By Rabbi Aron Tendler
"We were intended to live among the nations and be their teachers, not hide
from our own responsibilities behind the sheltering over of our fears."
Let me tell you a story of heroes and villains, courage and cowardice,
tragedy and hope, sorrow and rejoicing. It is a story of lost trust and
passionate belief, potential greatness and ignoble failure. It is a tale
whose ending is yet to be written, but whose consequences have echoed over
the millennium. It is the story of giants and grasshoppers.
Once upon a time, a nation was miraculously freed from the bondage of an
evil oppressor. Following their leader into the wilderness, they witnessed
events that shaped the destiny of all humankind. In the desolate
wilderness, G-d cared for the nation "as a mother cares for her nursing
child"; and while in the barren wilderness, they enthusiastically accepted
the responsibilities of being the chosen ones. Their leader was an
excellent teacher, and among them were men and woman of exceptional
character, who modeled for them the meaning of being "chosen".
Starting with their earliest ancestors, they had been promised nationality
and freedom in "the land that flows with milk and honey". It was this
promise which had kept them alive during the terrible years of bondage and
oppression, and it was toward this goal that they followed their leader
through the wilderness. Before entering the promised land, they experienced
the all encompassing hand of G-d directing the destiny of the universe and
sustaining all living things. In an awesome display of control, the Creator
fed them, protected them, and punished them. Their teachers lived among
them, and their G-d dwelled in their midst.
As time passed and the nation felt the constant presence and demands of
G-d, they grew restless. "Let us be as all the other nations", rather than,
"we are the chosen ones" became their dream. "Free us from the bondage of
Mitzvos" replaced their cries of "free us from beneath the oppression of
Egypt". This frustrated their leader, whose only desire was to see his
people realize their dependency upon G-d, and strengthen their commitment
to follow His rules and regulations. His dream was to lead them into the
land flowing with milk and honey where they would experience the constant
goodness of G-d's presence in nature and fulfill their responsibilities as
the chosen people.
The conflicting goals of the nation and their leader came to a head as they
drew closer to the promised land. The closer they came, the more they
complained. The closer they came, the more basic their demands. The closer
they came the more apparent their fear of the responsibilities that would
set them apart from all other nations. Their problem was very fundamental.
They didn't like being told what to do. They were good people who wished to
accept G-d on their own terms, rather than being forced to do so on His
terms. In fact, the experiences in the wilderness backfired. The more overt
G-d's presence and control was, the more demanding His rules appeared to
be, and the more resentful the people became. This was the background for
this week's Parsha, the story of the Miraglim - Spies.
The story of the Spies, is fundamental to understanding the relationship
between Kllal Yisroel and Hashem. As a result of the Spies: The Bnai
Yisroel would stay in the desert another 38 years; the generation of the
Exodus would die in the desert; Moshe, Miriam, and Aharon would not enter
the land; and the 9th of Av would be reconfirmed throughout our history as
the most tragic of all days. The following questions will help to clarify
the significance of the Spies.
1. What was the spiritual and psychological condition of the Jews that
motivated their demand to send the Spies?
2. Why did Moshe consent, even though it was clear that G-d was opposed to
3. The Spies were men of stature, strength, courage, and conviction. What
happened that these "very best" should intentionally sin so grievously?
4. What set Yehoshua and Kalev apart from the other Spies that they were
not influenced by their conspiracy?
5. What is the importance of Moshe changing Yehoshua's name, and Kalev
davening at the graves of the fore-Fathers?
6. Why did the Bnai Yisroel readily accept the negative report regarding
the Promised Land?
7. Why were Moshe and Aharon silent in the face of the nation's defection?
8. What happened to Elazar, Issamar, Pinchas, Nachshon, the 70 Elders, the
tribe of Layvie, and the rest of the other great Tzadikim?
9. How was the punishment to wander and die out in the desert "a measure
for a measure?"
10. What can we learn from the fact that Moshe immediately argued to save
the nation but accepted G-d's decree for the nation to wander for forty
years and die out?
The spiritual and psychological condition of the Jews was as described in
the opening story. They were uncertain and frightened of the imposed
restrictions and demands of being the Chosen People. In fact, they were
hoping to enter into Eretz Yisroel and find relief from the pressures of
G-d's constant presence and scrutiny. They were tired of being punished for
what they did wrong and being told that simply being alive was their
greatest reward. It was time for a break. It was time to begin living "as
all the other nations". (in many ways it was a reversal of "Naseh V'nishma
- we will do and then we will understand")
Moshe consented to send the spies because the Bnai Yisroel were reluctant.
Knowing that their real work would first begin once the people occupied the
land, Moshe had to be certain that they were ready to assume their
responsibilities. It would have been far more disastrous if the Bnai
Yisroel had entered the land and then rebelled, than if they rebelled in
the desert and underwent the necessary changes before entering the land. He
hoped that the Spies would confirm the promise of a wonderful land flowing
with milk and honey, and catapult the nation beyond their fears and
reservations. Therefore he took the chance of testing the Bnai Yisroel and
sent the most popular and best from among the nation on this mission.
The Spies were men of great stature, intellect, and conviction. However,
upon entering the land they realized that the conditions for serving Hashem
were far more ideal living in the desert than being among the other
nations. In fact, knowing Moshe's concerns for the nation's reluctance,
they understood how easily the nation would defect and assimilate if they
"lived as all other nations". Therefore, they decided to take things into
their own hands and keep the Bnai Yisroel within the confines of "G-d's
sheltering Tabernacle." Additionally, they turned selfish. Why undertake to
be teachers for the rest of the world when we can stay in the desert and
bask in the constancy of G-d's protection. As in Gan Eden, the nation would
be free of all other responsibilities except learning Torah and growing in
their understanding of Hashem.
Of course, the spies were fundamentally wrong. The purpose of the Torah was
for the Jews to be governed by the dictates of Torah and Mitzvos, and yet
live "as all the other nations." The relevance of Torah is far more
applicable in the normal workings of society and life than the sterility of
the wilderness. We were intended to live among the nations and be their
teachers, not hide from our own responsibilities behind the sheltering
cover of our fears.
Yehoshua and Kalev were different. Yehoshua was the student of Moshe. His
every thought and feeling was directed by his devotion to his Rebbi. There
was no possibility of his second guessing Moshe, as the Spies had done.
Therefore, Moshe added a letter from Hashem's own name to Yehoshua's name
so that he would always remember the purpose of being the Chosen People
living in the Promised Land.
Kalev was similar to Yehoshua. His devotion was to Moshe and the original
promise made to the Avos and Imahos. He davened at their graves for the
courage to maintain his trust in Hashem's promises, and remain
unquestioning of Moshe's teachings.
The People accepted the Spies negative report because it confirmed their
greatest fear. There was no escape! The Promised Land would be a
continuation of G-d's constant presence and demands. It's a land that
consumes it's inhabitants! It's impossible to live there "as all the other
nations!" It's a land where we will remain as vulnerable and dependent as a
grasshopper in relation to a giant! (to quote an ancient Chinese proverb)
Returning to Egypt would be easier than the constant demands of being the
Moshe, Aharon, and all the other great Tzadikim understood that this was
the inevitable confrontation that had to take place if the Bnai Yisroel
would ever be able to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." The air
had to be cleared, the doubters had to be left behind, and it could only be
done by Hashem Himself. Either the Bnai Yisroel would accept their
responsibilities by themselves, or they would loose out on being the Chosen
People. The coercion of a Shayvet Layvie wouldn't help except to delay the
For the same reason, Moshe did not attempt to reverse Hashem's decree. The
Bnai Yisroel needed to stay in the desert. They needed the time to better
integrate the realities of Hashem and become accustomed to living with His
constant presence. The generation that experienced the Exodus had to die
out so that a new generation, that had grown up and matured in G-d's
presence, would unreservedly embrace the opportunity of being the Chosen
Finally, we can understand why the two Temples were destroyed on the 9th of
Av. Just as the Bnai Yisroel "cried" on the 9th of Av when they heard that
their destiny was to live in Eretz Yisroel as the Chosen People, and as a
result, they lost their opportunity to do so; so too, when the Jews do not
use Eretz Yisroel as the Chosen People, but treat it as "all the other
nations", Hashem takes the land away from us, destroys our Bais Hamikdash,
and exiles us from our land - on the 9th of Av.
May we all merit to witness the rebuilding of our Bais Hamikdash and our
return to Eretz Yisroel as G-d's Chosen People.
Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.