The Sidra of Shelach contains the episode of the spies whom Moses sent to gather intelligence about the land of Canaan. Ten of the twelve spies returned with disparaging reports, that although the land was fertile, its inhabitants were too strong and their cities too well guarded to be defeated by the Israelites. The whole story is shot through with difficulties. How could the spies, so soon after the miraculous deliverance from Egypt, doubt that G‑d would give them victory? How could the morale of the Israelites be so easily broken? Why did Caleb and Joshua, the only faithful voices amongst the spies, not dispel the anxiety by mentioning the great catalogue of miracles in which the people had witnessed the power of G‑d? It is clear that some unease lay beneath the surface of the spies’ behavior. What this was, and how it is capable of affecting us, is the subject of this Sicha.

1. The Spies’ Despair

In our Sidra we read of the report of the spies who were sent by Moses to discover the nature of the promised land of Canaan and its inhabitants. Ten of the twelve returned with a counsel of despair. They broke the morale of the Israelites by suggesting that they would not be able to conquer it because “the people that dwell in the land are fierce and the cities are fortified and very great.” They argued that “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.”

Indeed, the Rabbis in the Talmud1 understood them to have made an even stronger claim. The Hebrew word for “than we” can also be translated as “than Him.” The spies said “they are stronger than Him,” that is, that the Canaanite nations were—as it were—too powerful even for G‑d. The Rabbis pungently expressed this audacious proposition as saying, as it were, that “even the master of the house cannot remove his furniture from it.”

2. Mysteries

What is the meaning of this remarkable episode?

It is part of our spiritual task to remove the cry of despair which the Israelites first gave when they heard the ominous news and which has had its echoes throughout our history. As the Talmud says: That day was the ninth of Av and the Holy One blessed be He said, “They are now weeping for nothing, but I will fix (this day) as an occasion for weeping for generations.” So our many chapters of national mourning have written through them a trace of that moment when faith was lacking in the saving power of G‑d. And we have, by faith, to compensate that moment of faithlessness.

But what was the specific meaning of the event? Why did the spies argue as they did? What was the answer to their challenge? And how were they able to reduce the people to despair, a people who had witnessed the great miracles of deliverance—the plagues and the division of the Red Sea—the miracles of protection against the snakes and scorpions of the desert,2 and the miracles of providence, the Manna and the Well? These were not events that made demands on their faith. They had seen them happen with their own eyes. How could the report of ten men suddenly outweigh the natural conviction that what G‑d had done to Egypt He would do to Canaan in its turn?

More remarkable still: Why, when Caleb replied to their arguments, did he not mention these recent miracles? They were surely the most convincing proof of his case. And yet we find instead that he says only, “We shall go up, indeed go up, and inherit it (the land) for we are well able to overcome it.” Was it, perhaps, that the Canaanites were a stronger force3 than the Egyptians, so that G‑d’s victory in Egypt did not assure victory in Canaan? But this could not have been Caleb’s reason, for at the crossing of the Red Sea the Israelites had sung,4 “All the inhabitants of Canaan are melted away. Terror and dread fall upon them. By the greatness of Your arm they are as silent as stone.” Forty years later, when Joshua began the conquest of the land, evidence of this terror still remained. His two spies were told in Jericho:5 “For we have heard how the L-rd dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt… and as soon as we had heard, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you.” So the Israelites could not have felt that Canaan represented a more formidable obstacle than Egypt, which was the dominant power at that time.6

3. Fear of Involvement

The explanation, given in Chassidut,7 is this. The spies were not animated by fear of physical defeat. Instead they feared a kind of spiritual defeat.

In the wilderness, each of the Israelites’ needs was met by a direct gift from G‑d. They did not work for their food. Their bread was the Manna which fell from the heavens; their water came from Miriam’s Well; their clothes did not need repair.8

The possession of the land of Israel meant a new kind of responsibility. The Manna was to cease. Bread would come only through toil. The providential miracles would be replaced by labor; and with labor came the danger of a new preoccupation.

The spies were no ordinary men. They were princes of their tribes, especially selected by Moses for the mission. And their anxiety was a spiritual one. Their fear was, that a concern to work the land and make a living might eventually leave the Israelites with progressively less time and energy for the service of G‑d. They said, “It is a land which eats up its inhabitants,” meaning that the land and its labor, and the preoccupation with the materialistic world, would “swallow up” and consume all their energies. Their opinion was that spirituality flourishes best in seclusion and withdrawal, in the protected peace of the wilderness where even the food was “from the heavens.”

4. The Mistake

And yet, the spies were wrong. The purpose of a life lived in Torah is not the elevation of the soul: It is the sanctification of the world.

The end to which every Mitzvah aims is to make a dwelling-place for G‑d in the world—to bring G‑d to the light within the world, not above it. A Mitzvah seeks to find G‑d in the natural, not the supernatural. The miracles which sustained the Jews in the wilderness were not the apex of spiritual experience. They were only a preparation for the real task: Taking possession of the land of Israel and making it a holy land.

We can now see the rationale of the spies’ argument. The miracles which they had witnessed did not prevent them saying of Canaan, “they are stronger than we.” Precisely because the Israelites had been delivered, protected and sustained by miracles, they had been able to dedicate their whole existence to G‑d. But in a land where every benefit had to be worked for, their spirituality might decline and be defeated. The miracles were not, in their eyes, a reason for being confident about the entry into the land. On the contrary, they were the reason for wishing to stay in the wilderness. And when as the Talmud says, they claimed that, as it were, “even the master of the house cannot remove his furniture,” they meant: G‑d Himself created the natural order (i.e., “His furniture”), and He decided (according to their misconception) not to dwell in the natural world. So long as miracles surrounded them, the Israelites could make themselves into vessels to receive His will. But land, labor, natural law—everything that faced them in the land of Israel—were not the vehicles of Divine revelation. G‑d, they argued, is higher than the world. So let us, too, be higher than the world. As soon as we enter the land of Israel we leave this realm.

5. The Miraculous and the Everyday

The spies had drawn a distinction between miracles and natural events, since the natural order is as it is only because it is G‑d’s will. But this was their error. For, the inner will of G‑d is to be found in the sanctification of the natural world.

And this is why Joshua and Caleb did not comfort the people by talking of the miracles that had taken them this far and which would see them safely into their land.

For, in crossing the Jordan, they were to pass beyond a faith that lives in miracles, into a life that would sanctify time and place, and turn the finite familiar world into the home of G‑d.

They said: “If the desire9 of the L-rd is in us, He will bring us into the land… (then its people) are our bread, their defense is removed from over them, and the L-rd is with us, fear them not.”

In other words, if it is G‑d’s will that we should enter the land, then we can remain close to Him there. Instead of being “a land that eats up its inhabitants” it will be “our bread.” Instead of our being reduced to its level, it will be raised to ours.

6. Caleb’s Answer

In fact, the miracle concealed in nature is more miraculous than the supernatural.10 The plagues, the division of the Red Sea, and all similar supernatural events show that G‑d is not confined by nature but can break through its regularities. But a miracle which is clothed in nature shows that G‑d is not bound at all, not even by the “confines” of supernatural law; but He can combine the natural with the supernatural. So the Mitzvah, the act which discovers G‑d within the everyday shows that G‑d is truly everywhere. He does not need the extraordinary to proclaim His presence. He is G‑d even within the dimensions of the world. This is the real miracle, that the infinite can inhabit the finite, and that natural and supernatural can become one.

This is what the entry into the land of Israel signified.

And so Caleb’s answer to the ten spies was, “Let us go up, let us indeed go up and inherit the land.” In other words, let us “go up” twice over. We have ascended to the spirituality of the wilderness, we have risen above the concerns of the world. Let us now make a new and greater ascent, finding G‑d within the world itself. And let us possess the land, not as someone who buys something from a stranger, but as someone who inherits something because of his oneness with its owner.11

7. The Wilderness of the Day

None of the Torah’s narratives is simply a story. Every Jew experiences the two realms of the wilderness and the land of Israel, and knows the tensions between them. They are two periods in his life, and they are two parts of every day. He begins in the wilderness, in the morning seclusion of learning and prayer. And then he must emerge into the “land of Israel,” the world of business, livelihood and labor.

It is then that he may feel stirring in him the doubts that plagued the spies. While he is learning and praying he feels himself wholly given over to the spiritual demands of Judaism. But in his work he can see little or no religious significance. Worse than that, he may feel that it is “a land that eats up its inhabitants”—that work so consumes him and invades his mind that even while he is praying or learning, the world of his everyday worries constantly intrudes and breaks his concentration.

But he is making the spies’ mistake, of placing G‑d outside the world, of failing to respond to G‑d’s presence in every human transaction, of forgetting the imperative to “Know Him in all your ways.” He must remember Joshua and Caleb’s words that “if the desire of the L-rd is with us” that we take our Judaism into every facet of our involvement with the world,12 then “they are our bread,” and the world is assimilated into holiness.

There is also another wilderness. The desire of the spies to rest secure in G‑d’s miraculous protection was a wish for the intensity of religious experience. Ultimately it was self-centered, because their reluctance to accept the responsibility of changing the world was also an unwillingness to move beyond private satisfactions to helping others. In us, their argument has its counterpart. We are sometimes hesitant in helping others with their spiritual development because we feel it would adversely affect ourselves—we might have to compromise ourselves, or we might become condescending. But these are rationalizations of the same mistake. Spirituality is not self-contained, a private possession not to be shared with the world. Instead, its essence lies in a Jew reaching out beyond himself to his fellow Jew, to the world of his work, extending holiness to everything he touches, without the fear that he is placing his faith at risk, without the thought that this or any situation lies outside the domain of G‑d.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. IV pp. 1041-1047)