Tragedy in the Wilderness

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, Shelach, depicts the great tragedy of the Spies, which had a lasting effect on the Jews throughout history. The time had come to embark on the final step of the Exodus journey, the conquest and settlement of the land which Hashem had designated for His chosen nation.

Moshe conveyed the command to “Go up and inherit” the special place where they would establish a national homeland and proceed to become a “light unto the nations.”

The Mitzvah was received by the people, who responded by requesting that Moshe send forth a team of scouts to report on the military aspects of the land they would have to wage a war over.

The great commentator known as Ramban (Nachmanides) believes that their solicitation of a spying mission was actually appropriate and praiseworthy. Nor did it imply any lack of faith in Hashem. That is because man is never to “rely on a miracle.” He must always take whatever action is possible in the framework of the natural order. At the same time, he is obliged to recognize that “everything is in the Hands of Hashem” and he must therefore solicit Divine assistance, through prayer and good deeds, for the success of his endeavors. True faith requires acceptance of man’s responsibility to operate in the framework of reality, while at the same time acknowledging the role of Providence in the determination of what happens on earth.

Thus, according to Ramban it was eminently fitting for Moshe to send forth a spying mission to get as much information regarding the anticipated military invasion of the land, as possible. Notice also, that in spite of the debacle of the Spies which caused the people to wander forty years in the Wilderness, Joshua commissioned another reconnaissance mission prior to the actual invasion of Eretz Yisrael, which he led.

But things didn’t work out right. The Torah does not reveal at what point the spies decided to sabotage the plan to invade the land. We only know that in their remarks to the assembled nation, they conveyed a sense of profound fear of the land's inhabitants. “We cannot ascend to the people, for it is too strong for us!” (BaMidbar 13:28)

The nation was thrown into a panic by the words of the spies and called for choosing a new leader who would return them to Egypt.

In light of what the Jews had experienced in Mitzrayim and at the Yam Suf it is very difficult to understand what they were afraid of. Hashem had smitten the firstborn of Egypt and had totally decimated Pharaoh’s Expeditionary force at the Reed Sea. So what was there to fear about the “scary” giants of Canaan? Hashem had created them and could “easily” destroy them. How is it possible that those who had witnessed the great miracles first hand suddenly caved in with fear of the mighty warriors who occupied the territory of Eretz Yisrael?

Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of the command to “Go up and conquer.” Until now, Hashem had done everything for them. At the Yam Suf the Jews were instructed to “stand down” passively and to merely watch what Hashem would do to the Egyptians on their behalf, “Hashem will wage war for you and you should be silent” (Shemot 14:14).

And when attacked by Amalek, the entire nation was not mobilized for war. Rather, Yehoshua chose certain select individuals of high moral caliber who were ready and able to go and fight. Even so, Moshe stood atop a mountain with hands raised in prayer to Hashem. This gesture inspired the fighters and gave them the edge necessary for victory.

But the command to conquer the land was of an entirely different order. This was a national responsibility. The people now had to step up and launch an aggressive war against fearsome opponents. To their credit they did not seek to dodge their responsibility but rather solicited Moshe to send out spies. So what went wrong?

The genuine Jewish fighter must develop a sense of confidence based on his own abilities and his Bitachon (trust) in the word of Hashem. On the basis of this attitude, he must courageously enter the battle and fight with all of his energy. Of course, he never knows the outcome. Rather, he recognizes that he is living in accordance with Hashem’s Will, in spite of the danger to himself, and this motivates him to fulfill his divinely assigned responsibility.

Apparently, the Jews had not reached the level of Emunah in which they would risk their lives because of a Divine promise of protection. They preferred a situation of absolute security and safety, but were unwilling to go so far as to place themselves in the line of fire.

Thus, they eagerly awaited the report of the spies. If they asserted that the inhabitants were pushovers who could easily be defeated and dislodged, they would rally and fight. But if, as it turned out, the outlook was dismal and the defenders were more powerful than they were, their morale was destroyed, and they could only see gloom on the horizon.

A true servant of Hashem must cultivate a degree of courage to fulfill his responsibilities. In many instances, he will come in conflict with the powers that be, who will seek to harm him. This can be clearly seen in the lives of the Avot who did not run and hide when the going got tough. The Patriarchs were great fighters who took up hostilities when that became necessary. In no case did they know what the outcome would be in advance. Rather they operated on the basis of their unique faith as the verse says, “The Tzadik lives by his Emunah” (Chabakuk 2:4).

The Jews in the Wilderness had not reached this level of Emunah. They sought to be in a situation where they could not lose. Don’t we all? But reality doesn’t work that way. The requirements of a true faith based existence are more complex and demanding. May we strive to obtain the Emunah and Bitachon of our illustrious spiritual heroes throughout our glorious history.

Shabbat Shalom.