Just twenty days shy of a year from the Jewish people’s arrival at Mount Sinai, they began their journey to the promised land, Israel. During that time, the nation had received the Torah, built the Tabernacle, and each tribe had received its individual mission via its unique flag and the position it occupied surrounding the Tabernacle. The prophet Yechezkel describes the exodus from Egypt as the birth of the Jewish nation. By now, however, they are a mature and focused entity, poised to begin their mission: to establish the Kingdom of Hashem on this earth. The place chosen for Hashem’s kingdom was the land of Israel, and entering and occupying it would complete the plan.
Israel was just a three-day journey from where they were camped, but, before they would enter Israel, the entire Jewish nation, appeared before Moshe with a request. (Deuteronomy 1:22)
(כב) וַתִּקְרְבוּן אֵלַי כֻּלְּכֶם וַתֹּאמְרוּ נִשְׁלְחָה אֲנָשִׁים לְפָנֵינוּ וְיַחְפְּרוּ לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְיָשִׁבוּ אֹתָנוּ דָּבָר אֶת הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר נַעֲלֶה בָּהּ וְאֵת הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר נָבֹא אֲלֵיהֶן
22) All of you approached me and said, “Let us send men ahead of us and let them spy out the Land, and bring word back to us: the road on which we should ascend and the cities to which we should come.” (We should plan our attack, and have a strategy as to how we will conquer the land.)
What was their purpose? The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 642) relates the following story.
אמרו ישראל משה רבינו נשלחה אנשים לפנינו, אמר להם למה, אמרו לו, שכבר הבטיחנו הקב”ה ואמר לנו שאנו נכנסים לארץ כנען ויורשין כל טוב שנאמר ובתים מלאים כל טוב, והרי שמעו שאנו נכנסים והם עושין בהן בתי מטמוניות אם מטמינים הן את ממונם ואנו נכנסין ולא נמצא כלום נמצא דברו של הקב”ה בטל, אלא ילכו מרגלים לפנינו, ויראו לנו את הארץ אין כתיב כאן אלא ויחפרו לנו ילכו ויעמדו על מה שחפרו בארץ, כיון ששמע כן נלכד בידן שנאמר וייטב בעיני הדבר
The Jewish people said to Moshe Rabbeinu, “We want to send in people before we go in!” He said to them, “Why?” They said to him, “Hashem promised us that when we enter the Canaanite land, we will inherit all their wealth. But they have heard that we are coming and they are hiding their wealth! When we come in, we won’t find anything and Hashem’s promise will not be realized! We need to send in spies to see where they are hiding all their wealth so Hashem’s promise will be fulfilled!” Moshe was fooled by their words, and agreed to their plan.
Their motivations seemed so noble – to save Hashem’s honor. But it was really a cover-up for their reticence to enter the land. They lacked trust in Hashem. They felt that they should pursue a more hands-on approach rather than to rely on Hashem’s miraculous intervention. This agenda may have been hidden even from them, as they didn’t consciously realize that the request stemmed from an inner fear that they did not want to confront. Putting it in these terms allowed them to accomplish their goal without revealing that inner fear. It was a matter of Hashem’s honor, not their shortcoming.
Moshe had a suspicion that something was amiss when he said (verse 22 above), “All of you approached me and said.” Rashi comments that they came to Moshe in a jumble, young people pushing the elders and the elders pushing the leaders. This is the sign of a problem. Why aren’t the younger people respecting the elders and the elders their leaders? What’s burning? It must be that there is a personal agenda that needs to be put forth even at the expense of proper etiquette.
The twelve spies chosen were all righteous at the time they were chosen. Moshe chose them from amongst the people who approached him to be sure that they were of like mind with their senders and thus would properly represent them.
In the Torah there is a concept called שלוחו של אדם כמותו – a man’s messenger is just like the sender. This is a legal concept very similar to the power-of-attorney. When given the power-of-attorney from someone, one may legally represent him in all legal transactions as if that person were here conducting the business himself. In the same sense, the messenger of a person can execute legal transactions for his sender as if the sender executed them himself. Since a messenger is empowered by his sender, the thoughts and intentions of the sender have a profound effect on the messenger. In this particular situation, because the intentions of the people sending the spies were not pure, they would negatively influence the outcome of the mission. Since they were afraid to enter the Land of Israel and would have been happy with an excuse not to go in, there existed a bias against seeing the good of the land before their messengers even went in.
Our Sages teach that a personal bias also influenced the ten spies. The spies, who were princes of their tribes, had prophetically seen that once the Jewish nation entered the Land of Israel, there would no longer be a need for princes, causing them to lose their prestigious positions. Subconsciously, they did not want to go into Israel either. This bias colored their vision and prevented them from seeing things in a positive, correct light.
Had the Jewish people been completely pure in their motivations for sending the spies despite the spies’ personal bias, had they been loyal messengers who took their job to represent their senders seriously, they could have accomplished their goal. But the bias of the Jewish people as a whole, combined with their own, doomed the mission from the onset. They wanted to see the bad in the Land of Israel and the Jewish people wanted an excuse not to go into the Land of Israel.
The results were disastrous. After touring the Land for forty days, the spies, with the exception of Yehoshua bin Nun and Kalev ben Yefuneh, all said the land was impossible to conquer. It was a death trap. Giants lived there, the people are extremely powerful and lived in fortified cities, and the land itself is inhospitable. Additionally, people were dying all over the place. Everywhere we went they were holding funerals for their dead. Its fruits are so large that they kill you! Apparently, the land is toxic even to its strong and hardy inhabitants; there is no way we could survive there.
Upon hearing their report, the entire Jewish nation accepted the “lashon hara” -bad report – about the holy land of Israel and started to cry and complain. “Why did Hashem take us out of Egypt and put us through all this just to kill us in the end in the land of Israel? Let’s go back to Egypt!”
Hashem was truly upset with this reaction. What did He have to do to prove to them that He was out for their best and would take care of all the “problems” in a cinch? Didn’t He prove His might and prowess in Egypt when He extracted them from the midst of the most powerful nation in the world? Didn’t He prove His control over all aspects of nature through the ten plagues that beset the Egyptians and destroyed them? Hadn’t He provided them with food from heaven, manna, water from a stone, and protective clouds for the almost two last years? What more could they want to see? They are just a group of ingrates who will never put their complete trust in Hashem.
This caused Hashem to want to wipe them out and start over with Moshe.
Moshe intervened on their behalf and presented a claim to Hashem that He had to grant. Moshe said, “When the nations of the world hear that You wiped us out like one man, they are going to say, ‘Hashem couldn’t follow through and bring them to the promised land so He destroyed them instead.’ It will be a great embarrassment to Your Holy Name.”
Hashem conceded to Moshe’s point, but still decreed that they would have to wander in the wilderness for forty years, one year per day they were in Israel [?], so that all men between 20 and 60 years of age will die in the desert and not enter the land of Israel.
We still suffer today from the sin of the spies. Had the Jewish people gone into Israel straight from Egypt and Mount Sinai, they would never have left. Exile from the land would have been impossible. The process of taking the Jewish people out of Egypt would have come to its natural conclusion, the Jewish people settling in the land promised to Avraham our Forefather, fulfilling their mission on this world. The entire process would have been irrevocable.
But once the people who left Egypt died in the wilderness, and only their children entered the land, a disconnect was created between the exodus from Egypt and the entrance into Israel. As a result, we can and have been exiled from there. It is no longer the culmination of the original Exodus. It is an event unto itself. This is why we observe the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av as fast days in mourning of the two Holy Temples, which were sieged and destroyed on those two days respectively.
The Sefas Emes (1847 – 1905) explains how the spies could have avoided the problem despite the bias of the Jewish people who sent them, and in spite of their own personal bias. It is based on this Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 16:1).
שאין לך חביב לפני הקב”ה כשליח שמשתלח לעשות מצוה ונותן נפשו כדי שיצלח בשליחתו
There is nothing more precious to Hashem than a messenger who was sent to do a mitzvah, and sacrifices all personal desires to succeed in his mission.
This midrash is referring to Kalev ben Yefuneh and Pinchas, the two spies later sent by Yehoshua to spy on Israel before they ultimately entered. They encountered formidable challenges, but were able to overcome them by staying focused on their mission and not allowing any of their personal desires to enter the picture. Their strategy was to see themselves exclusively as messengers dedicated to accomplishing their mission to the exclusion of any other thoughts or desires. This strategy allowed them to dismiss any personal desires that tempted them and threatened the success of their mission.
We find a hint to this concept in the story.
Upon their entry into Israel, Kalev and Pinchas posed as pottery salesmen. Pottery, made of earth, has no intrinsic value. It is not like a gold or silver vessel that itself has value. If a pottery vessel breaks, the shards are worthless, whereas the broken pieces of a gold or silver vessel continue to be worth their weight in gold or silver.
An earthenware vessel’s value lies only in its ability to hold things. That’s its entire value.
This is why an earthenware vessel becomes טמא – tamei (spiritually unclean) only when the offending article enters its internal airspace instead of by simply touching its outside like other vessels such as gold and silver. An earthenware vessel’s value lies only in its open cavity where liquids and items can be stored.
In the same way, Kalev and Pinchas considered themselves earthenware vessels ready to accept Hashem’s mitzvah with no importance at all given to the vessel – themselves. Their entire essence was to be a tool in Hashem’s hand to fulfill His mission, to the exclusion of any personal desires of their own.
Similarly, although the initial impetus to send the spies into Israel emanated from the Jewish people, later on Hashem Himself commanded Moshe to send in the spies. Once Hashem gave the command, it now became a mitzvah from Hashem to spy on the land.
The Sefas Emes explains that, at this point, the spies needed to implement Kalev and Pinchas’s strategy, which saved them from the great pitfalls that awaited them. They needed to see themselves as vessels prepared to fulfill Hashem’s message to the exclusion of all personal desires. This would have set them on a path to overcome any personal interests, because once one has mixed his own agenda into the mission, he has stopped being the exclusive messenger of his despatcher. He is now working for himself.
It is like a person on a business trip to a foreign land. Although he may come upon many enticing sights to see, or exciting activities to engage in, he resists the temptation because he has a job to do, and if he spends his time seeing the sights and playing the exotic games, he will not accomplish his mission.
Had the spies viewed themselves exclusively as Hashem’s messengers to fulfill His mitzvah, they would have eliminated all personal biases from their mission and succeeded in seeing the land for what it was. They would have easily seen how all the negative evidence they brought was really designed to help them. Hashem, for example, occupied the inhabitants of the land with the death of loved ones and funerals so that they would be preoccupied with their dead and not pay attention to the spies they saw. Hashem was also showing them that no matter how big and powerful the inhabitants were, He could eliminate them without a problem. The huge fruits, too, were to show the bounty of Israel and the plentiful blessing that Hashem would provide for them.
But when they did not assume the role of a tool in Hashem’s hand, their personal desires gained a foothold in their mission, leading them astray.
The Sefas Emes goes on to note that, in reality, we are all also Hashem’s messengers. We, our souls, were sent to this world to fulfill His commandments, the mitzvot. And, as the Midrash said, nothing is more precious to Hashem than one who puts aside all of his personal desires and dedicates himself to fulfill the mission for which he was sent to this world. Adopting this perspective would make negotiating life’s temptations much easier. We should see life as a business trip, with a mission to be accomplished and a limited time to achieve it. We will have plenty time to enjoy the fruits of our labor in the World to Come.