Moshe Rabeinu, besides being the ultimate prophet and teacher of Torah in the history of Am Yisrael, is also possibly the quintessential redeemer and protector of Am Yisrael as well. It is he who at the command of Hashem led us out of Egypt, guided us through the desert and on many occasions stood as the protector and savior of Am Yisrael from sin and punishment.
One of the highlights of this quality of Moshe’s leadership is after chet ha’egel – the sin of the golden calf. Chet ha’egel takes place when Moshe is still on Har Sinai. After having received the first set of tablets, Hashem informs Moshe of the people’s sin and then says:
I have seen this people and behold! they are a stiff necked people. Now leave Me alone, and My anger will be kindled against them so that I will annihilate them, and I will make you into a great nation. 
Immediately, even before going down Har Sinai to see what has happened, Moshe starts pleading to Hashem to forgive the people:
Moses pleaded before Hashem, and said: “Why, Hashem, should Your anger be kindled against Your people whom You have brought up from the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand?
Why should the Egyptians say: ‘He brought them out with evil [intent] to kill them in the mountains and to annihilate them from upon the face of the earth’? Retreat from the heat of Your anger and reconsider the evil [intended] for Your people.
Remember Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yisrael, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your very Self, and to whom You said: ‘I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens, and all this land which I said that I would give to your seed, they shall keep it as their possession forever.’ “
In his tefilah, Moshe mentions three reasons for Hashem to forgive the people. Firstly, they are His nation who He miraculously redeemed from Egypt. Secondly, destroying them would be some type of desecration of the name of Hashem amongst the Egyptians. Thirdly, Moshe invokes the merit and covenants of the Avot as a strong argument for Hashem to forgive the people.
Even though Hashem answers favorably to Moshe’s prayers in the very next verse, after Moshe goes down and responds to the sin amidst the people, the very next day he returns to Hashem in tefilah and once again continues to pray for the complete forgiveness of Bnei Yisrael. When Moshe relates this incident to Bnei Yisrael in Sefer Devarim, he reminds them of his devotion to them when he prayed for forty consecutive days to Hashem for their forgiveness:
And I fell down before Hashem as before, forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all your sins you had committed, by doing evil in the eyes of the Hashem to anger Him.
For I was frightened of the wrath and the fury that the Hashem was angry with you to destroy you, and the Hashem hearkened to me also at that time.
In light of all the above, it comes as a shocking surprise to reveal in this week’s Parsha that after Chet Hameraglim – the sin of the spies – when Hashem reacts in a somewhat similar way to the way He reacted to Chet ha’egel, Moshe responds very differently to how he responded previously:
Hashem said to Moshe, “How long will this people provoke Me? How much longer will they not believe in Me after all the signs I have performed in their midst?
I will strike them with a plague and annihilate them; then I will make you into a nation, greater and stronger than they.”
Moshe said to the Hashem, “But the Egyptians will hear that You have brought this nation out from its midst with great power.
They will say about the inhabitants of this land, who have heard that You, Hashem, are in the midst of this people; that You, Hashem, appear to them eye to eye and that Your cloud rests over them. And You go before them with a pillar of cloud by day and with a pillar of fire by night,
‘Since Hashem lacked the ability to bring this nation to the Land which He swore to them, He slaughtered them in the desert.’
Now, please, let the strength of Hashem be increased, as You spoke, saying.
Hashem is slow to anger and abundantly kind, forgiving iniquity and transgression, Who cleanses [some] and does not cleanse [others], Who visits the iniquities of parents on children, even to the third and fourth generations.’
Please forgive the iniquity of this nation in accordance with your abounding kindness, as You have borne this people from Egypt until now.”
The only argument Moshe makes is that the immediate total destruction of Am Yisrael would be a Chilul Hashem in the eyes of the Egyptians and other nations. For that reason, and apparently that reason alone, Moshe asks Hashem to somewhat forgive the people. Compared to the three reasons employed by Moshe after Chet Ha’egel, here only the second one is used. No mention of Am Yisrael being Hashem’s special nation and absolutely no mention of the Avot, their merits and the covenants.
Furthermore, Hashem responds to Moshe’s prayer and says:
“I have forgiven them in accordance with your word“.
Rashi emphasizes that the words “in accordance with your word” is conveying that only because of the claim of a chilul Hashem did Hashem forgive them. Indeed, Hashem continues and says that the forgiveness is effective only to the extent that they will not be immediately destroyed, rather they would perish over the period of forty years in the desert until the end of that generation. So apparently Moshe’s tefilah was answered, yet it merely reflects that Moshe didn’t pray at all for their complete forgiveness, only a prolonged punishment to avoid a chilul Hashem.
Furthermore, when relating chet ha’meraglim in Sefer Devarim, Moshe makes no mention at all of him praying for Bnei Yisrael’s forgiveness as he does regarding chet ha’egel , simply because he didn’t!
So the obvious question is – why not? Moshe, the selfless devoted leader who on so many occasions beseeched Hashem on our behalf, why did he ask and pray for so little? Why did he not even try for the full forgiveness of Am Yisrael?
The Ramban points out amongst the differences between Moshe’s tefilot here and after chet ha’egel is the absence of zechut Avot from Moshe’s tefilah here. The Ramban says that the reason Moshe did not mention the Avot or the promises made to them by Hashem is simply because the meraglim, and subsequently Bnei Yisrael, in their actions had rebelled against their Avot and those very same covenants. The Avot, who so desired Eretz Yisrael, were now being betrayed by their descendants, so obviously it would be ridiculous to invoke their merit in defense of a crime being committed against their heritage. One cannot despise and disregard a value and at the same time employ that very same value in your merit and defense.
Apparently this is also why Moshe does not find it possible to defend Am Yisrael on their own merit. Can Moshe arouse the rachamim of Hashem for Bnei Yisrael because of Yetziat Mitzrayim at a time when they have turned their backs on it? Can the claim of Am Yisrael being an Am Segulah be brought in front of Hashem when they are rejecting it? Moshe can pray for Bnei Yisrael when they are Bnei Yisrael and have sinned and gone astray, but he cannot pray for them when they have deserted their very identity. All that is left is to prevent a chilul Hashem.
Moshe Rabeinu, indeed the ultimate compassionate leader of Am Yisrael teaches us an important lesson in prayer and integrity. Prayer is not a magic wand that defies reality and tolerates hypocrisy. We must first return to ourselves and our heritage and then invoke those merits to refine and elevate ourselves on the journey of our destination.