This week’s parsha (Torah reading) is Shelach (from the Book of Bamidbar/ Numbers ch. 13-15). The major event retold in this parsha is the story of the 12 meraglim (spies) who are sent by Moses to scout out the Land that the newly-freed slaves were about to enter.
"And God spoke to Moses saying, “Send out men for yourself to explore the Canaanite territory that I am about to give the Israelites." (13:1-2).
The two most important words in this verse are “for yourself”. If effect, God tells Moses, “If you need this for yourself, go ahead and send men.”
A 17th century commentary helps us better understand what was implied in God’s words to Moses. "Therefore God said, "According to My opinion, that I can see the future, it would be better to send women who love the Land because they will not speak disparagingly about it." (Kli Yakar)
God would have sent women! But God allowed Moses to send men “for yourself”.
Moses does indeed send 12 spies, 12 men, to reconnoiter the Land of Israel. The episode ends tragically. Upon their return, ten of the 12 spies terrify the people by speaking badly about the Land and reporting that it would be senseless to try to enter, given the invincibility of the current inhabitants. Two of the original 12 spies, Yehoshua (Joshua) and Calev (Caleb), held a minority opinion. They argued against the group of ten while the scandalous report was being delivered.
Upon hearing the report of the ten spies, the people screamed and cried, “We wish we had died in Egypt! We should have died in this desert! Why is God bringing us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and children will be captives! It would be best to go back to Egypt!” (14:2-3)
God responds harshly to this lack of faith, initially seeking to annihilate the entire people. In the end, Moses is able to convince God not to kill everyone. God declares that virtually every man between the ages of 20 and 60 who departed Egypt is going to perish in the desert, as punishment for believing in the evil report of the ten spies, despite having witnessed so many miracles. Rather than lead the people directly into Canaan, God is now going to make the people wander in the desert for 40 years. The decree of death that was imposed upon the men inaugurated Tisha B’Av as a day of national tragedy in the Jewish calendar.
Why did the decree to die in the desert not apply to the women? The Midrash teaches that only the men wished to return to Egypt. The women still wanted to press on and enter the Land of Israel, despite the warnings of the ten spies!
This story of the ten spies is related to a powerful teaching about women and minyan (the minimum number of individuals necessary to recite certain prayers). There is a Talmudic tradition that, based on the story of the spies, defines a minyan as ten Jewish adult males.
Now, there is a tendency to regard minyan as a Jewish privilege from which women have traditionally been excluded. The exclusion of women from minyan is considered a misogynist practice that persists in Orthodoxy.
However, there’s another tradition that approaches the question of why women don’t constitute a minyan entirely differently.
The ten spies, acting together, did untold damage to the Jewish people. When the Talmud derives, from the incident of the spies, that a minyan requires ten men, it is prescribing a way to rectify a mistake. Just as ten men, acting together, nearly annihilated the Jewish people, it will take ten men, praying together, to bring honor to God’s name. Whenever ten men gather and praise God in prayer, it is, in part, a tikkun (spiritual rectification) for the actions of the spies who, acting together, destroyed the people’s faith in God.
The reason women praying together don’t make up a minyan is not because of any inadequacy in Jewish women, God-forbid. It’s actually exactly the opposite. Women don’t make up a minyan because we didn’t sin in a group of ten. Therefore, we aren’t required to participate in the rectification. In other words, we didn’t do the crime, so we don’t have to do the time.