From Tear-Drenched Nights
The time has come to turn our attention to Yehoshua and Koleiv. We have seen that the episode of the spies turned our whole history on its head. Our relationship to Eretz Yisrael was compromised; the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash became a foregone conclusion. The seeds of our exile were sown; the light of those who had left Egypt was eclipsed by the darkness of those who were to enter the land of Israel.
If ever there was a blow that required healing, it was this. Now we know that the Ribono shel Olam does not hurt us without having already provided a corrective, and one must suppose that this was no exception.
If all this is true, it stands to reason that, to the extent that the blow was brought about by the ten spies who had lost their bearings, then the healing might well lie with Yehoshua and Koleiv, who were a part of the group of sinners yet who had stood firm.
Of course, this is a thesis that I cannot prove. Nevertheless, I will stick with it over the next few chapters in the hope that once I have presented my case you, dear reader, may be moved to agree. I am going to develop my thesis over a number of chapters. This will give us a chance to evaluate each stage carefully.
I am going to begin by examining a phrase that does not at all stand at the center of the argument that I intend to make. Still, we should address it, even if it is no more than a matter of crossing a recalcitrant “t” and dotting a problematic “i.” I want to whet your appetite for the chase by pointing to a possible interpretation of a difficult verse.
36. The men whom Moshe Rabbeinu had sent to spy out the land and who returned and then, by slandering the land, made all the people grumble –
37. These men, the slanderers of the land, died of a plague before HaShem.
38. And Yehoshua bin Nun and Koleiv son Yefuneh remained alive of those men who had gone to spy out the land.
Verses 36 and 37 are clear enough. Our problem is with verse 38. It seems unnecessary to tell us that Yehoshua and Koleiv did not die. The earlier verses had made it clear that only the slanderers were condemned. Why should these two have been in any danger?
Our first step must be to examine the meaning of the idiom, remained alive of those men. I was able to find only one similar use in TaNaCh. That is in Shoftim 21:14, where it means the women who had not been killed together with all the others. As noted, a similar translation, that is, . . . were not killed together with the others, would be redundant here, since we know it has already been stated that only the slanderers were killed.
Rashi was troubled by our question and offers a midrashic interpretation (see Bava Basra 118b). But this rendering does not account for the parallel use in Shoftim.
Perhaps we might consider the following.
Our Sages teach us that once a destroying angel has been turned loose upon a community, he does not differentiate between the righteous and the wicked (Bava Kama 60a.) The sense is that there are punishments that are directed against a communal body rather than against an individual. In such a situation, even the righteous within that community are vulnerable.
It may well be that the twelve spies had a collective identity. Yehoshua and Koleiv were a part of that group, although, of course, they did not go along with the evil that the others perpetrated. This would explain Devarim 1:23: I chose twelve men from among you, one man from each tribe. The words twelve men would be superfluous if the spies would have been considered as individuals.
This seems to be confirmed in Shlach 14:6, when the verse says, Yehoshuah … and Koleiv … of those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes. There seems to be no logic at all that which would demand the phrase of those who had spied out the land, were it not in order to stress that, in spite of the fact that they distanced themselves from the other spies by tearing their clothes, they were still considered to be part of the group.
If all this is true, then it could serve to explain ofthose who remained alive of those men, which troubled us earlier. As a group, they were all slanderers of the land. Yehoshua and Koleiv should also have been killed, since the forces of destruction had been turned loose upon them as a group.
Why were they not?
The answer may be as we suggested at the beginning of this essay. The Ribono shel Olam may have determined that, since Klal Yisrael had been smitten because of the spies, the remedy for this blow would also come from within this group.
Of this, more in the following essays.
*Note: Original Hebrew and Aramaic text which appears in the book has been translated into English and footnotes have been removed for brevity.