Joel Cohen's Question:

G‑d told Moses: "Send forth men, if you please, and let them spy out the Land." He chose distinguished princes and instructed them to determine whether the inhabitants were strong or weak, few or numerous. They reported back that the Land flowed with milk and honey, but that the cities were fortified, their inhabitants powerful: a Land of Giants.

Caleb and Joshua calmed the people and assured them of victory. The others, though, gave an "evil report," that the Land devours its inhabitants. They complained bitterly that it would have been better to have died in Egypt.

Having reported their "honest" assessment of impending doom, G‑d became angry: All of those above the age of twenty would die in the wilderness. Further, as punishment, because the spy mission took forty days, the nation would wander aimlessly in the wilderness for forty years. The spies themselves would die in a plague.

  • What mortal sin did the spies commit, if they actually believed that the Land was unconquerable?
  • Why was the nation punished for simply "listening" to an adverse report by their princes—princes whom Moses himself selected to spy on the Land?
  • Maybe, the spy episode was actually G‑d seeking to "justify" killing off a slave nation whose past enslavement made them unequipped to "conquer"?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, as I reviewed this week's questions, I realized that I basically agree with your conclusion—that G‑d decided to kill the remnant of the slave nation as they were unfit to conquer the land. Yet, there needs to be some development to reach this conclusion.

The Jews are prepared to enter the Land of Israel and G‑d is convinced that they will succeed in created a Jewish homeland. But, then everything begins to unravel. In last week's Parshah, the Jews complain for no reason. We all know that when people start complaining for no reason that bad things are about to happen. Yet, G‑d still trusts the people and commands Moshe to send the princes of each tribe to scout the land. These twelve princes were not spies as is commonly translated—they were scouts whose job was to bring back an accurate assessment of the Land and its inhabitants.

At the beginning of their report, they did exactly as they were commanded. They described the land and the giants that lived there. The cities, they said, were well fortified. All of this would have been fine had the conclusion of the report led the people to believe that in spite of the intimidating circumstances, G‑d would lead the people into the Land. However, instead, they reported that due to what they had seen, the Jews would never be able to conquer the land. And, to compound the problem, the Jews who listened to this report did not reprimand the scouts and reassure one another that G‑d would lead them into the land. Rather, they cried out of a sense of desperation.

It was at this point that G‑d recognized that the people who had experienced the slavery of Egypt did not have the faith and the confidence to enter the Land of Israel. So Joel, I believe that G‑d decided that the generation of slaves could not enter the Land. However, I believe that G‑d came to this decision only after giving this generation every chance to rise to the occasion.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

You've picked what I believe is one of the most telling stories in the Torah. It is a story that addresses man's mission in this world, the attitude necessary in order to achieve it, and the essence of failure—is it, too, part of the plan? I'll address the questions one-by-one: the spies' sin, the people's mistake, and G‑d's plan throughout this all.

The Spies

The Hebrew word for the verb "to spy" is leragel, and a spy is a meragel. Interestingly, Moses never instructs the spies "leragel," rather he tells them "latur," to "explore." Throughout the episode we read about their "exploring" the Land.

What's the difference? Explorers merely "examine for the purpose of discovery," while spies "observe secretively or furtively with hostile intent" (thank you!). Moses never instructed his delegates to spy; all he wanted was a factual report of what they saw. Whether or not the Land was conquerable was not an issue, they were not asked to supply a report regarding the feasibility of that task. For, after all, G‑d had promised them the Land, and would certainly ensure their victory in battle.

Their sin was this minute deviation from what they were told to do. What started as a mere subjective assessment of how they would militarily conquer the land, ended up in them saying "for they are stronger than He," doubting the ability of the Almighty G‑d Himself.

Lesson One: When human beings, of limited intelligence and perception, receive instructions from the One who knows all, they ought to stick to what they're told to do, and not embellish upon G‑d's command with their own ideas of how to serve Him.

The Nation

Why would a nomadic nation in the middle of a barren desert be so quick to abandon a dream of a homeland? Why would they be so untrusting of the G‑d who splits the sea at whim, brings down a full menu from the sky, and has crushed every army they've encountered until now?

Apparently, it was less about mistrust than it was about being actually quite happy where they were and dreading a change of scenery. And for good reason, both materially and spiritually.

In their estimation, for one to properly receive and assimilate divine wisdom, one must be utterly free of the responsibilities and frustrations of physical life—something only possible in the kind of environment which they enjoyed during their sojourn in the desert.

The daily miracles they experienced provided them with sustenance and protection. But more so, they shielded them from any and all involvement with the material world. For the first generation of our existence as a people, we lived a wholly spiritual life, free of all material concerns; the very food which nourished us was "bread from heaven."

This is why, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the entire generation was less than excited about entering the land. Becoming a people with a land would require complete immersion in the task of developing and running a successful country. Think of all the work in the kibbutzim in this past century!

The nation's underlying problem with the land was, as the spies expressed it, that "it is a land that consumes its inhabitants"—it consumes one's time and energy with its demands and infringes on one's capacity to study the divine wisdom of Torah and meditate upon its truths. They were unwilling to relinquish their spiritual utopia for the entanglements of an earth-oriented life.

This way of thinking, however, completely misses the point of the creation of the world and man upon it. The raison d'etre of the entire mess we call a "world" is for the human being to discover the Truth and reveal it within every aspect of physical life.

"Make a dwelling for G‑d in the lowly realms!" says the Midrash. You came to this planet to imbue your eating and sleeping, your commerce and government, with a holy and G‑dly purpose.

Lesson Two: The hustle and bustle of material life can not be allowed to disturb you from a spiritual, Torah-based lifestyle. Rather, it's there waiting to be imbued with the Truth, by the Jew who is conscious of his mission in life.

The Plan

Is sin part of the plan too? Does G‑d allow the opportunity for failure so that we can do better in round two?

It's a difficult thing to say, but that's why we have an article entitled "G‑d's Business," where the Rebbe's explanation of how sin is unwanted by G‑d, but part of His arrangement too, is put in plain words.

In short, the free choice that G‑d gives us is G‑d's "fearsome plot upon the children of man" (Psalms 66:5). It is He who creates us with the ability to make mistakes, because the might of the rebound that is inspired by the search to come home is even greater than when you never left in the first place. This is obvious in our own story where immediately after Moses stormed angrily at the people for their mistake, they were immediately filled with remorse, were prepared to enter the Promised Land despite all, even at the cost of their very lives.

For another perspective on this issue, one that explains how and why it indeed was all part of G‑d's plan – all for their benefit – see Life Behind Bars.

Lesson 3: Don't despair because of your past mistakes. They serve only as a springboard to bring you to even greater heights. In the words of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a): "Where the penitents stand the perfect saints cannot."