By Avner Friedmann
This week’s Parshah opens with the words: “And HaShem spoke to Moshe saying, ‘Send for yourself men and let them traverse the land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel.’” As the Jewish people were preparing to enter the land, a terrible incident happened. Twelve men of distinction, one leader from each tribe, were sent to survey the Land, but of the twelve, ten returned with an evil report that weakened the resolve of the people and caused them to lose faith in their ability to conquer it. The resulting repercussion was that the entrance into the land was delayed by forty years and that the generation that left Egypt all died in the wilderness. Instead, their children entered the land under the leadership of Yehoshua.
Commenting on this, the Holy Ohr HaChaim states that the key phrase in this verse are the words, “That I am GIVING to the Children of Israel”. The spies were never commissioned to evaluate whether or not the Jewish people had the physical prowess to conquer the land or to give advice as to whether to enter the land or not. Physically speaking, they did not possess the physical might to conquer even one city in Canaan, let alone the whole land. The spies were correct that militarily speaking, the enemy was stronger than them, but they missed the point; HaShem promised this land as a gift to the Children of Israel and He certainly had the power to give it to them. Hashem was going to fight for them. All that was necessary on their part was to have faith and confidence in Him and to do their part.
The Ohr HaChaim states that the reason for sending the spies was so that the Jewish people should recognize the tremendous miracles that HaShem was about to perform on their behalf. If the inhabitants of the land would not have been powerful giants dwelling in impenetrable strongholds and allied with Amalek, the archenemy of Israel, then they would not have appreciated the greatness of the gift and see it for the tremendous miracle that it was. Being men of great stature, the spies should have understood this, but instead, they came back with a report that put fear and terror into the hearts of the people. They voiced their unsolicited opinion that it would be impossible to conquer the Land, as it is written, “For it is too strong for us (ממנו).” Now, the word ממנו can also mean “for Him”, meaning that it is even too strong for HaShem, as if there is a limit to HaShem’s power and that He could be defeated by mortal man, heaven forbid. The spies managed to instill the fear into the people that if they would advance into the land they would be doomed to annihilation. Through lack of faith in HaShem’s supernal and constant supervision of the land of Israel, the people demonstrated that they were indeed not ready to inherit it.
However, two of the spies, Yehoshua and Calev, tried to convince them that no power could stand in HaShem’s way. They said to them: “If HaShem desires us, He will bring us to the land and ‘give’ it to us… You should not fear the people of the Land, for they are our bread. Their protection has departed from them; HaShem is with us. Do not fear them!” The Ramban comments that actually the Canaanites were so frightened because of what they had heard of the miracles that HaShem had wrought for Israel that they could have easily been defeated – as easily as a person biting into a slice of bread. Unfortunately, Yehoshua’s and Calev’s words fell on deaf ears.
“HaShem said to Moshe, “How long will this people provoke Me and how long will they not have faith in Me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst?” On this Rashi comments, “After all the miracles I have performed for them, they should have had faith in My ability to keep My promise”. Up to this point they had witnessing tremendous wonders and miracles. They had witnessed the ten plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, the Manna coming from heaven, the Clouds of Glory, the Well of Miriam and the ultimate experience of receiving the Torah directly from HaShem at Mount Sinai. Nonetheless, with all this, they still lacked faith in HaShem. The Be’er Mayim Chaim adds that they were also aware that up to that time no slave had ever escaped Egypt, let alone a nation of approximately three million slaves, and that this alone should have been enough to instill them with a sufficient degree of faith.
The Talmud records the miracles that HaShem performed for the children of Israel on the first day of entering the Land, forty years later. What happened on that first day is how it would have been throughout the conquest of the land, if only they had trusted and listened to HaShem. The water of the Jordan River parted for them at Gilgal and they crossed it on dry land. On that same day they journeyed and encamped at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival (near Shechem) more than sixty kilometers away. Only through supernatural means could a nation of millions, including men, women, children and the elderly cover such a great distance so quickly by foot. Most of the enemies were so terrified of them that they did not even attempt to interfere with their journey. The few who did were totally overcome with panic and lost control of their bodily functions. But there was more that happened that day: They brought along the twelve stones that Yehoshua had commanded them to lift out of the Jordan River, built an altar with them on mount Eival, coated it with plaster and inscribed the words of the Torah on them in all seventy languages. Moreover, on the same day they offered sacrifices, ate, drank and rejoiced, recited the famous Blessings and the Curses recorded in the Torah, dismantled the stones of the altar, returned with them back to the crossing point at Gilgal and spent the night there.
The Holy Ohr HaChaim explains that the decree for the generation to die in the Wilderness even included Moshe. Only Yehoshua and Calev were spared and entered the land. Had the Children of Israel entered the Land without the disastrous incident of the spies, Moshe would have most likely entered with them. The Talmud states that had Moshe entered the Land and built the Temple, it could never have been destroyed and all the nations would have submitted to Israel. There never would have been all the wars and exiles we have experienced throughout history to this very day. The fact that throughout history we have had to fight to keep the Land of Israel through natural means is the real “weeping” that HaShem has established for the people of Israel all these generations, and is a direct result of the sin of the spies. May it be HaShem’s will that He send our righteous Moshiach speedily, in our days, and that once again we will merit to receive Divine protection in an open and revealed way, with many wonders and miracles, as it states about the true and complete redemption, “As in the days when you left Egypt, I shall show you wonders.”