The episode of the meraglim (Hebrew for “spies”) is found in the Torah portion of Shelach (Numbers, 13-14). It tells of 10 spies who brought back frightening reports about the Promised Land. The children of Israel rebelled against G‑d, and as a result, He decreed that they wander in the desert for 40 years, with their children entering the Land instead of them.

Spies Are Dispatched

It had been more than a year since the children of Israel had left Egypt. They had received the Torah at Sinai, worshiped the golden calf and been forgiven, and built the Tabernacle, where G‑d’s presence to dwell.The spies were the cream of Israeli society They were ready to enter to Promised Land.

But the people were worried and asked Moses if they could send scouts who could bring back information that would help them conquer the land. G‑d (grudgingly) approved their wish.1

Moses sent the spies (12 in total, each one representing another tribe of Israel) to scout out the Land of Canaan:

You shall see what [kind of] land it is, and the people who inhabit it; are they strong or weak? Are there few or many? And what of the land they inhabit? Is it good or bad? And what of the cities in which they reside—are they in camps or in fortresses? What is the soil like is it fat or lean? Are there any trees in it or not? You shall be courageous and take from the fruit of the land.2

The meraglim, including Caleb and Joshuah, were the cream of Israelite society. Until that time, Joshua, who was to become Moses’ successor, had been known as Hoshea, which is the same Hebrew word as Joshua (Yehoshua), but without the letter yud. Moses added the yud to Hoshea’s name, changing its meaning to “G‑d will save you [from their plans]” in advance of the scouting mission. The added boost of spiritual power represented in this new name would serve him well in the difficult times that lay ahead.

The spies spent 40 days scouting out the land. There, they discovered that the inhabitants were extraordinarily large, “the descendants of the giants,” which frightened them terribly. They would later say that they felt like grasshoppers in their presence.

Caleb sensed that his fellow spies were getting edgy and took a detour to Hebron, where he prayed at the Cave of Machpelah that he would have the strength to stand up to his disheartened comrades.

Following Moses’ instruction, the spies took samples of fruit from the land. A cluster of grapes was so large that it took eight men to carry it. Two more men carried a pomegranate and a fig each, leaving Joshua and Caleb (who were wary of how the fruit would be used to portray the Holy Land as an abnormal place) to carry nothing at all.3

The Reports

After 40 days of reconnaissance, they came back to the Israelites who were camped in the desert.

“Sure enough,” they said, “the land flows with milk and honey, but we cannot capture it. The nations who dwell there are strong, their cities are fortified and there are giants among them.”

Cries of despair rang out from the camp. "If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert,” wailed the panic-stricken people. “Why does the L‑rd bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?"

The people even suggested appointing a new leader, one who would take them back to the familiarity of Egyptian bondage.

The Response

Moses and Aaron fell flat on their faces, and Joshua and Caleb tore their clothing in mourning.

But they did not remain silent. “The land we passed through to scout is an exceedingly good land. If the L‑rd desires us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us,” said the two brave scouts with confidence. “But don’t rebel against the L‑rd, and you will not fear the people of that land, for we will win them as easily as one can eat bread. Their protection is gone, and the L‑rd is with us; do not fear them."

The people were not convinced, and went so far as to threaten to stone Caleb and Joshua. Just then, G‑d’s presence appeared in the Tabernacle.

G‑d expressed His exasperation with the nation and His intention to annihilate them. This was not the first timeG‑d expressed His intention to annihilate them this had happened. It was a year ago that G‑d had wished to destroy the people following the sin of the golden calf. At that time, G‑d taught Moses the 13 Attributes of Mercy, the formula through which Divine forgiveness could be obtained.

Now, again, Moses begged for mercy, pointing out that if G‑d were to destroy the people right there, the nations would mistakenly think that He did not have the power to bring them into the Promised Land.

After Moses invoked the 13 Attributes, G‑d agreed to spare the children of Israel. However, they were not yet ready to enter the land. Rather, they would wander the desert for 40 years, one year for every day of the spies’ disastrous expedition.

Caleb and Joshua would be among the few to enter the Promised Land from the existing adult male population, leading the very children whose parents were afraid that they would be killed by the Land’s inhabitants.

The 10 scouts who had slandered the Holy Land died in a plague that began in their tongues, appropriate for people whose sin began with speaking negatively about the Holy Land.4

Failed Second Attempt

Distressed that they were destined to wander the desert, there were some people who tried to reverse their punishment, and attempted to enter the land without G‑d’s permission.

But that wasn’t the right thing to do either. “"Why do you transgress the word of the L‑rd?” Moses pleaded. “It will not succeed. Do not go up, for the L‑rd is not among you to protect you.”

However, they defiantly ascended a mountain, leaving Moses and the Ark of the Covenant behind. The Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived on the mountain came down to meet them and trounced them soundly.

What the Spies Did Wrong

The spies were tasked with going to the Promised Land and bringing back fruit and a report, which they did. Weren’t they just being honest, sharing their findings in good faith?

The key to understanding this story is that Moses did not tell them to provide an assessment as to whether or not the people would be able to enter the land. If G‑d willed it, surely there would be a way. He asked them only to report the facts, leaving the interpretation open.

The chassidic masters tell us that we are like spies in our own lives. When we encounter challenges and difficulties, we need to hold back from becoming prophets of doom and gloom. We have G‑d on our side, and we can surely succeed. (Read more: Belief in Yourself)

What the Spies Did Right

The Torah describes the spies as “men of distinction, leaders of the children of Israel.” How could they have failed so badly? Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains that they had theThe purpose of creation is not for us to escape reality loftiest of intentions. In the desert, the people lived an idyllic life of spiritual bliss. Life revolved around the Tabernacle, and their major pursuit was to understand G‑d and His Torah. The spies feared that settling the land—ploughing, sowing and reaping—they would fall from their high spiritual peak. The giant fruit of the land, and the promises of material wealth that they portended, frightened them, and they shared their fears with the people.

Ultimately, they were wrong, because the purpose of creation is not for us to escape reality, but for us to embrace it and make it into a dwelling place for G‑d. And that can happen only when we engage with the world. (Read more: The Generation Gap)

The Night of Crying

“The people cried that night.” What night was it? It was the night of the 9th of Av, the day when the Holy Temples in Jerusalem would be destroyed, and a day the Jewish people would mourn every year. “You cried for naught,” said G‑d. “By your lives, I will make this a night of crying for generations to come.”5

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Back in the desert, every year on the 9th of Av, the people would dig graves and go to sleep in them, understanding that those of them who had reached the age of 60 would not rise in the morning. On the 40th year of their desert wandering, they dug graves as usual, but no one died. Fearing that they had miscalculated the day, they tried again the next night, and the next night. This continued until the 15th of Av, when the full moon indicated that the decree of death had been lifted, and they celebrated. That day was established as a holiday so happy that it is rivaled only by Yom Kippur.6 Read more about the 9th of Av and the 15th of Av.