In May of 1967, an Egyptian parliamentary delegation visiting Moscow was told that Israel had concentrated its army on the Syrian border and that an imminent Israeli invasion of Syria should be expected.

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol invited the Soviet ambassador to Israel on an unannounced tour of the northern border to demonstrate the falsehood of the Soviet charge. The ambassador then replied, "My function is to communicate Soviet truths, not to put them to a test."1

The Spies

Before our ancestors entered the promised land, Moses summoned twelve men and ordered them to explore the land of Israel and report back to him. He specifically ordered them to report on the climate, quality and topography of the land, the nature of its defenses and the quality of its defenders.

The spies returned from their mission with a full report and an assessment. In their judgment, the land was of exceptional quality but the enemy was of exceptional strength and its defenses were completely impregnable. In their view, a Jewish victory in Israel was virtually impossible.

The nation was demoralized and wept through the night. They opted en mass to abort the journey to the Promised Land and return to Egypt and slavery. G‑d threatened to punish the nation for their lack of faith, and Moses beseeched G‑d for mercy. His entreaties saved the nation but not the instigators. For their sins, the spies died prematurely.2

What Went Wrong?

This story begs a question. The spies did precisely what they were instructed to do. They were ordered to explore the land and report their findings. Where did they go wrong?

The commentaries offer two approaches:

  1. The Jews were promised a prosperous land, flowing with milk and honey. Some Jews were doubtful. They asked for verification and Moses gave his consent. Their mission was limited: report on the beauty of the land, not its military strength. Assessing military strategies and tactics was not their mandate and they should not have evaluated them.. They ought have been content, in perfect faith, that G‑d would deliver the land as promised despite the apparent difficulties.3

  2. To the extent that it was possible, Moses wanted to conduct a conventional war because it is best to exploit all natural means before asking G‑d to perform a miracle. As any good commander would, Moses asked the spies to report on the enemy's military strength and defenses; but he did not ask them to draw conclusions. They had no business arriving at conclusions, let alone stating them. They should have reported the enemy's strength and left the rest to G‑d. As the Soviet Ambassador said, it was their function to communicate the truth, not to put it to a test.4

Against All Odds

In the first approach, the spies were seen as ambassadors for Israel, and an ambassador ought to focus on diplomacy, not military analysis and security assessments.

The second approach sees the spies as security experts whose mandate was to explore enemy defenses, plot strategies and identify possible lines of attack. The spies executed their mission but failed to realize that Israel is different from all other places. Even a military analyst must view Israel differently from the rest of the world.

Israel was promised to the Jewish people by a power greater than military strength. While it is necessary to outline potential strategies and develop lines of attack, the analysts should have approached their mission with absolute confidence in their eventual success. The greatest defenses would certainly be penetrated, and the greatest obstacles would certainly be overcome. The land was promised to the Jewish nation, and there was no doubt that they would succeed.5

The Human Struggle

These two approaches are also evident in daily life. The human experience is a struggle between moral correctness and self indulgence. G‑d endowed us with the freedom to choose, but with that privilege came conflicting attractions to both bad and good.

To have negative character traits or selfish and immoral impulses is not inherently evil. They are indigenous to our nature and to the human condition that G‑d created. Choosing to succumb to these impulses is inherently evil. It is our task to struggle against these impulses and ensure that they never gain superiority or, G‑d forbid, domination over our souls.

This struggle is the sacred responsibility of those given the freedom to choose. To choose properly, one must reflect on two separate points, the inferiority of self indulgence and the superiority of moral correctness. In Talmudic parlance "flee from evil" - and "do that which is good."

In the first reflection, one becomes a security analyst. The analyst identifies security lapses, analyzes risk factors and evaluates the dangers attached to them. In the same sense, one identifies negative impulses and reflects upon the personal, social and spiritual damage caused by succumbing to them.

In the second reflection, one becomes an ambassador for G‑d. Ambassadors present their countries in a positive light and heavily extol their country's virtues. In the same sense, one reflects upon the spiritual dimension of moral correctness and the personal and social advantage that it offers.

Both approaches expose us to the same vulnerability that tripped up the ancient spies, namely, a sense of doom and inevitable failure. The spiritual rewards of Torah discipline are indiscernible to the human eye, while real-life temptation of self indulgence hangs tantalizingly before our eyes. Faced with the enormous allure of physical decadence, one may feel powerless to resist.

This is where we must tear a page out of our ancestors' book and learn a lesson from their experience. We must labor under the conviction that G‑d gave us the strength to win the struggle against our own impulses. The odds may seem long and the obstacles daunting, but a Jew must never give up hope. If our faith is strong and our demeanor optimistic, then our souls will prevail and we will overcome.