give to us a holding!” The term “a holding” – ahuza – implies the wish to grasp it, which infers setting down roots and the future sense of belonging. The men, meanwhile, are looking back, inspired by an erroneous sense of nostalgia: “Were it not better for us to return to Egypt?”

According to Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Lunshitz, the “Kli Yakar,” God gave Moses a free hand to choose the spies. In so doing, he ultimately gave him the freedom to err: “‘Send for yourself’, says the Holy One to Moses: ‘but “for yourself” – as you think, the people that you believe to be suitable, that you think will look favorably upon the land. Send men “for yourself” – because you believe it should be men, but I think it would be better to send women.”

According to the Kli Yakar’s interpretation of God’s words, you, Moses, think that it is best to send men. Send for yourself men, but if it depended on me, the master of the universe, it would be women going to spy out the land. Then, everything might have turned out differently.

What do women think?

Is that really the case? Do women really do things differently? And do they necessarily do things better, just because they are women? In the interests of intellectual integrity I must confess that I am not sure. Women slander, complain, and protest, and their faith wavers as much as any man. But we still have different potential, not because we are inherently different, but because for the most part we grew up on the margins of the community, with a less aggressive approach. It seems the Kli Yakar understood that generally speaking, it is men who run the world, and it is this understanding that leads the Kli Yakar (joined by other feminists) to think that in God’s eyes, the world could have been a better place if women were involved in running it. There is something in the way women understand things, communicate, and act, which developed over the generations, that may provide opportunities and even prevent catastrophes. That’s something we’ve never tried.

I suggest taking the Kli Yakar’s refreshing suggestion to other places. Sometimes, leaders are sure that they know what is best: “that you believe are suitable.” Leaders, however, even Moshe, could be wrong: “But in my opinion, it would have been better to send women.” These are God’s word according to Kli Yakar. So, which other arenas should adopt the idea that it is better to send women? I can think of quite a few, both inside and outside the religious community.

Translated from the Hebrew by Nomi Kessler. 

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