Why Did the Jews Listen to the Spies?

In Parshas Shelach, the Torah relates how the men whom Moshe had sent as spies caused the Jews to fear entering Eretz Yisrael bytelling them:1 “The people who dwell in the land are very strong.... We are not able to go up against them, for they are stronger than He,” i.e., than G‑d Himself. As our Sages comment:2 “It is as if the owner cannot remove his articles from there.”

Every story in the Torah serves as a lesson for the Divine service of the Jewish people in all generations. What lesson can we learn from the story of the spies?

It is true that we are still working to offset the negative consequences of the spies’ report.2 But even so, it is not necessary to know all the details of the story; a general account would have been sufficient.

Also, an explanation is required regarding the core issue: How were the spies able to frighten the Jews, and dissuade them from wanting to enter Eretz Yisrael? Throughout its journey from Egypt, the nation had seen how G‑d had wrought supernatural miracles. Why were they intimidated by the inhabitants of Canaan?

For example, the Torah describes3 the desert through which the Jews passed as inhabited by “snakes, serpents, and scorpions.” Our Sages explain4 that even though these creatures were of monstrous size, they were slain by the ark5 and the clouds of glory.6

And just as G‑d protected the Jews from harm, so too He worked miracles for their benefit. Every day, the Jews ate manna from heaven and drank water from Miriam’s well. Similarly, G‑d wrought miracles on their behalf against other nations, the most noteworthy of these being the devastation of the Egyptians at the Red Sea. So great a miracle was this that our Sages describe it as being “difficult.”7

They witnessed these miracles with their own eyes. Why then did they accept the spies’ arguments? Why didn’t they assume that just as G‑d had defeated the Egyptians, He would also defeat the Canaanites?

These questions are reinforced by the fact that Calev, when stirring the Jews to reject the spies’ judgment, did not refer to the miracles of the exodus or to those which transpired in the desert. Instead, he merely encouraged the Jews:8 “Let us go up and take possession of [the land].”

The Canaanites’ Fear

Can we say that the defeat of Egypt’s army was not enough to inspire confidence with regard to the battle against the kings of Canaan, who were strong and mighty?9 As stated in the Song sung at the Red Sea, when the Canaanites heard of the splitting of the ocean, they all melted in fear10 — a fear so powerful that it still affected them11 38 years later, when Yehoshua sent spies into the land.

Moreover, our Sages state12 that whenever a nation subjugates the Jewish people, G‑d makes that nation a superpower. Thus when the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, the Egyptians dominated the world,13 including the 31 kings of Canaan. Thus the devastation of the Egyptians should surely have cast fear into the hearts of their vassals.

Where the Spies Went Wrong

In Chassidus,14 it is explained that the real reason the spies wanted to remain in the desert rather than enter Eretz Yisrael is because they did not want to involve themselves with material affairs. In the desert, the nation was removed from all worldly concerns. The people received their physical sustenance in miraculous ways, and even their clothes grew with them, as our Sages commented.15

The Jews knew that when they reached Eretz Yisrael, the manna would cease and the well of Miriam would no longer accompany them. Instead, they would have to derive their sustenance from “bread from the earth,” and would have to perform the labor necessary to obtain it.

For this reason, the spies complained that Eretz Yisrael “is a land that devours its inhabitants.”16

This phrase was well chosen. When food is eaten, it becomes absorbed into the body of the person who partakes of it. So too, the spies complained, when the Jews entered Eretz Yisrael, they would be consumed by the land, and themselves become earthly.17 This would be a drastic departure from their conduct in the desert, where they were involved only with the spiritual. Indeed, in the desert, even the food they ate, the manna, refined their natures, making them fit to study Torah, as reflected in our Sages’ statement:18 “The Torah was given solely to those who partook of the manna.”

But G‑d’s intent in creation was that a dwelling be fashioned for Him in the lower worlds.19 This requires involvement in the material dimensions of existence, making them vessels for G‑dliness. Accordingly, the spies were in error; the ultimate purpose of the Jews’ desert journey was their life in Eretz Yisrael, where they would fashion a dwelling for G‑d.20 The passage through the desert was merely a preparatory phase.

Miracles and Nature

Based on the above, we can appreciate why, despite the overt miracles witnessed during the exodus, at the splitting of the Red Sea, and throughout their desert journey, the spies still doubted G‑d’s power with regard to the conquest of Eretz Yisrael. They did not draw a lesson from these miracles, for they saw the miraculous and the mundane as two unrelated planes. The miracles of the desert could not serve as indicators regarding their future in Eretz Yisrael, because in Eretz Yisrael they would have to be involved with material existence.

In the desert, they were involved with spiritual matters, and their lives were controlled by miracles. In Eretz Yisrael, where they would be involved in material affairs, the spies feared that their lives would be controlled by the natural order. (And indeed, with regard to certain matters, this transition was evident immediately upon their entry into Eretz Yisrael. The manna, Miriam’s well, and the clouds of glory all ceased.)

If the natural order will prevail, they argued, then there was reason to fear the “descendants of the titans”21 who inhabited Eretz Yisrael. For according to the natural order, they were stronger than the Jews.

On this basis, we can understand our Sages’ restatement of the spies’ report:2 “It is as if the owner cannot remove his articles from there.” The spies knew — indeed, they had seen with their own eyes — that G‑d is the “owner” of the world, and can do with it as He wishes. Moreover, they realized that every entity in the world is one of G‑d’s “articles.”

“Removing his articles” means elevating the sparks of G‑dliness enclothed in the physical substance of Canaan. This — the spies felt — is possible if one conducts one’s life in a spiritual manner. In the desert, such conduct is feasible, but not within the material world. For the world to remain unchanged, governed by the laws of nature, and yet become a medium for G‑dliness, it was necessary, they thought, for G‑d to sacrifice His “ownership” and Himself accept the dictates of the natural order. Accordingly, if it is G‑d’s will that the Jews become subject to the laws of nature, the spies were sure there would be no place for miracles.

This argument was rebutted by Calev and Yehoshua with their statement: “If G‑d cherishes us... He will give us [the] land.”22 Since G‑d’s desire is that the Jewish people will create a dwelling for Him in Eretz Yisrael, the nation should realize that:23 “They are our bread.... G‑d is with us. Do not fear them.”

There is no need to fear confrontation with the world. Even though the natural order remains, G‑d always accompanies the Jewish people, and grants them supernatural success. And so the world can be considered “our bread,”24 i.e., it will become part of our being, and will not prevent us from fashioning a dwelling for G‑d’s presence.

When Transcendence Is Also a Limit

In truth, miracles enclothed in the natural order are of a higher order than miracles which transcend nature.25 Miracles which transcend the natural order point to a transcendent G‑dliness, which disrupts nature. The miracles which are enclothed within the natural order, by contrast, indicate that G‑d is above both nature and transcendence, and can therefore fuse the two and cause them to function in harmony.

This ability was revealed in the Holy of Holies, where the holy ark took up no space. To explain: There were ten cubits from the eastern wall of the Holy of Holies to the eastern side of the ark, and ten cubits from the western wall to the western side of the ark, and the ark itself was a cubit and a half wide. Yet the width of the entire chamber was only 20 cubits!26 Despite the fact that the ark measured 2.5 by 1.5 cubits, it did not take up space within the Holy of Holies; limitation and transcendency were fused.27

In order for the Jewish people to affect the material world, it was necessary for them to enter Eretz Yisrael. In the desert, they lived above nature. Their entry into Eretz Yisrael was intended to fuse nature and transcendence. For this reason, their entry was marked by the splitting of the Jordan with the ark.28 For the settlement of Eretz Yisrael and the ark share this theme:29 the fusion of limitation and transcendence.30

Acquiring Our Inheritance

This enables us to understand Calev’s choice of words:31 “Let us ascend and take possession of it.” In the Hebrew, the words “Let us ascend” are repeated, aleh naaleh. The implication is that two types of ascent are involved. For were the second ascent to be of the same type as the first, it would have been considered part of that first ascent.32 Calev was alluding to the fact that the entry into Eretz Yisrael would involve not only an ascent to a level above nature (as in the desert), but also an ascent above the level of transcendence.33

This helps us understand the Hebrew term used for “and take possession,” viyerashnu. This relates to the word yerushah, meaning “inheritance.” An inheritance is not considered a transfer of property.

When an article is purchased, it is transferred from the seller’s domain to the buyer’s. When, by contrast, an article is inherited, it remains in the same domain, for the essence of the testator is transferred to the heir.34

This was Calev’s intent when he said “we will take possession of it.” When we enter Eretz Yisrael and make material concerns mediums for G‑dliness, we will take possession of the land as an inheritance, for through these efforts, we will relate to G‑d’s essence.

Spies in the Twentieth Century

The lesson from the story of the spies can be explained as follows: In his personal life, every Jew journeys through the desert and settles in Eretz Yisrael. Similarly, these two phases are reflected in our conduct each day. We begin the day with prayer and a fixed time of study, and then go out and involve ourselves with elevating material entities. It’s true the tzitzis and the tefillin which we wear are material entities, but putting them on each day does not represent involvement with the limitations of worldly existence. This is accomplished when a person involves himself in his profession or in his personal concerns, carrying out these activities according to the directive:35 “Know Him in all your ways.”

A person can argue: “During the study of the Torah, which is the wisdom and the will of G‑d, one can feel a bond with G‑d that excludes everything else. And during prayer, when one stands before G‑d with complete bittul, even one’s ‘I’ should cease to be felt. One should be aware only of G‑d. But how can this connection be maintained during one’s involvement with worldly matters? The very Hebrew word for ‘world,’ olam, relates to the word helam, meaning ‘concealment.’36 For the world is characterized by the concealment of G‑dliness, and the Torah mandates that our involvement in the world recognize its limitations.

“How then can a person bring himself to the point that he will show no concern for material entities, and will use them only for his Divine service?”

The “land,” it can be argued, “devours its inhabitants.” Since we are involved in material concerns during the majority of the day, not only can we not carry out the Divine service required, but our involvement with material entities confuses us, and disturbs us during prayer and study.

This, however, is the approach of the spies. They maintained that involvement in the world is an insurmountable challenge; even “the owner cannot remove his articles from there.”

The truth is that, although the observance of Torah and mitzvos must conform to the limitations of the natural order,37 we do not have to be restricted by those limitations. “If G‑d cherishes38 us” — i.e., if we follow the path G‑d cherishes39 and act as His agents — we have the potential to unite nature and that which is above nature, transforming the world into a dwelling fit for G‑d.

This potential is granted by the ark, which remains intact in the present age, entombed under the Beis HaMikdash.40

Going Beyond Oneself

In Kabbalah, andin Chassidus,41 it is explained that the spies functioned in the realm of thought, and did not desire to descend to the realm of speech. Other opinions42 explain that they were willing to descend to the realm of speech, but not to the realm of deed.

The difference between thought and speech is that thought is self-contained. Speech, by contrast, reaches out to another person. Parallels exist between the Jews’ Divine service in the desert and their Divine service in Eretz Yisrael.

The entry into Eretz Yisrael entailed more than the observance of the mitzvos as they are enclothed in material entities (as opposed to single-minded study of the Torah), and even more than involvement with material entities in the spirit of “Know Him in all your ways.” These endeavors can be entirely self-contained. And when a Jew’s Divine service is self-contained, he is still “in the desert,” in the realm of thought, even though he may be involved with material entities. “Entering Eretz Yisrael” means involving oneself with others, devoting oneself to them, and making them into Torah Jews.

The yetzer hora can argue: If one devotes oneself to another Jew, and endeavors to influence him, one will surely feel on a higher level. And these feelings will be reinforced if the other person responds with thanks, honor, and praise. Sinceone does not desire to become conscious of one’s ego or, heaven forbid, become possessed by pride — which is the source of all evil43 — it is preferable to refrain from such involvement in the first place.

This, however, is the approach of the spies, who feared that the “land devours its inhabitants.” When we realize the truth — that “G‑d cherishes us” — and dedicate ourselves to carrying out G‑d’s will, it is impossible to descend. On the contrary, one’s path will point upward, to the ultimate ascent.

The yetzer hora may still argue: “It is true that one must involve oneself with another person, but it is sufficient to work with a person on your own level. There is no need to descend and work to save a lowly individual. Such involvement will surely lead to your own descent.”

In this context, the kabbalistic interpretation of the story of the spies teaches that speech is not enough; deed is necessary. Speech relates to equals or near-equals — people who hear and understands what one says. Deed, by contrast, can involve even inanimate matter.

The story of the spies teaches that one must be involved even with a person whose spiritual level is so low that he is considered an inanimate entity. It is through such endeavors that we will reach the ultimate ascent and the coming of the time when we will take possession of Eretz Yisrael as an eternal inheritance.

(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Parshas Shelach, 5722)