Am Yisrael was liberated from the burdens of slavery in Egypt, experienced “Ma’amad Har Sinai” and received the Torah, and is now on its way to the Land of Israel in order to found the first kingdom based on Divine values revealed in the Torah. But things do not turn out as planned.
As it approaches Eretz Yisrael, the nation chooses to send 12 spies from among the respected people of the nation to explore the land and examine it; these spies went into the land and explored it for 40 days.
So far, so good. But here the story starts to get complicated. The spies return to Am Yisrael’s camping site in the desert carrying bad news: “…the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified… We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we… The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants…” (Bamidbar 13, 28-32).
Only two of the spies disagree with this pessimistic assessment and claim: “We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it” (Bamidbar 13, 30).
Am Yisrael, which had until now believed that God would take care of it and lead it safely to the Promised Land, completely breaks down. Desperation takes hold and the future looks bleak. Their reaction is severe: “The entire community raised their voices and shouted, and the people wept on that night.
“All the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the entire congregation said, ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert. Why does the Lord bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?’
“They said to each other, ‘Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!’” (Bamidbar 14, 1-4) God’s reaction to this situation is swift. All the adults, He says to Moshe, will not be privileged to enter the Land of Israel, with the exception of those two spies who trusted Him and did not despair. For this reason, the nation will be detained in the desert for 38 more years, until all those who despaired perish. Only when a new nation is formed, which was not a part of that same sad and distressing affair, will the nation enter the longed-for land, Eretz Yisrael.
All of the Torah’s commentators struggled with the questions this story raises, with the main question being: In what way did the spies sin, and in what way did the nation sin? In actuality, the spies did not lie, but reported the truth. And was it not for this that they were sent? Moreover, the reaction of despair was natural.
Why was the nation punished with this significant delay, ensuring this generation was not privileged to enter Eretz Yisrael? One of the most interesting answers to these questions was given by the Gerrer Rebbe – Rabbi Yehuda Arieh Leib Alter (1847-1905) – in his book Sefat Emet.
According to him, the words of the spies were just a cover for their main concern.
The fear and concern of the battle with the inhabitants of the land was not the real motivation behind their opposition to entering Eretz Yisrael. What motivated them, perhaps subconsciously, to slander the land was a different concern altogether.
To understand their fear, according to the Sefat Emet, we must imagine Am Yisrael’s life in the desert – and it was the most peaceful life we can imagine. There was no need to worry about sustenance – food came down straight from heaven; and no need for an army – “clouds of glory” surrounded and protected the nation. What did the nation do in the desert? Simply, it was fully immersed in spirituality, in learning and fulfilling mitzvot. They had nothing else to do.
And now, this special spiritual experience was about to end. The entrance to the Land of Israel signaled the need to create a strong military. From now on, the nation would have to develop the land, agriculture, building, trade and everything necessary to found a state, and concern itself with subsistence and food.
The spies were not prepared to agree to this, and even the nation agreed with them. Of the entire nation, only two understood that the practical dealings of founding a state are the most correct way of worshiping God.
Walking the straight path involves not just “religious” areas; in all areas of life, we must practically express values based on Torah and mitzvot. On the contrary, “this is the Torah which Moses gave to Bnei Yisrael”: A life of work and of action according to the Torah.
God’s reaction suited this exact situation. Whoever is not capable of including a religious quality in every earthly and material action will not be privileged to do so. Only those who internalized the correct perspective on religion, which is not limited to the “synagogue” but works and influences us also in business, agriculture and the running of the state – only they will be privileged to do this, and enter Eretz Yisrael.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.