I’ve often thought that the generation sentenced to forty years traipsing around the desert is unfairly portrayed in history as a bunch of whiners and moaners who stumbled continually from one crisis or rebellion to another, with no time off for good behavior.

In truth, we can hardly be blamed for this negative perception when the Torah describes their sins and failings in excruciating detail. Apparently, the Torah doesn’t feel the need to record that most Jews, most of the time, remained loyal and steadfast no matter how far from home they were led on their historic adventure, and that even the ones who fell learnt, in the main, from their mistakes.

It’s just like starting a small business: most mistakes are made at the beginning. The failures in life never learn; for them, disappointment becomes a pattern. The successful entrepreneurs learn from their mistakes, set up systems to avoid them in the future, and eventually reap the rewards of their efforts. Similarly, the forty years in the desert were a huge sociological experiment in successfully transforming a rabble of slaves into a proud, independent people. Sure, they overreacted on many occasions, and tried to prematurely close up shop on G‑d; but through the smelting process of experience, they achieved independence of thought and earned their passage to Israel.

Just Following Orders

The difference between learning from one’s mistakes and replicating them is tiny, but so significant. Think back a few weeks, to when we read about the disaster with the spies. Right at the beginning of their travels, Moses sent them to scout out their future homeland and report on the best way to go about conquering it. They overstepped their mission and, instead of just describing the task that lay ahead, they analyzed the problem and decided they they’d never succeed. As punishment for breaching orders, the Jews were condemned to an extra forty years of wandering.

This week we read about a similar situation, only this time a different outcome came about. Moses sent spies to discover the best way to conquer the land of Yaazer. The spies again overreached themselves, and instead of reporting back to base, undertook to make war on the nation all by themselves. In an astonishing display of self-reliance and resolve, their risk paid off and their surprise attack succeeded.

After the disaster of forty years previously, the spies could well have been excused were they to have insisted on sticking rigidly to the tenets of their task, not deviating from Moses’ instructions by the proverbial inch. Just as some businessmen become traumatized by the mistakes of their early career and refuse to ever again venture into uncharted territory or speculative investments, it must have been so tempting for the Jews to play it safe and await further orders.

To do so would have demonstrated that the years in the desert had impacted their psyche only superficially. The lesson to be learnt from the story of the first spies was not that G‑d discourages independent thought and autonomy of choice, but rather that G‑d despises negativity and pessimism.

To believe in G‑d, one does not have to suspend individual judgment. Quite the contrary, a believer must constantly be on the lookout to understand and fulfill his personal mission. The mistake the first time around was not that they deviated from their instructions, but that they abandoned the plan altogether.

The new set of spies had the gumption and confidence to aspire for immediate success, and demonstrated that they had truly learnt the lesson of the ages by daring to dream and committing themselves to accomplishing G‑d’s will, irrespective of any dangers that lay ahead.