Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bamidbar’ co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
As the nation stands poised to enter the land of Canaan, Moshe selects twelve meraglim, spies, to tour Canaan and bring back a detailed report concerning the land and its inhabitants.
Upon their return, the spies issue an initial report:
We came to the land to which You sent us and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.
But the nation that resides in the land is powerful, and the cities are fortified and very great, and also the descendents of the giant we saw there.
Amalek resides in the Southland; the Hittites, the Yevusites and the Emorites reside in the mountains; and the Canaanites reside by the sea and on the bank of the Jordan.
Reacting to this report and to the spies’ further arguments, the Israelites descend into despair, openly rebelling against God, Moshe and Aharon.
What exactly is the sin of the spies? Charged with the responsibility of collecting accurate intelligence concerning the land of Canaan and its inhabitants, why are they now apparently blamed for fulfilling their mission? To quote the Ramban: “Did [Moshe] send them for the purpose of testifying falsely?”
Why does this revolt, in contrast to all previous rebellions, seal the fate of the generation of the Exodus? This time, confronted with the specter of overwhelmingly powerful adversaries, the Israelites arguably have cause for despair. What aspect of the nation’s reaction does God apparently find unforgivable?
A close look at the text reveals that the spies’ report to the Israelites unfolds in three distinct stages. With the unfolding of each stage, the culpability of the spies increases.
1. The initial report. While the spies’ initial report (see above) seems to be a faithful fulfillment of Moshe’s directives, one word changes everything. When the meraglim preface their remarks concerning the inhabitants of the land with the word efes (but), they endeavor to change the parameters of their role. No longer satisfied with simple intelligence gathering, the spies unilaterally assume an advisory capacity.
Rabbi Isaac Arama, in his Akeidat Yitzchak, offers a simple analogy. A servant, sent by his master to determine the quality and cost of a garment, oversteps his boundaries if, upon his return, he proffers an opinion concerning the reasonableness of the asking price.
In the case of the spies, however, this seemingly simple overstepping of boundaries has a devastating effect. The implication of their report becomes: The land is indeed beautiful; but the inhabitants are (too) strong (to conquer). Suddenly, what had been a certainty now becomes an open question. The spies, after all, had been sent to determine how to conquer the land, not to offer an opinion as to whether or not the land should be conquered. By venturing an opinion concerning the latter issue, the meraglim sow seeds of doubt concerning the Israelites’ very entry into the land.
Against this backdrop, the spies’ unusual use of the Hebrew word efes to introduce their doubts becomes particularly telling. Efes (literally “zero”) connotes total negation. Through their choice of language, the spies deliberately transmit a sense of profound hopelessness, striking to the core of the nation’s heart.
2. The second stage. No sooner do the ten spies conclude their initial report, than Calev courageously rises to neutralize the effect of their words: “We can certainly ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it!”
Calev’s erstwhile colleagues, however, counter his efforts by immediately moving from oblique suggestion to open assertion: “We cannot ascend against that people for they are stronger than we [mimenu].”
Nehama Leibowitz explains the devastating double entendre within this seemingly straightforward declaration. The Hebrew word mimenu, she notes, can either connote the first-person plural, “than we” (as explained above, in line with the pshat), or it can be read as the third-person singular mimeno, “than he.” This dual meaning serves as the basis for the Midrashic tradition that a secondary, even more disturbing message courses through the words of the spies: Not only are the nations of the land more powerful than we, but they are more powerful “than He,” than God Himself.
3. The third stage. Although the third section of the meraglim’s report follows immediately upon the second, this stage is set apart in the text by an introductory statement: “And they brought forth an evil report concerning the land they had spied upon, saying…”
Finally, the true colors of the spies emerge as their tactics change. No longer do they issue pessimistically shaded reports. No longer is their full intent concealed in suggestion and double entendre. Instead, they now embark upon an open, deliberate, calculated campaign, using any means possible to discourage the people from entering Canaan. For the first time, the land itself is cast in a negative light as a “land that consumes its inhabitants.”8 The nations within are no longer simply characterized as strong and powerful, but instead are now described as “nefillim [giants], the descendents of giants.”
Most revealing of all, however, are the final, culminating words of the spies: “And there we saw the nefillim, the sons of the giant from among the nefillim; and we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers and so were we in their eyes!”
A careful reading of this sentence reveals a striking “Freudian slip,” millennia before Freud. “We were in our own eyes as grasshoppers,” the spies proclaim, and only then “so were we in their eyes.” Only once we felt our own worthlessness did we become worthless in the eyes of others.
Here then, in their own closing words, the bottom line, the true failure that lies at the core of the sin of the spies: when all is said and done, the spies are guilty of a loss of faith in themselves.
How overwhelmingly devastating their implied message to the Israelites must thus have been!
Do you know how we felt and what we realized when we saw ourselves matched against the nations of Canaan?
We realized that it’s all been a lie – all that we have experienced and all that we have been promised over these last months – the plagues, the Exodus, the parting of the Reed Sea, the Revelation at Sinai…
We are not a conquering nation; we are not a fledgling, divinely chosen people. We are grasshoppers! We are still the servile slaves who endured centuries of servitude to Egyptian masters. We haven’t changed; we haven’t moved an inch.
We simply cannot do it. We will never enter that land; we will never possess that land; we will never become a nation; we will never achieve our “promised” destiny.
We can now understand why the sin of the spies emerges as the turning point for the generation of the Exodus. Less a story of sin and punishment, the chet hameraglim reflects a frightening but inescapable reality: this generation simply cannot enter the Land of Israel.
By accepting the arguments of the meraglim, the Israelites negate the very journey that has brought them to this point. Their loss of faith in themselves clearly demonstrates that God’s attempt to forge them into a confident, conquering nation has failed (see Points to Ponder).
The generation of the Exodus cannot make the transition from slavery to freedom. A generation will have to pass before that transition can be made.
Points to Ponder
Two disparate areas of consideration rise out of our discussion of the sin of the spies.
I. Making the Leap
According to our analysis, the sin of the spies underscores the inability of the generation of the Exodus to make the leap from slavery to freedom. An entire generation will have to pass before the Israelites enter the land.
Our own current national experience proves powerfully instructive in helping us understand this biblical narrative on a human level. After all, the miracle of return to the Land of Israel in our day has certainly not been seamless. In many cases the full acclimation of new immigrants from disparate backgrounds has waited until the second generations truly become citizens of their newfound home.
Returning to the biblical narrative, however, a serious problem emerges as we examine the unfolding events. Doesn’t God know from the outset that the generation of the Exodus will fail in its transition to freedom? Why, then, does He allow the tragedy of the meraglim to unfold? Why not short-circuit the process and simply inform the Israelites at Sinai that their children, not they, will inherit the land?
This question, of course, brings us back to an issue that we have explored before (see Bereishit: Noach 1, Approaches A; Shmot: Teruma 1, Approaches B). How are we to understand the biblical narrative when God seems to change His mind; when out of apparent necessity, God discards Plan A in favor of Plan B? Why should a perfect God require the experience of trial and error?
The answer lies, as we have noted, in recognizing that God creates a world predicated upon the existence of free will, and that free will, in turn, is predicated on the possibility of human failure. God knows that man will fail, but He retreats to allow for man to learn from that failure.
Had God informed the Israelites of their fate from the outset, they, justifiably, would have felt that they had never been given the chance to prove themselves. They (and we) would never have learned the extent of their own limitations and the ramifications of their missteps. By giving the generation of the Exodus the opportunity to succeed and to (unfortunately) fail, God allows the unfolding events to transmit critical lessons across the ages.
II. Facts or Opinions?
A careful reading of the report of the spies reveals that they overstep another critical boundary – one easily crossed in our own experience as well.
From the outset, the meraglim offer their opinions as fact.
Had the spies stated upon their return, we believe that the nations that reside in the land are too strong for us to conquer, or even, it seems to us that we cannot enter the land, the Israelites might not have despaired so deeply. Opinions, after all, can be debated. Once, however, the spies offer their subjective report as fact, they leave no room for dispute. This phenomenon of transforming opinion into fact becomes more pronounced as the spies continue to speak.
The question could well be raised: How often are we – in our own dialogues, discussions and debates – guilty of the same sin as the spies? How easily do we slip from the realm of opinion into the realm of “assumed fact,” convinced of our correctness, unable to recognize the validity of other points of view?
The strength of our convictions, however strong they may be, does not have the power to transform opinion into fact. This lesson, tragically taught through the sin of the spies, should not be forgotten in our day.