By A. Simantov
The story of the spies is subject to a large number of interpretations by commentators, many of which have great relevance today. Why was the sin of the spies, and the generation of the desert who listened to them, so serious that it warranted such harsh punishment? God commanded Moshe to send the spies in this section, but in Parsha Devarim, it is Bnai Yisroel who approaches Moshe with the request. Rashi explains that God did not want the spies sent but was permitting it at the request of the people, for it is written, “You send on your own initiative.”
Rashi explains that Moshe did not agree to the necessity of sending the spies but felt that if he consented to the people’s request, Bnai Yisroel would realize that he had nothing to hide from them, that God’s promise of a good and prosperous land would be fulfilled and that they would withdraw their request. The Midrash compares this to a business transaction where a man seeks to purchase a beast of burden. When the buyer asks the seller if he can test the animal by having it carry loads up mountains, into valleys, etc., and the seller agrees to his wishes, the buyer is often convinced that the animal is sound and no longer requires the test to be performed. To Moshe’s surprise, however, the people insisted on actually sending the spies, despite his assurances. God then orders Moshe to send the spies as an acknowledgment of the people’s bechira chofshit (free will) in choosing their own course of action, regardless of the consequences.
The emerging report was unjustified and unexpected. There were two basic, subconscious motivations that created the entire debacle and were deeply embedded in the hearts of that generation. That is why they were so willing to accept the words of the 10 spies and ignore the truth that Yehoshua and Calev related to them.
The first motivation was that the leaders in the desert realized that the new leaders would take their places once the Jewish people settled in the Promised Land, so they subconsciously chose to scuttle the idea of going to the Land of Israel in favor of remaining in office in the desert.
When the rabbis said, “One should not trust one’s self” they meant that one’s judgment is always clouded by self-interest. One has to examine one’s own prejudices, experiences, ego and desires before passing judgment on important issues.
The other motivation was that the people in the desert feared the responsibility of having a Jewish state. They had come from being slaves in Egypt. Being a slave is no joy, but a slave has no independence, no decisions to make. Immediately upon gaining their freedom, they came to a desert where all material needs were miraculously met: manna from heaven, water from the rock, dry cleaners from clouds and perfect weather. All taken for granted. They understood that once they entered the Land, all support systems would cease. They would have to become masters of their own destiny, and they were truly fearful of the task. Slave mentality had not been eradicated from them.
The shirking national responsibilities lead to disastrous consequences for such a generation. Decisions of policy and state founded upon weakness of will and distorted vision will always come back to haunt us. Yehoshua and Calev may have been the minority opinion, but history has proven them to be the authors of the correct opinion.
“Just the Facts, Ma’am”
The commentator Akaida explains that the report of the spies was, itself, accurate. They were told to see the land and report back on the conditions of the land itself and the people who lived there. But their task was just to observe and relate what they witnessed. They were not asked to render an opinion on whether they were to enter the land. This is especially true when judging other people; the tendency to reach the wrong conclusion is both probable and possible.
Torah Portions, June 2012
June 2: Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)
June 9: Beha’alotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:15)
June 16: Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41)
June 23: Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)
June 30: Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)