Espionage Gone Wrong – 3 Mistakes Made by the Spies

In last week’s Parsha, Shelach, Moshe sends spies to scout out the promised land of Canaan (Israel) so that the desert-wandering Jews could get a sense of the lay of the land and its inhabitants. Ten out of the twelve spies returned with a negative report. This incurred G-d’s wrath and earned the Hebrews 40 years of prolonged wondering in the wilderness before they could enter the land of Israel. Where exactly did the spies err?

One major mistake made by the spies was their failure to learn from the mistake of Moshe’s righteous sister, Miriam. At the end of the previous parsha, Miriam spoke unfairly about Moshe. In truth what she said was not that bad, but those who reach such a high spiritual level are judged by a higher standard. Her words caused her to be punished with tzaaras (usually translated as leprosy – See: The Power of Words). The Jews were unable to continue their journey until she was healed. This episode is immediately followed by the parsha detailing the sin of the spies. The spies slandered the land of Israel by claiming that its people were fearsome giants who lived in well-fortified, unconquerable cities. They bewailed that the Jewish people would be no match for the land’s inhabitants. Had they learned the proper lesson from Miriam’s affliction, they would not have spoken negatively.

The spies were no ordinary men. They were the holy and respected princes of each of the twelve tribes, handpicked by Moshe for this mission. Their error stemmed from a spiritual concern. In the desert, the Jewish people were provided with all of their physical needs by G-d in the most direct manner possible. Their shoes never wore out and their clothes repaired themselves. Their food came in the form of manna which descended from Heaven. In this miraculous existence, they had absolutely no reason to think about physical concerns. Indeed the Jewish people at this time were heavily involved in Torah study and observance of the laws they had recently been given. All their time was devoted toward spiritual pursuits. The spies knew that once the people entered the land, the Jewish people would be forced to engage in worldly affairs, such as working the land and earning a living. They feared that this would take a heavy toll on their service of G-d. This is precisely why ten of the spies described the land as one “which eats up its inhabitants,” meaning that the land, its labor, and preoccupation with the material world would ‘swallow up’ and drain the energy needed to perform their holy obligations (Torah Studies. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, 248).

This was the spies’ second error. They mistakenly assumed that the only way a person could fulfill their spiritual duties of serving G-d was by retreating from the physical world. Only in seclusion, they wrongly believed, could one properly serve G-d. Most world religions have indeed adopted this way of thinking. It is understandable that human beings would believe that the only way to lead a spiritual life is by avoiding a physical one. This is not true. The Torah demands that we intimately involve ourselves in the world so that we can elevate the physical world and draw down holiness into it. Chassidut explains that G-d’s purpose of creation was so that He could be sanctified even in the lowest world i.e. our physical world in which it is possibly to deny the existence and involvement of the Creator.  By bringing out the G-dliness within nature, we transform the world into a dwelling place for G-d and become partners in creation. This idea of synthesizing and unifying G-d with His creation is one of the most potent and beautiful truths revealed to the world through the giving of the Torah.

In closing, the spies were told to come back with a report describing the land. They were not instructed to provide their own opinion – which is exactly what they did. This was their third mistake. The spies – with the exception of Calev and Yehoshua – told the Israelites, “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.” In life we are indeed supposed to use our intellect and resourcefulness to ‘scout out the land’ and be aware of the challenges we face. However, we must not despair just because a situation looks bleak. The final outcome of our efforts is decided by none other than G-d. It’s prudent to do our research and be more than a mere spectator in our own lives. However, we must trust that G-d ensures that everything happens for the best.