Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, commenting on Chet Hameraglim – the sin of the Spies –writes:
“Crying was established for Israel for all generations, they [the people] rejected the Land of Divine promise. It is this rejection of the land which has been our undoing throughout the ages; it is the reason for which we face destruction in all generations, and because of it we were exiled from our land and divorced from our soil, becoming a mockery to our neighbors and a source of derision to those around us. There is no way of restoring our integrity other than by returning unto it.”
Rabbeinu Bachya, who preceeded Arama by some 200 years expressed this idea as well basing it heavily on Chazal in the midrashim. After listing many of the sufferings that befell Am Yisrael he writes:
“All these tragic events occurred at night as a punishment for the weeping of the children of Israel on the night after the return of the spies. Even the eventual destruction of the Temples and the dispersion of the Jewish people was decreed on the night mentioned in our verse. This is the meaning of Psalms 106,25-27: “they grumbled in their tents and disobeyed the Lord. So He raised His hand in oath to make them fall in the wilderness. To disperse their offspring among the nations and scatter them through the lands.” The prophet Ezekiel also refers to this when he says in Ezekiel 20,23: “However, I swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them through the lands.” So you have clear proof from all three parts of the Bible that this night was predetermined to become a night of weeping for the Jewish people throughout the generations.”
Therefore, though we are accustomed to always learning Torah with the mindset of understanding the implications and instructions (the “nafka minah”) for ourselves in the present, these powerful words of Rabbis Bachya and Arama put the episode of Chet Hameraglim on a different level in that respect. They claim, echoing Chazal, that this sin is in fact the source and ongoing cause of all of the exiles, sufferings, trials and tribulations of the Jewish people ever since that tragic day, Tish’a Be’Av, when the spies came back from spying the land of Israel. In order to bring an end to it all, it is incumbent upon us to understand that sin, stop perpetuating it and rectify it.
Yet, when approaching this task, it becomes apparent that it is not so easy. What exactly was the sin of the spies? In the words of the Ramban:
“Furthermore, what did the spies do [bad]? For Moshe told them: “And look at the Land, how is it, and at the people that dwell upon it: Is it strong or weak? Is it few-numbered or many-numbered?” And he said to them about the cities: “[Do they dwell] outdoors or in fortifications?” So, no matter what, they were obliged to answer him on what he ordered them; what then is their crime and what is their fault when they said to him (v. 28): “Alas! for the people is fierce, and the cities are fortified [and] big”? Did he send them in order that they testify to him falsehood?”
As always, the commentators explored this topic extensively and came up with many explanations ranging from more text based explanations like: lashon hara about the land; overstepping their mission to go as spies but became advisors; reported to the people instead of to Moshe; doubting the goodness of the land; abhorring the Land of Israel; scaring and demoralizing the people; doubting Hashem’s power – to more esoteric, hidden from the text ideas like refusal to leave the spiritual reality of the Clouds of Glory for the physical land; anxiety over losing their positions of status in Eretz Yisrael, and other ideas too. The array of explanations given just seem to emphasize the difficulty of simply seeing the sin in the text itself. Indeed, the Ramban quoted above, after asking the question, goes on a lengthy discussion to try and unravel their sin. I am still unclear as to what is the Ramban’s final answer to his question.
The problem with the sin of the spies is that a simple reading of the text suggests the following: The spies checked out the land and its inhabitants just as Moshe instructed them and came back with what they deemed an honest report. The land is beautiful and plentiful, flowing with milk and honey etc., alas (efes!), we are unable to overcome and conquer its inhabitants, they are too strong for us. If we do enter the land, we and our wives and children will be murdered.
The Ramban even explains that the reason that they spoke Lashon Hara about the land was because they saw that some of the people were still undecided as to whether to side with them or place their trust in their strength or in Hashem and side with Yehoshua and Kalev, so in order to persuade them not to, they spoke badly of the land, even lied to prevent them going in at any cost.
So where is the crime? These were the “crème de la crème” of the leadership of Am Yisrael, handpicked by Moshe and sanctioned by Hashem Himself. They knew what they saw and they knew the people that would have to fight this war, and they foresaw a massacre. What were they supposed to do?
Furthermore, it would appear that they had a strong halachic basis and proof for their actions:
The Torah in sefer Devarim, when discussing the laws of preparing for war, enumerates various people that are exempt from participating in battle:
“The officers shall speak to the people, saying, “What man is there who has built a new house, and has not dedicated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it.
What man is there who has planted a vineyard, and has not used its fruit? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man use its fruit.
What man is there who has pledged to be married a wife, and has not taken her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her.”
The officers shall speak further to the people, and they shall say, “What man is there who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, lest his brother’s heart melt as his heart.””
The Torah exempts anybody who is afraid from participating in war due to the negative effect it has on the other soldiers. Fear on the battlefield is the first step to defeat as the Rambam writes:
“After all those who are to leave have left from the front, they arrange the battle array and appoint officers to lead the people. Behind each array, strong and tough gendarmes are appointed and hold an iron axe in their hands. These police have the right to cut the thigh of anyone who wants to flee the battle, for fleeing is the first step to defeat.”
To sum up: The spies were scared, the people were scared, they couldn’t fight and they halachically weren’t even allowed on a battle-field! Apparently pointing a finger at them and telling them “Believe in Hashem, have trust in Hashem” would not, and did not have any effect on them, just like we do not do it to a scared soldier and force him to go into war.
“when these [spies] saw the people ‘whose height was like the height of cedars and girth was like oaks’, their fear fell upon them; and they [then] melted the hearts of their brothers.”
Where and what is their sin?
Yet precisely in that halacha just quoted, lies the answer.
The Rambam, based on the Mishnah continues the above halacha and states:
“In which instances are the above-mentioned individuals sent away from the battlefront? In a milchemet hareshut (a voluntary war). By contrast, in a milchemet mitzvah (a war which is a mitzvah), the entire nation must go out to war, even a groom from his chamber, and a bride from her pavilion.”
The halacha is that exemptions from war are only for “voluntary wars” which are wars to occupy additional territories, however, in “Mitzvah wars”, wars of self-defense, against Amalek and the conquering of Eretz Yisrael, there are no exemptions at all.
The question begs however, why is it that someone who is scared participates in this war? The fact that the war is defined “milchemet Mitzvah” doesn’t do away with the dangers involved with this type of person effecting his brethren on the battle field.
Perhaps the answer is that in a milchemet Reshut, there is a real danger that someone’s fear will get the better of them, cripple them with anxiety which will affect their surroundings. This is not a concern in a battle of self-defense where one is fighting for their lives. One cannot afford the “luxury” of being too scared to fight because it is their life at stake. Even if the situation is apparently overwhelming, the odds completely impossible, one will fight because there is no other option, there is no alternative.
The sin of the spies was their failure in understanding that going into Eretz Yisrael was not one option of many, their failure in understanding that there was/is no alternative. The concept of a milchemet Mitzvah is not simply the halachic definition, it is the understanding of the absoluteness of the necessity of it. The meraglim were certainly honest about their feelings and fears. Had they understood the nature of the war that lay ahead, it’s urgency and indispensability, they would have spoken otherwise, they would have encouraged themselves and their people to be brave, and even if they wouldn’t have succeeded, they would have gone ahead anyway, just as one would fight for their lives.
“There is no way of restoring our integrity other than by returning unto it.”
“Where no hope is left, is left no fear” – John Milton
 Akeidat Yitzchak, Gate 77.
 Rabbeinu Bachya, Bamidbar 14.1.
 Ramban, Bamidbar 13.2.
 Bamidbar 13-14.
 Ramban, Bamidbar 13.2.
 Akeidat Yitzchak, Gate 77.