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Rosh Yeshivat Ahavat Shalom
Rabbi Yaakov Hillel
Trust in Hashem
“And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying, send out men for you and they will explore the Land of Canaan which I give to the Children of Israel, one man each from his father’s Tribe you will send, the princes among them” (Bamidbar13:1-2). Rashi, citing our Sages, explains (13:2). “Send for you: at your discretion. I am not commanding you. If you want to, send them. Because the Israelites came and said, ‘Let us send men ahead of us,’ as it says, ‘and you all approached me’ (Devarim 1:22). And Moshe consulted with the Shechinah, saying, ‘I told them that [the land] is good, as it says, “I will bring you up from the misery of Egypt, [... to a land flowing with milk and honey”] (Shmot 3:17). [Hashem said,] by their life, I shall leave them room to err in the matter of the Spies, so that they will not take possession of it.’” The Jews in the desert had experienced daily miracles which made it entirely clear that Hashem was with them, guiding and protecting them at all times. Armed with Hashem’s promises, why did they feel the need to send out scouts to survey the land in advance? We can gain insight into this question by studying the Midrash Tanhuma’s analysis of the events (Tanhuma Shelah 5). The Midrash tells us that while Hashem granted Moshe permission to send out spies if he so wished, He was not commanding him to send them, for the simple reason that it was unnecessary. Hashem had already told the people that Eretz Yisrael was good: “For Hashem your G-d is bringing you to a good land” (Devarim
8:7). Even back in Egypt, Hashem had informed them that “I will descend to save [the nation] from the hand of Egypt, and to bring it up... to a land flowing with milk and honey” (Shmot 3:8). What further assurances could the Spies provide? Even if their concern was security, it was still uncalled for. The Torah tells us that “Hashem went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to show them the way” (Shmot 13:21). With the Al-mighty Himself as their guide, why did they need to send spies to check things out for them? Their request was not appropriate (see Etz Yosef, citing Matnot Cehunah.) What is more, the Midrash tells us, “And the Ark of Hashem’s covenant traveled three days’ way ahead of them” (Bamidbar 10:33). We see again that they had no reason to fear; Hashem was removing all obstacles and dangers from their path (see Etz Yosef, citing Matnot Cehunah). Yet even so, they still gathered around Moshe and demanded, “Let us send men ahead of us and they will explore the land for us” (Devarim 1:22), because they did not trust in Hashem. Nevertheless, Hashem said, “send out men for you and they will explore the Land of Canaan,” because this is what the people wanted. The Midrash continues, “When they approached the borders of the land, Hashem told them, ‘Look, Hashem your G-d has placed the land before you. Go up and take possession, do not fear and do not be broken’” (Devarim 1:21-22). With a promise like that, what did they have to worry about? What need was there to bother with sending out spies, if Hashem had explicitly told them to approach the conquest of the land without fear? And yet, it was after hearing Hashem’s promise that the nation approached Moshe with the request to send out spies.
The King’s Son
Rabbi Yehoshua describes the situation with a parable. A king arranged a match for his son with a woman of unequalled beauty, lineage, and wealth. When he informed his son, the young man was skeptical. He told his father, “I want to go see her for myself.” The king was not pleased with his son’s response; how could it be that he did not trust his own father? He found himself in a difficult position. On the one hand, his son should not have made the request. But now that he had, if the king refused to let him meet the prospective bride, he would maintain that she was really unattractive, and that his father was hiding her because he did not want him to discover the truth. The king finally told his son that he could meet her, but only so that he would see that his father had not lied to him. Because he had not trusted him, however, he
would not be the lucky one to marry this incomparable woman – she would later marry his own son. Hashem had told the Jewish people that the land was good, and they did not entirely trust Him. Instead, they asked to send out spies to scout ahead, just to make sure. Hashem knew that if He did not allow them to see things for themselves, they would be suspicious – perhaps the land was better kept hidden. Instead, like the king in the parable, Hashem allowed them to have a look at the land, but swore that they would not be the ones to live there; it would go to their sons. “Therefore, they will not see the land which I swore to their forefathers” (Bamidbar 14:23).
The Spies’ Report
The message of the Midrash is clear: the sin of the Spies was a lack of belief and trust. And yet, in describing the punishment of the Spies the Torah says, “And the people who spread an evil report about the Land died in a plague before Hashem” (Bamidbar 14:37). This implies that their sin was in criticizing Eretz Yisrael, as we also learn from our Sages (see Erchin 15a). In order to understand why the Torah says that they sinned by speaking ill of the land, let us study the wording of the Spies’ report to their brethren in the desert. “And they reported to [Moshe] and said, we came to the land to which you sent us, and it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. But the people who live in the land are mighty, and the cities are fortified and very large. And we also saw the giant’s descendents there” (Bamidbar 13:27-29). What was so bad about all this? There does not seem to be anything negative here. They praised the land as “flowing with milk and honey,” and brought back samples of its exceptional fertility. But at the same time, however, they made much of the strength of the Canaanite nations, pointing out that they were powerful and mighty, securely entrenched in their well-fortified cities. This was a report guaranteed to bring the Jews to despair. How could they possibly hope to oust these nations from their homeland? The Spies’ words may not have been openly critical of the land, but they certainly were indicative of a serious lack of faith in the Al-mighty’s ability to settle them there.
Calev and Yehoshua Respond
It was against these discouraging words that Calev ben Yefuneh rose up in protest. Taking a completely different tack, he hushed the people and said, “We will go up and conquer it, for we can surely do it” (13:30).
In response to Calev’s attempt at encouragement, the Spies took their lack of faith a step further. It was now that they deviated from the truth and began speaking badly of the Holy Land: “They spread an evil report about the land they had explored, saying, the land we passed through to explore is a land which devours its inhabitants. All the people we saw in it were huge. And there we saw the Nefilim, the sons of the giant, descendants of the fallen angels. We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in their eyes” (13:32-33). The Spies succeeded in causing a tremendous upheaval, with the people converging angrily on Moshe and Aharon. Calev and Yehoshua arose to face them, defending and praising the land, and assuring the Jews that if Hashem was pleased with them, He would give it to them. They begged them to remain faithful to the Almighty, saying, “But do not rebel against Hashem and do not fear the people of the land. They are our prey, for their protecting angel has left them and Hashem is with us. Do not fear them” (14:8-9). Once again, we see that the Spies’ main fault was their lack of faith. Only Calev and Yehoshua firmly believed that with Hashem’s help, the Jews would prevail even against the mighty Canaanites.
A Land for Giants
The Ramban explains the significance of the Spies’ words (Commentary on Bamidbar 13:32). He writes that at first, when they spoke to the people in the presence of Moshe and Aharon, they said that exactly as promised, the land indeed flowed with milk and honey. There was only one problem, and it was a big one: the nation living there would be very powerful opponents to contend with. When Calev assured the Jews that they would overcome them, the nation was divided. Some of them trusted in their own strength and might, and some of them trusted in Hashem’s help. This was when the Spies started spreading their own negative report among the people, telling them that “the land we passed through to explore is a land which devours its inhabitants.” With this terrifying statement, they had the entire nation up in arms and complaining about the land where they were heading (14:36). Why did it happen? Because they believed that victory was dependent on their own military prowess, rather than solely on Hashem. The daunting sight of the local residents, tall as cedars and strong as oaks, had frightened the Spies, and they passed their fears on to their brethren. When they saw that despite this, the people, encouraged by Calev and Yehoshua, were still ready to go, they resorted to lies to keep them back. The Spies publicized their false report and, as a result, they were punished with a horrible death: “the people who spread an evil report about the land died in a plague before Hashem” (Bamidbar 14:37).
The Ramban goes on to explain the words, “It is a land which devours its inhabitants. All the people we saw in it were huge.” He points out that there is a contradiction here. A land where the environment is poor and unhealthy, the water scarce and bad, and death a common occurrence, will hardly produce a race of big, tough fighters. Its inhabitants will be scrawny, bloated, undersized, and weak. The Spies, then, were saying something else. They maintained that the air of the land was heavy and dense, and its waters and fruits were thick and heavy. Ordinary people of average build would be unable to tolerate life there. The only ones who could possibly survive were powerfully built giants with unusually strong constitutions; normal people were unable to withstand the conditions, so they all died there.
Defining the Sin
Why does the Torah define the Spies’ sin as speaking badly about Eretz Yisrael? As we learn from the Ramban, they spoke ill of the land because they were afraid; they did not trust in Hashem to help them conquer it safely and expel its inhabitants. But if this was the case, why does the Torah not say, “the people who lacked faith and trust in the Al-mighty died in a plague before Hashem?” What is more, we find that before Moshe’s death, in his final rebuke to the nation concerning the sin of the Spies, he did not mention the issue of slandering the land at all. He focused on their lack of faith: “They took in their hands from the fruit of the land and brought it down to us. They brought back word to us and said, ‘The land which Hashem our G-d gives us is good.’ But you did not wish to ascend, and you rebelled against the word of Hashem, your G-d. You complained in your tents and said, ‘Because of Hashem’s hatred for us he took us out of the Land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites to destroy us. To where shall we ascend? Our brothers have melted our hearts, saying, a people greater and taller than we, cities great and fortified to the heavens, and even children of giants we have seen there.’ Then I said to you, ‘Do not be broken and do not fear them. Hashem, your Gd, Who goes before you, He will make war for you, like everything He did in Egypt before your eyes’” (Devarim 1:25-29) What, then, really was the sin of the Spies? Was it their derogatory report about Hashem’s Holy Land, or was it their lack of faith that Hashem would help them conquer it?
The Link to Lack of Faith
I feel that we can answer this question by studying our Sages’ words about the central role of faith (Makkot 24a). They tell us, “And Havakuk came and said that
everything depends on one principle, as it says, ‘and a righteous man will live by his faith’” (Havakuk 2:4). How could the prophet Havakuk say that all the mitzvot in the Torah are really all based on the one single mitzvah of faith? The prophet was not saying that faith is the only mitzvah; he was saying that faith and trust in the Al-mighty are the root of all the Torah’s six hundred and thirteen mitzvot, positive and negative commandments alike. If we believe in Hashem, we will fulfill all His mitzvot and rely on Him completely in everything we do. We will encourage our children to learn Torah and develop spiritually, without undue concern for material success. We will also close our businesses and rest on Shabbat, allow our fields to lie fallow and observe the Sabbatical year, give the gifts to the poor and to the Cohanim required by the Torah, and more, because we trust Him to take care of us. If we lack that faith, G-d forbid, we will be capable of the worst crimes, including theft, murder, and adultery, for the root of these sins and their like is a lack of faith and trust. If we do not believe that He is there, aware of our deeds and involved in our lives, why not do as we please? This is why the Torah specifically tells us that the Spies sinned by speaking ill of Eretz Yisrael. There was no need to mention the lack of faith that was at the root of their sin – it was obvious that that was the cause. Instead, our Sages address the wiles of the yetzer hara, showing us how very far a lack of faith can go. Faced with the major challenge of acquiring the land, the Spies lacked essential, fundamental trust in the Al-mighty. They could not believe that He would really carry them through it all. As a result, they were reduced to slandering Hashem’s magnificent gift with illogical lies, as we learn from the Ramban. The tragic results are with our people to this day. The downfall of the Spies carries an important lesson for us all. Every generation faces its own great tests; “in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us,” spiritually and materially. The only way we can withstand these tests is by remembering Calev and Yehoshua’s words to our ancestors: “Hashem is with us. Do not fear them.” When our faith and trust are strong, we can accomplish great things. We can build and teach Torah, and we can establish loyal Jewish homes dedicated to Hashem and His sacred Word even in the face of hardship – and there can be no more spectacular miracle than this. In our own times, we have witnessed the amazing rebirth and incredible growth of the Torah community after the destruction of European Jewry and the uprooting of Sephardic Jewry. If we lead our lives with implicit faith and trust in Hashem, He will grant us Divine assistance and success, both spiritual and material, so that “we will go up and conquer it, for we can surely do it.”
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