What happened to the spies?

At the center of Parashat Shelach, we come to the section on the spies and the subsequent punishment received by the wilderness generation.

The Torah describes how the spies were chosen: “One man each for every patriarchal tribe. Each one shall be a person of high rank…They were all worthy men, leaders of the People of Israel.”1

The central question that arises is how people who, as the Torah attests, were sent “at G‑d’s bidding”2 and “were leaders of the People of Israel” can stand up and say that they do not want to enter the Land of Israel. To be sure, they speak on the basis of a military assessment of the reality, and each one of them may have been a general, but the question in essence still remains.

Moreover, our sages point out that the spies did not lie: “Three spoke the truth and were uprooted from the world: the spies, Doeg, and the sons of Rimon the Beerothite.”3 So, too, Caleb’s argument against them is not that they are lying; he merely disagrees with their conclusion that “we cannot go forward,”4 saying, “Let us go ahead, and we shall gain possession of it.”5 So it was not for speaking falsely that the spies were punished. Hence the question: If the spies spoke the truth, why were they uprooted from the world?

“A land that consumes its inhabitants”

One approach is that the dispute here is actually much more basic than a question of fear of the Canaanites or a question of military strategy. In what many consider one of the narrative’s key sentences, the spies say that the land “consumes its inhabitants.”6 With this sentence, they raise a fundamental issue – whether to go to the Land of Israel or not.

Life in the wilderness is almost like being part of a kollel, whose members receive a monthly stipend to support their full-time Torah study. The Jews in the wilderness received manna morning and evening, and were provided with all their basic worldly needs. Moses and Aaron, the Sanhedrin, the leaders, the princes, and the chiefs had all that they required, and they were thus able to sit all day long and study Torah.

In this respect, entering the Land is really a downward step, because it “is a land that consumes its inhabitants.” When one lives in the wilderness, one can live a complete spiritual life. But when one enters the Land of Israel, one’s spirituality is placed in extreme danger.

This danger begins from the outset of the people’s entry into the Land. As soon as each person receives his plot of land, he must immediately begin to work it. In commenting on the verse, “He who works his land will have plenty of bread,”7 the Talmud explains that only one who enslaves himself to his land can have plenty of food; otherwise, it does not work.8 A farmer must constantly be subservient to the soil. He cannot put his work off until the next day or the next week, because he is bound by agricultural seasons and times. One must sow at a certain time, plow at a certain time, and reap at a certain time – this cannot be manipulated.

In this respect, farming is more difficult than almost any other type of work. Most kinds of work can bend, to a certain extent, to a person’s own priorities and can be put off. A farmer cannot take a vacation whenever he wishes, and he cannot rest whenever he wishes. This holds true to this very day. One who is responsible for milking the cows must get up early in the morning every day. The cows do not ask him how late he would like to sleep each day.

The problem of entering the Land is the problem of assuming responsibility for the physical, financial, and practical sides of life. All of this responsibility means that one no longer lives in a calm world, where he can sit in peace and study Torah. One is going to a place where one’s life will be occupied by constant work, the work of life with all that it entails. It is an entirely different world. As opposed to all the spirituality that existed before, when one could bask in the beauty of the Clouds of Glory above him, here the Clouds of Glory are nowhere to be seen; all that remains are clouds of rain and clouds of dust. This is what those who enter the Land must contend with.

If a person lives on manna in the wilderness and wants to keep Shabbat, there is nothing easier than that. But if he lives in the Land, or any land, to keep Shabbat means sacrificing work days, and often he cannot afford to lose these days. This is true of Shabbat and Yom Tov, and of all the mitzvot in general as well.

“A land that consumes its inhabitants” means that a person who previously spent his time sitting and learning, without the pressure of worldly cares, now must shoulder the burden of real life. When such a ­person enters the Land and has to integrate into it, it literally c­onsumes him.

When the spies say that the land consumes its inhabitants, they are basically saying that this is a normal country, a land like all others. Don’t think that every morning there will be a miracle, that sustenance will fall from the sky. It might be a wonderful land, but still, people are born there and people die there. There are wars, there are difficult times, there is agriculture, and people have to work. In the midst of all this, the spies claim, we will lose our whole individuality. So it is better for us to remain in the wilderness. Why go to the Land of Israel and lose our identity, our distinctive character?

This argument, in various forms, can be heard frequently even today, often from worthy men, leaders of Israel. Why, they ask, should we lose our abstract spiritual essence, our Torah, and our manna, solely in order to go to the Land of Israel? It is better to remain in the ­wilderness. Entering the good and spacious land means entering a world that has a lot more obligations, difficulties, and challenges. In a certain respect, this can be considered an advantage, but not every person will feel this way. This is precisely the dispute between the spies and Caleb.

To be sure, the Torah seems to have answered this question unequivocally, but apparently it continues to reverberate among the Jewish people: Is it better to live in the wilderness or in the Land of Israel?

For Jews living today in Israel, this is a daily question. One who lives in a different country can say that there are certain professions that are morally uncomfortable for him. Being a soldier might be considered reprehensible, because it involves killing people. A policeman must patrol the streets and see all the filth that is out there. Cleaning sewers is disgusting; it is beneath one’s dignity. No matter where one lives, one can allow oneself to desist from these activities in the hopes of avoiding dirtying oneself physically and spiritually. When one lives outside of Israel, there is no true responsibility; one lives up in the air, detached from reality.

But when one lives in one’s own land, all these constant ­responsibilities – concerns of war and diplomacy, current events, and other matters – become an integral part of one’s life. American Jews are great patriots, but how many of them serve in the U.S Army? The United States is a country where one can choose for oneself the pleasant elements and ignore the others. But when one comes to one’s own ­country, one must deal with everything; there is no way of evading it. Every normal country requires a certain amount of Shabbat ­desecration. Even on Yom Kippur, there are all sorts of vital services that must operate around the clock. Electric company workers cannot just take the day off to pray in the synagogue. The operation of these services on Shabbat and on Yom Kippur is not a result of the country being full of heretics; it is because the country requires these services, and people cannot just choose the pleasant elements.

To be sure, the wilderness is not an ideal place to live, but it is much more convenient. Nowadays in Israel, we are raised and educated to appreciate the Land of Israel and its preeminence, but many Jews throughout history have demonstrated indifference in this regard. Some maintained that if one sits and studies about sacrifices, it is as though one has offered sacrifices, and if one sits and studies about tithes, it is as though one has separated tithes.9 R. Yehuda maintained that it is forbidden to go to the Land of Israel from Babylonia because of a Torah decree.10 The Talmud also says that R. Yehuda loved the Land of Israel very much and would therefore recite a special blessing over balsam oil: “Who creates the oil of our land.”11 Thus, R. Yehuda demonstrated his love of the Land of Israel by sitting in Babylonia and reciting a special blessing over a fruit of the Land of Israel – what could be better than that?

The spies reached the conclusion that there is no inherent ­problem with the Land; the problem is the transition from the wilderness to the Land. Their argument is constantly part of our life. Why is this whole headache necessary? What does the Land of Israel possess that makes all this worth it?

The material world

Moses clashes with the spies not because he wants to turn the Jewish people into peasants who work the soil, but for a much more profound reason. Moses regards life in the material world as a challenge and treats it as a goal to strive for, in spite of the problems that are involved.

This is also the difference in character between Moses and ­Elijah. Elijah ascended on high, whereas Moses – even though he was on a higher level than Elijah – did not ascend. Moses had a sense for the physical; he had a true love for the Land. As the Midrash relates, Moses asked to become a small bird so as to reach the Land of Israel and at least touch it in some way.12 His request was rejected, meaning that even in his death he did not ascend on high.

The problem of the spies is akin to the question the angels asked G‑d regarding the giving of the Torah. According to the Midrash, the angels asked, “Why do You need this creature? If it is because you want them to say ‘Amen. May His great Name be blessed,’ then we will say it; why do You need man? Are we not pure enough, not fine enough?” Moses, as the representative of human beings, represents the advantage that the material has over the spiritual; he speaks of man’s superiority and preeminence within the world.

The question, “What is man that You should be mindful of him”13 is surely relevant, for man is “dust of the earth”14 and is indeed pulled downward. However, Moses’ argument begins from this same point. In his opinion, man’s greatness springs precisely from the fact that he is a material creation. The piyutVe’avita tehila,” which is recited in the Musaf service during the Days of Awe, speaks of the fact that G‑d has angels and seraphim, and yet man is His glory. Man’s ­distinction is that he exists in the world, with all the troubles and difficulties, and nevertheless succeeds. It is precisely his dual nature that gives him the ability to ascend higher.

Maimonides, who thoroughly appreciated the spiritual world, said that in the World to Come, the soul leaves the body and exists in an entirely spiritual world. According to Nahmanides and many others, who said that in the World to Come the body will still exist, the culmination of Creation will indeed feature the resurrection of the dead, but the world will still be based on the principles of nature.

The spies are the ones who introduced the view that the physical is dirty and undesirable, and that one must adhere strictly to the spiritual. Opposing them was Moses, who replied that even though the land has its difficulties, and even though the manna is wonderful and convenient, it is better to live on simple wheat, which is fertilized with cow manure.

G‑d tells Moses that He wants to start over again with better people, people who are more spiritual, and He suggests that He will blot out the Jewish people – “and I will make of you a mightier nation.”15

But Moses answers that if He had wanted spiritual beings, He would have sufficed with the angels. But He wanted people, so He must deal with the problems of people. Moses wanted to include all the rebellious individuals in the Jewish people, including rabble-rousers like Koracĥ, Datan, and Aviram. He wants them all, because otherwise everything could have been accomplished with angels.

Essential parts of the Torah are connected with the material world. Whether the subject is tefillin or the case of an ox that gored a cow, the Torah almost always deals with the material. Occasionally, we read of matters that relate more to the spiritual, but almost the entire Torah relates to this world, because there is great significance in the material. One cannot recite a blessing over a spiritual etrog; a physical etrog is required.

Until recently, the accepted scientific view was that there are two separate systems in the world: matter and energy. Today, scientists say that matter and energy are different aspects of the same thing. There is a law of conservation of matter and energy, along with Einstein’s famous formula describing the precise nature of the relationship between ­matter and energy: e = Mc2. According to this formula, even a small object contains enough energy to burn the entire world. So, although energy has various advantages, in matter everything is much more concentrated. To be sure, matter is less controllable than energy, since matter contains elements that interact with other elements according to electromagnetic patterns, but the potential for the release of energy from matter is in fact much greater. So we see that the material world has greater potential for powerful spirituality than the world of the spirit itself.

The danger and the ultimate purpose

In this dispute, Moses does not claim that his approach entails no dangers and descents; he says only that this is the path and the objective. The Land can be “a good and spacious land”; nonetheless, it might ultimately prove to be “a land that consumes its inhabitants.”

Moses intentionally leads the Jewish people on a path that goes into the world of matter, knowing full well that the path entails entering a war, and in war, people are wounded and die. When one enters the world, the danger is that I will come to see the material world in which I live as the most important thing. We learn that Jacob finally decided to leave Charan when he dreamed that the bucks were mounting the sheep. Then Jacob said, “When I left the Land, I dreamed of angels ascending and descending from heaven. If I have begun dreaming of goats and sheep, it is a sign that I must return to the Land.”

The danger of the world is that a person can be consumed by it. Hence, when one enters the Land, one must take care that this does not happen. Joshua, as it turned out, did not succeed in this, or if he did, it was only for a short period. During the period of the Judges, the Land of Israel really was “a land that consumes its inhabitants.” For four hundred years it swallowed up the People of Israel, as can be seen from quite a few examples. Consider, for instance, the private Temple of Micah, with his idolatry and his Levite attendant.16 So, too, when the Danites visit his Temple, they do not go in order to stop him, but to take over his objects of idolatry for themselves.

When people are swallowed up by the land, it becomes apparent that all the spirituality that was possessed by the previous generations, or that these people themselves possessed when they were young, has disappeared, for there are vegetables to harvest and goats to milk.

Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to lead the People of Israel into the Land, because that is the ultimate purpose.

In a certain sense, the entry into the Land of Israel is like Creation and the dangers that it entailed. When G‑d created the world, He chose to dwell down below in the material, physical world. Even though “against your will you were formed…and against your will you die,”17 some believe that if they have already come down to this world, it is best to be free of worries, like the embryo that studies with an angel in the womb. But G‑d does not want this. He wants us to live as a human beings in the midst of the world.