By Rabbi Daniel Travis
Yaakov sent malachim ahead of him to his brother Esav… (Bereshith
Although the word malachim could be translated as “messengers,” in
this case it refers to Divine emissaries.1 Typically, angels are only sent by God to perform
certain tasks in this world. We do not find other instances of people
employing the services of these spiritual beings. The simple task of
investigating Esav does not seem to warrant the use of such exalted beings.
Esav was infamous for his deceptive behavior, so much so that he is
compared to a pig who holds out its split hooves. Although a pig does have
this external sign of kashruth, since it does not chew its cud, the
internal sign of kashruth, it is not a kosher animal. Likewise Esav
outwardly acted righteously in front of his father, asking him
halachic questions, when his inner intentions were far from
pure.2 If Esav was able to deceive his
father Yitzchak, he could certainly fool human spies. Therefore Yaakov,
aware of Esav’s true personality, chose to send Divine emissaries.
Even when dealing with less intricate assignments, only individuals who
are capable of complete objectivity are qualified to act as spies. Those
sent to survey the Land of Israel after the Jewish People left Egypt came
back with such a biased report that they are referred to as meraglei
shakrei, literally “lying spies.” Our Sages based this description on
what the spies said about the inhabitants of the region: “...we appeared
like grasshoppers in their eyes.” Since they could not have known how
others viewed them, they are justifiably called meraglei
Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand why their statement warrants
such a harsh description. Since they were dwarfed by the tremendous height
of the inhabitants, it would seem to be a reasonable assumption that this
is how they appeared to them. This would not seem to be adequate grounds
to justify calling them liars.
The title of meraglei shakrei may then be understood in
relationship to their occupation of spying. The job of a spy is to bring a
completely objective report back to the people who sent him. If he starts
to give commentary based on his subjective view of the situation, he has
lost his objectivity, and can no longer be considered “true” to his
occupation. Once the spies started to conjecture about how puny they
appeared in the eyes of their adversaries, they could no longer be
faithful to their task, and therefore deserved to be called meraglei
1 Rashi on Bereshith 32:4.
2 Rashi on Bereshith 26:34. See essay titled “Hypocrisy,”
(page 161) on this verse.
3 Sotah 35a.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org