The central theme of this week’s Parsha, Chet HaMeraglim, has been justifiably examined from every conceivable angle. Who bore responsibility for having sent the spies in the first place? How could the spies, universally considered to have been righteous prior to their return from their ill-fated mission, have sinned so grievously? How did Yehoshua and Calev prove to be immune from the plot of their colleagues, and why were they unable to turn the tide? While all these questions in and of themselves invite analaysis, I would like instead to focus on the outcome of the episode, namely, the punishment that B’nei Yisrael (as opposed to the spies themselves) received, and why was it justified? After all, were they not led astray by the spies, the very leaders in whom they had placed so much trust and confidence?
The Torah itself seems to give two possible answers to this question. On the one hand, we read of the apparent frustration that G-d Himself expresses with the lack of faith consistently exhibited by Bnei Yisrael. (14:11, 14:22,14:27) On the other hand we find that G-d is also frustrated by the rejection by Bnei Yisrael of the land that He wishes to give them. (14:31) In either case, it is apparent that Bnei Yisrael’s reaction to the spies report has confirmed, beyond any reasonable doubt, that character flaws hinted at in previous episodes are in fact chronic, and their behavior has precluded them from being able to enter into Eretz Yisrael.
The Netziv, in his introduction to Sefer BaMidbar, explains that this Book of the Torah is in fact the pivotal one, where we witness Bnei Yisrael making the active decision to withdraw from what has been a supernatural type of existence, in favor of a more natural state. When Bnei Yisrael leave Egypt, they are led by a pillar of fire at night and a cloud during the day. Their food is miraculously provided for them in the form of Manna, and their water is drawn from a well that accompanied them. This spiritual embrace, however, has its disadvantages for Bnei Yisrael. A nation that merits a life defined by constant miracles is a nation that lives in the shadow of G-d Himself. Punishment for sin is swift and severe. According to the Netziv, Bnei Yisrael reach the conclusion that it is preferable to lead a more natural existence rather than rely upon a daily diet of miracles for their existence. This is the genesis of the request to send the spies, rather than rely upon Divine Providence. After all, real nations don’t just sally forth into hostile territory without doing the necessary reconnaissance work first.
While in theory, there is nothing wrong with this decision, it in fact reveals the essential flaw in Bnei Yisrael’s character. If they had truly trusted in G-d, but were merely overwhelmed by the responsibility that a supernatural relationship thrust upon them, then all would have been well. But what was in fact happening was quite different. Bnei Yisrael just don’t trust G-d.
This idea is evident amongst various Meforshim. The Akeidat Yitzhak (R. Yitzhak Arama, 14th century Spain) examines both of the possibilities that we suggested in the passukim above. In questioning if Bnei Yisrael’s rejection of Eretz Yisrael is in and of itself sufficient to warrant a punishment so harsh and irrevocable. If not, then it must be that there is a combination of the two factors at play here. Rejection of the land is really a code for rejection of G-d and His Torah, of the whole way of life that has been mapped out for them. Bnei Yisrael’s plaintive ” we can not go up” (said by the spies and adopted by the people, 13:31), followed by the plan to return to Mitzrayim is in fact a statement of an unwillingness to rise up spiritually in order to be worthy of the land and the lifestyle it demands. It is far preferable to return to Egypt and the undemanding, in fact heathen lifestyle that characterizes that country. It is far easier to be truly enslaved than truly free, for freedom demands commitment and fealty to a lifestyle defined by the demands of G-d.
The Ramban, in a seemingly unrelated Passuk (15:22) makes a similar point. When explaining the Passuk of bringing a Korban Chatat for a sin involving the whole community (most meforshim understand it as referring to Avoda Zara), the Ramban specifically links its placement as a reminder of the spies plans to return to Egypt “where they could be without Torah and Mitzvot”. (This is a Ramban that Rav Milston would probably call “peladik”. It is worth learning (well, aren’t they all) if you have a little extra time this Shabbat).
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch takes this idea in a slightly different direction. Life in Eretz Yisrael requires a willingness to recognize G-d’s hand at work in everything around you. Part of the purpose of having performed so many miracles was to teach Bnei Yisrael to “see” G-d around them. At this, they had failed miserably. Apparently, having witnessed all the miracles of Yeziyat Mitzrayim failed to sufficiently impress. They have seen G-d’s hand in a variety of settings, humbling the most advanced civilization on the one hand and mastering the savagery of the wilderness on the other. And yet, they have still not learned to obey. Such a people are unworthy of entering into Eretz Yisrael.
I would like to close with the words of the Akeidat Yitzhak, when explaining why the rejection of Eretz Yisrael is sufficient cause for the punishment meted out upon Bnei Yisrael. Bnei Yisrael did want the land because it was repulsive to them, and this repulsion has haunted us since. (His words, not mine). Our own lack of dedication to Eretz Yisrael is the cause of our ongoing exile and the root of the contempt with which the world considers us. (Still his words). We can only hope to return to our own wholeness when we return to our land. (Still his words. I don’t think that there is any reason to add my own).
R. Michael Susman