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The Zohar (III parshas Shelach p. 158a) says that the spies spoke badly about the land of Israel because they felt they wouldn't remain in a position of leadership once the Jews entered the land. To maintain their power, they tried to convince the people to abandon the plan to conquer the land. This Zohar is brought by many sources, including Mesillas Yesharim (Chapter 11) and the Shelah (parshas Shelach Torah Ohr 3).

The Be'er Yosef suggests that they weren't making an assumption. They saw a vision that they wouldn't be the leaders once the Jews entered the land (side point: it ended up coming true, as they died, and thus weren't leaders when the Jews entered the land). However, the Zohar itself, and the sources above that quote it, don't mention anything about prophecy. It sounds more like paranoia, unwarranted fears.

Is this the Be'er Yosef's insight? Or is there an earlier source for such an interpretation. Or perhaps, this is the simple reading of the Zohar.

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  • He uses the word יתכן, which implies it is his suggestion. – N.T. Apr 6 at 19:00
  • @N.T. I might be wrong but his יתכן is going on his connecting the spies to his explanation of Korach, that it was a self fulfilling prophecy. That is his insight, but it seems to me the prophecy part isn't his main point. – robev Apr 6 at 19:17
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    I think that the prophecy part is part of that entire assumption. – N.T. Apr 7 at 1:34
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Or perhaps, this is the simple reading of the Zohar.

I believe that this is the closest to the mark. We can quibble over whether it actually is the simplest and most straight-forward explanation of the Zohar, but it does appear to be his understanding of the text. This assumption, that the Zohar is to be so read is shared by others. For example, Rav Yaakov Edelstein, a contemporary of the Be'er Yosef (although younger), similarly attributed the view, that the spies had ruah haqodesh, directly to the Zohar in his Haye Yaaqov Beikvei HaTzon parshas Shelach (link for those with Otzar HaChochmah):

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I believe the underlying assumption of such a reading of the Zohar, is that without such an assumption how could the spies have positively affirmed that בארעא לא נזכי - that in the land they would not merit such a position? How could they have known that? Underlying assumption: they had ruah haqodesh. Yes, you can read this section of the Zohar otherwise, but I believe that this is in fact the simple reading of the Zohar according to the Be'er Yosef, Haye Yaaqov, et al.

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    Amazing! This is what I was looking for. Are you aware of anyone else who says this? – robev Apr 12 at 19:00
  • @robev Thanks, glad to have been of assistance. In Ish Al Ha-homah (the biography of R. Yosef Haim Sonnenfeld) part 2 p. 141, it records him teaching that the spies had ruah haqodesh and were confounded when they saw what would become of future generations. It does not specify that R. Sonnenfeld's source was the Zohar, but given the strong parallels I believe that is a fair assumption. – Deuteronomy Apr 12 at 19:43
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    Actually, you inspired me to look into this some more. I found that Rav Chaim Friedlander also says this. Interesting that him and Rav Edelstein both wrote it in the context of מחנחים, and both lived in Bnei Brak. Feel free to add this and your other source from Rav Sonnenfeld in your answer. – robev Apr 12 at 19:46
  • Rav Zonnenfeld mentions they had ruach hakodesh, but nothing about losing their position as leaders – robev Apr 12 at 19:57
  • @robev It’s worth noting from paragraph 3 in the linked Be’er Yosef from the OP’s question in the name of Pinchas Ben Yair how according to one version of that teaching, Ruach HaKodesh leads to Resurrection of the Dead. Have you ever considered why that teaching is and from where it originates? That is literally what happened at Har Sinai at the giving of the Torah. When every individual experienced Ruach HaKodesh on that level, their souls left their bodies meaning they died and were resurrected immediately. – Yaacov Deane Apr 13 at 2:12
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I have checked through all the mefarshim I could find and haven't seen any one of them comment that the meraglim saw prophetically that they wouldn't be the leaders in Eretz Yisroel. The closest I found was the peirush of Rav Moshe Zakut on the Zohar which explains the spiritual thought process of the meraglim but it still indicates that they themselves concocted the plan.

I don't wish to say this conclusively, but it would seem that this is the Be'er Yosef's chiddush.

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  • Thanks for the effort. – robev Apr 6 at 17:06
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So I looked through a number of mefarshim (commentaries) and there doesn't appear to be any reference to any prophecy. As you say, many mention this Zohar, but I think it would be fair to say that the Be'er Yosef's words are more his own personal presentation of the facts.

Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman zt"l questions in his Sichos Avodas Levi 59 how the Meraglim could have come to give such a false report about the land. He brings the Zohar that notes how they did not want to lose their positions of leadership and thus provided the false report. Importantly, he concludes:

והנה בהשקפה ראשונה נראה כאילו המרגלים הם רשעים גמורים שרוצים להזיק לכל האומה באופן נורא מאד רק כדי שלא יפסידו מעמדם. אולם, נראה שכוונת הזוה"ק היא שהמרגלים היו נוגעים בדבר, והנגיעות עיוורה את עיניהם, ולכן חשבו שאינם יכולים לכבוש את ארץ ישראל מחמת המדות טובות של הכנענים. ולפ"ז נראה לבאר שעיקר חטא המרגלים היה במה שלא התבוננו במחשבותם, שאילו היו מתבוננים בעצמם היו מכירים מיד שכל מה שאומרים הוא מחמת הנגיעות. והנה מזה יש ללמוד שאנו צריכים להתבונן היטב להבין מה הוא המקור של מחשבתינו, שלפעמים אנו מחזיקים בשיטות שאינן נכונות מחמת איזו נגיעה שנמצאת בלבנו.

And here at first glance it appears as if the spies are completely wicked who wanted to harm the whole nation in a very terrible way just so that they would not lose their status/position. However it appears that the holy Zohar's intention is that the spies were tied up in the matter, and this involvement skewed their eyes and therefore they weren't able to think about conquering the land of Israel as a result of the good attribute of the Canaanites. Accordingly, we can explain that the main sin of the spies was that they were not able to (truly) understand their thoughts; that if they looked at themselves they would immediately recognize that everything that they said was because of their own negios (i.e. they were caught up in their own personal motives). And from this we must learn that we need to look closely and understand what is the source of our thoughts since sometimes we possess approaches that are incorrect because of some 'negiah' that is in our heart.

So Rav Ruderman clearly points to the fact that their motives were driven not by any sort of prophecy but rather due to an acknowledgement that the end result would prove unfavourable to them.

The Sokatchover Rebbe in his Shem MiShmuel on the parsha likewise brings this Zohar and makes a similar assumption, again that with the understanding that it was deep-rooted in more personal motives and not that of a Divinely-inspired prophecy.

He notes:

ויש לתמוה מאחר דכלהו זכאין הוו ורישי דישראל הוו, היתכן שבשביל נגיעת עצמם ובקשת השררה ישחיתו את כל הענין, שדבר כזה לא יתכן אפי' לפשוט שבפשוטים להשחית את כל תקות ישראל ורצון הש"י והמתנה שאבות העולם חמדו לה ובנין בהמ"ק וקישור שמים וארץ וכל הטובות שבעולם הכל בשביל נגיעת עצמם

And we have to ask (what it means) that "all of them were meritorious and heads of Israel" - it is possible that it was due to their personal bias (negios) and the desire for power that corrupted the whole matter. Otherwise it would not have been possible even to explain how they came to destroy all the hopes of Israel and the will of G-d and the gift that the fathers of the world (i.e. Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov) coveted. And the construction of the Temple, and linking heaven and earth and all the good things in the world all due to their personal bias...

Indeed, when looking for a simple reading of the Zohar, I looked at the Baal HaSulam by Rav Yehuda Leib Ashlag here (refer to the letter lamed at the bottom of the page) and he explains it no differently, that their worry was losing their position of leadership, again with no mention of prophecy or the like.

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If one pauses for a moment to reflect on the sequence of events mentioned in connection with the spies, the answer to your question becomes obvious.

First, it is clear from Rashi that the spies were at the very least righteous individuals at the beginning of their mission when Moshe chose them. And in fact, if the commentary of the Ohr HaChaim is considered,

עוד ירצה לומר להם שלא תהיה כוונת הליכתם למה שחושבים ישראל אלא למה שחושב משה בשליחות, והוא מאמר שלח לך למה שבדעתך ולא למה שבדעתם:

it seems more likely that their ultimate difficulties in regard to behavior may have been a consequence of who they were representing in their agency as spies for the entire nation. They were righteous on their own at the start but were influenced in the process of their agency because of who they represented.

But regarding the subject of whether they had some sort of prophecy pertaining to their ultimate fall from their status in connection with entering the land of Israel, the clear answer would be yes. And the source for this is hiding in plain sight.

At the time of the giving of the Torah, which preceded the episode with the spies, the entire nation experienced prophecy. And this prophecy comprised a revelation of the entire Torah. This is found in many places in both the oral and written Torah, like for example the Mechilta 20:8, and is accepted by everyone. It is one of the details recounted every Shabbat night in reciting the Lecha Dodi when we say שמור וזכור בדבור אחד כו׳.

For a more detailed discussion of this idea, how the letters of the text of the ten commandments actually contain all the mitzvot of the Torah, see the commentary Otzar Chaim of Rabbi Yitzchok Yehuda Yechiel Saprin in Chumash Heichal HaBracha.

To understand the enormous significance of this idea as it relates to G-d implanting the Infinite in all of His creation (that there is no place devoid of Him and there is no other apart from Him), consider the analogy in mathematics of the Mandelbrot set. The infinite is sensed almost tangibly from both the microcosmic and macrocosmic perspective. And this is also implied from the teaching of Rabbi Yochanan in Shabbat 105a concerning the first word of the ten commandments.

אָנֹכִי״, נוֹטָרִיקוֹן: אֲנָא נַפְשִׁי כְּתַבִית יְהַבִית.

But having these visions, this revelation of the Infinite which includes even ones self, doesn’t mean that those having the visions (meaning in this case, the spies) understood what the visions meant. To understand the proper meaning requires us to hear the teaching of Moshe Rabbeinu.

And in fact, this too is discussed in many places within the Torah in connection with the concept of seeing with a clear lense or seeing with a lense that isn’t clear like is found in Yevamot 49b.

And just for the record, proper understanding of prophetic visions and revelations was also something Moshe struggled with. Consider the matter of Nadav and Avihu and how it was only after the event played out that Moshe understood a prophetic vision that had been given to him before. As discussed in Midrash, Moshe originally thought the one to die was going to be him or Aharon.

So in short, no special source has to be pointed out to support the view expressed by the Zohar and explained by the Be’er Yosef on this subject. Rather it just requires properly understanding the information that we all have about this already.

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  • I'm not clear on this - because a) all of klal yisrael had nevuah of the Torah at Har Sinai, therefore b) the spies must have had prophecy that they would no longer be leaders when the Jews entered Eretz Yisrael? How does b) follow a)? – רבות מחשבות Apr 12 at 0:33
  • @רבותמחשבות The Be’er Yosef is merely pointing out that they acted on the vision they had. In other words, according to their understanding of what they had seen. The OP is asking how Be’er Yosef knows they had a vision. They just came from Har Sinai where each individual had received a prophecy/vision of the entire Torah. That includes the part that they weren’t going to be leading. – Yaacov Deane Apr 12 at 1:47
  • Understood, thank you! – רבות מחשבות Apr 12 at 2:17
  • It's still a jump to me that a revelation of the entire Torah equals seeing the future about leadership positions. Why would that be included in the revelation? Also you didn't cite any source that all the Jews had a revelation of the entire Torah. As far as I know, it's a machokes Rishonim how much they heard and how much they understood, but they all limit it to what the revelation was about, which was the ten dibros...either way you're answer basically says the be'er Yosef read it into the Zohar based on his background knowledge, and not that it says this anywhere. – robev Apr 12 at 6:34
  • @robev I can appreciate your difficulty in appreciating how it is possible. But really that only means you haven’t come to fully appreciate the magnitude of the revelation at Sinai. This is actually the emphasis of Rabbi Akiva in the Mechilta that the entire nation heard the 1st word of the 10 commandments directly from G-d and it caused their souls to leave their bodies. The entire Torah was communicated in that single word. For an analogy from mathematics, consider a Mandelbrot set. An infinitely repeating, complete pattern in both the macro and microcosmic perspective. – Yaacov Deane Apr 12 at 10:32

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