The sin of the spies

The sin of the spies was worse than the Golden Calf - and there are those who commit that sin today.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed,

מצווה. הרב מלמד
מצווה. הרב מלמד
פלאש 90

The Jewish Nation committed two terrible sins in the wilderness – the sin of the Golden Calf, where they made the figure of a molten calf and bowed down to it, and the sin of the Spies, where they followed the advice of the Spies who discouraged them from journeying on to the Land of Israel, saying they could not conquer it.

From a number of aspects, the sin of the Spies is more severe than the transgression of the Golden Calf, when Jews did not completely disclaim God and Moses. There, they erred, thinking that after Moses failed to return from Mt. Sinai, God Himself would cease from watching over them. They felt they had to find a substitute means to communicate with Hashem, via a lesser god who would mediate between them. Since they did not entirely reject God, He forgave them.

However, concerning the sin of the Spies, they denied God’s ability to assist them in conquering the Land of Israel from its strong inhabitants. They also betrayed their main mission, for which the world was created, and for which the Nation of Israel was chosen – to reveal the Divine Presence in the world, through the holy life of the Jewish Nation in Eretz Yisrael.

Therefore, the sin of the Spies was not forgiven. Death was decreed upon them and upon all those who heeded their evil speech against the Land. Only Yehoshua, the son of Nun, and Calev, the son of Yefune, merited entering the Land, in reward for having remained faithful to Hashem in rising up to rebuke the sinners.

The night that the people cried in the wilderness, rejecting the Promised Land, was the eve of the ninth of Av (Tisha B’Av). God said: You cried for no reason; therefore I will set for you a crying for generations (Sanhedrin 104b). At that very moment, it was decreed that the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, would be destroyed years later on that very same day, and that the Nation of Israel would be exiled from its Land (see Tanchuma, parshat Shlach).

The question arises:

What was the actual sin of the Spies? They believed that the people, just freed from bondage in Egypt, lacked the ability and strength to conquer the seven fierce nations residing in Canaan. In their opinion, if the newly-formed nation agreed to fight, they would be defeated and face the possibility of total extinction. If so, they had an ethical obligation to warn the people about the apparent danger, for the preservation of the Jewish Nation is more important than the mitzvah of settling the Land. Even though they were mistaken in their evaluation of the situation, for in fact, Israel could have conquered the Land, since the Spies seemingly spoke out of deep concern, in order to save the Nation from defeat and extinction, there was no need for them to be punished so severely – rather, they should have been praised for the national responsibility they exhibited.

However, their underlying sin was that they did not love the Land of Israel and understand its vital significance to the nation. Not having a passionate love for Eretz Yisrael, when they saw the difficulties in conquering it, their hearts fell, and they began to invent excuses and reasons why it was impossible to go up and possess it, until finally they lost all faith, as it says: “Moreover, they despised the pleasant Land, they did not believe His word” (Tehillim,106:24) In contrast, Yehoshua and Calev, who cherished the Land, declared: “The Land through which we have spied out is an exceedingly good Land” (Bamidbar, 14:7). In spite of the difficulties, they believed that, with God’s help, it was certainly possible to conquer the Land, rallying the Nation with the call: “Let us go up at once and possess it, for we are surely able to overcome it” (Bamidbar, 13:30).

Judging from Hashem’s fierce anger against the Spies, it became clear that Yehoshua and Calev were right. Had the nation listened to them, the entire generation would have been saved and would have merited entering the Land immediately. Ironically, the Spies, who professed to be concerned about the welfare of the people in discouraging them from waging what was, in their eyes, a losing battle, they themselves caused the death of their brethren in the desert.

The Spies believed that life in the wilderness was on a higher level than the life awaiting them in Eretz Yisrael, because with the manna, the well of Miriam, and the protecting Clouds of Glory, they didn’t have to worry about securing their material needs, since everything was miraculously provided for them from Heaven. Thus they came to despise the cherished Land, where they would have to work for a livelihood and take up arms against the fierce giants they had encountered there.

The “Baal HaTanya,” the first great Admor of Chabad, explains that the Spies did not want to journey onward to Eretz Yisrael, because they did not want to deal with the down-to-earth, physical necessities involved in conquering a land and settling its borders. They wanted to keep the Torah as a spiritual discipline alone, without the need to convey its messages through physical deeds and mitzvot: “However, in truth, they were mistaken, for the essence of the mitzvot is to perform them specifically in Eretz Yisrael. See how Chazal emphasized (Sotah 14a) how many prayers Moshe petitioned before Hashem, begging for permission to enter Eretz Yisrael, not in order to eat its fruits, but rather to perform the mitzvot that are dependent on the Land” (Likutei Torah, Shelach, 38:2). This is because the observance of the commandments in the Land of Israel is the greatest Sanctification of Hashem, bringing a great illumination into the world, far more than by spiritual means alone.

Similarly, in recent generations, when an awakened desire to return to Zion and rebuild the Land began to beat in the hearts of Jews around the world, leaders rose up seeking to discourage people from joining the movement, with strident claims about the insurmountable dangers awaiting them in the Land, including famine, plague, and bloodthirsty Arabs. They also blamed the Zionists for kindling a spirit of Israeli nationalism which would prevent Jews from winning equal rights in the countries of their dispersion, where they were trying to be accepted as full-fledged citizens in order to end generations of persecution. But alas, it soon became clear that in Zion there was a refuge, while the Jews who remained behind in the Diaspora suffered both physical annihilation at the hands of the goyim, and spiritual extinction through the rampant assimilation which resulted from gaining equal rights.

This attitude of estrangement from the Land, beginning with the Spies, and continuing in Diaspora Jewry’s failure to return to Zion when the opportunity arose with the birth of the Zionist movement, also shadows the present settlement of Israel. Even today, there are Torah observant Jews throughout the exile who reject the opportunity to return to Israel. And in Israel, those who lack emunah (faith) in Hashem, and those who do not understand the importance of Eretz Yisrael to the Nation, and its centrality to the Torah, maintain that we lack the power to overcome the difficulties in its settlement, and must therefore give into the demands of our enemies and abandon large portions of our homeland to them – a formula doomed to bring disaster in its wake, may the All-Merciful have mercy upon us. 

This article is an excerpt from one of Rabbi Melamed's books on Jewish Law and thought, "Peninei Halakha: Ha'am ve' Ha'aretz". Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at:

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