The Jewish Nation transgressed two dreadful sins in the wilderness – the sin of the Golden Calf, where they made the figure of a molten calf and bowed down to it, and the sin of the Spies, where they followed the advice of the Spies who discouraged them from journeying on to the Land of Israel, saying they could not conquer it. From a number of aspects, the sin of the Spies is more severe than the transgression of the Golden Calf, when Jews did not completely disclaim God and Moses, rather, erred, thinking that after Moses failed to return from Mt. Sinai, God Himself would cease from watching over them. They felt they had to find a substitute means to communicate with God, via a deity who would mediate between them. Since they did not entirely reject God, He forgave them.
However, concerning the sin of the Spies, they denied God’s ability to assist them in conquering the Land of Israel from its giant inhabitants. They also betrayed their main mission for which the world was created and for which the Nation of Israel was chosen – to reveal the Divine Presence in the world, through the Jewish Nation’s living a life of holiness in Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, the sin of the Spies was not forgiven. Death was decreed upon them and upon all those who heeded their evil speech against the Land. Only Joshua the son of Nun, and Calev the son of Yefune, merited entering the Land in reward for having remained faithful to God in rising up to rebuke the sinners.
The night that the people cried in the wilderness, rejecting the Promised Land, was the eve of the ninth of Av (Tisha B’Av). God said: “You cried for no reason; therefore I will set for you a crying for generations” (Sanhedrin 104b). At that very moment, it was decreed that the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, would be destroyed years later on that very same day, and that the Nation of Israel would be exiled from its Land (see,Tanchuma, Parshat Shlach).
The question arises: What was the actual sin of the Spies? They believed that the people, just freed from bondage in Egypt, lacked the ability and strength to conquer the seven fierce nations residing in Canaan. In their opinion, if the newly-formed nation agreed to fight, they would be defeated and face the possibility of total extinction. If so, they had an ethical obligation to warn the people about the apparent danger, for the preservation of the Jewish Nation is more important than the mitzvah of settling the Land. Even though they were mistaken in their evaluation of the situation, for in fact, Israel could have conquered the Land, nevertheless, since the Spies seemingly spoke out of deep concern in order to save the Nation from defeat and extinction, there was no need for them to be punished so severely. On the contrary – they should have been praised for the national responsibility they exhibited!
However, their underlying sin was that they did not love the Land of Israel and understand its vital significance to the nation. Lacking a passionate love for Eretz Yisrael, when they saw the difficulties in conquering it, their hearts fell and they began to contrive excuses and rationales why it was impossible to go up and possess it, until finally they lost all faith, as it is written, “Moreover, they despised the pleasant Land, they did not believe His word” (Psalms,106:24) In contrast, Joshua and Calev, who cherished the Land, declared, “The Land through which we have spied out is an exceedingly good Land” (Numbers, 14:7). In spite of the difficulties, they believed that, with God’s help, it was certainly possible to conquer the Land, rallying the Nation with the call, “Let us go up at once and possess it, for we are surely able to overcome it” (Numbers,13:30).
Judging from God’s fierce anger against the Spies, it became clear that Joshua and Calev were right. Had the nation listened to them, the entire generation would have been saved and would have merited entering the Land immediately. Ironically, the Spies, who professed concern for the welfare of the people by discouraging them from waging what they considered a losing battle, themselves caused the death of their brethren in the desert.
The Spies believed that life in the wilderness was on a higher level than the life awaiting them in Eretz Yisrael, because with the manna, the well of Miriam, and the protecting Clouds of Glory, they didn’t have to worry about securing their material needs since everything was miraculously provided for them from Heaven. Thus, they came to despise the cherished Land, where they would have to work for a living and take up arms against the fierce giants they had encountered there. The “Baal HaTanya,” the first great Admore of Chabad, explains that the Spies didn’t want to journey onward to Eretz Yisrael because they didn’t want to deal with the down-to-earth, physical necessities involved in conquering a land and settling its borders. They wanted to keep the Torah as a spiritual discipline alone, without the need to convey its messages through physical deeds and mitzvot.
“However, in truth, they were mistaken, for the essence of the mitzvot is to perform them specifically in Eretz Yisrael. See how our Sages in the Talmud (Sotah 14a) emphasized how many prayers Moshe petitioned before God, begging for permission to enter Eretz Yisrael – not in order to eat its fruits, but rather to perform the mitzvot that are dependent on the Land” (Likutei Torah, Shlach, 38:2).
This is because the observance of the commandments specifically in the Land of Israel is the supreme sanctification of God, and therefore the light revealed in the Land of Israel is immense – much more than living merely a spiritual life.
Similarly, in recent generations, when an awakened desire to return to Zion and rebuild the Land began to pulsate in the hearts of Jews around the world, leaders rose up seeking to discourage people from joining the movement, with strident claims about the insurmountable dangers awaiting them in the Land — among them, famine, plague, and bloodthirsty Arabs. They also blamed the Zionists for kindling a spirit of Israeli nationalism which would prevent Jews from winning equal rights in the countries of their dispersion, where they were attempting to be accepted as full-fledged citizens so as to end generations of persecution. But alas, it soon became clear that in Zion there was a refuge, while the Jews who remained behind in the Diaspora suffered both physical annihilation at the hands of the goyim, and spiritual extinction due to the rampant assimilation resulting from gaining equal rights.
This attitude of estrangement from the Land, beginning with the Spies, and continuing in Diaspora Jewry’s failure to return to Zion when the opportunity arose with the birth of the Zionist movement, also shadows the present settlement of Israel. Even today, there are Torah observant Jews throughout the exile who reject the opportunity to return to Israel. And in Israel, those who lack emunah (faith) in God, and those who don’t understand the importance of Eretz Yisrael to the Nation, and its centrality in the Torah, maintain that we don’t have the power to overcome the difficulties in its settlement, and therefore, must give in to the demands of our enemies and abandon large portions of our homeland to them – a formula doomed to bring disaster in its wake, may the All-Merciful have compassion.