Facing Down Despair

The spies (the meraglim), who scouted out the land of Canaan and brought back a negative report on the challenge of conquering the land, caused the children of Israel to become overcome by despair. This episode is considered one of the most consequential of the low points of the desert trek. It prompted God to punish the people by prolonging the desert sojourn for a period of forty years, causing those who began the journey from Egypt to perish in the desert, and leaving it for their children to be the ones who would enter the land. In addition, the rabbinic tradition saw this event as being directly responsible for the future destruction of the two Temples and the exiles of the Jewish people from their homeland in Eretz Yisrael:

“On the ninth of Av it is decreed against our fathers that they should not enter the land [of Israel], and the Temple was destroyed the first and second time. (Mishnah Taanit 3:6)

A midrash found in the Tanhuma (7th century Eretz Yisrael) explores the causal relationship between the sin of the spies and the later losses:

…The cries that you cried [when you heard the news of the spies] caused you to be stricken by those who hate you… On the day that God declared that He would plant you in the land [of Israel], you acted sinfully… before the desert storm (namely, before the conquest), you flourished… but on the day that I (God) said to you that I would give to you the inheritance of your faithers (the land of Canaan), you did something shameful (sending the spies – a breach of faith) in the world,,, and [this sin] will be your inheritance through the generations,  causing the nation to cry on Tisha b’Av [in perpetuity]. And the Holy One Blessed be He said to them: ‘You cried for nothing before Me, therefore, I will fix for you this night of crying throughout the generations. And from that time on, it was decreed that the Temple would be destroyed, and that Israel would be exiled among the nations of the world. (Adapted from Tanhuma Shlakh 12)

For this midrash, the sin of the spies serves as a lesson in how attitude shapes events. The desert generation defeated itself by allowing itself to be overcome by despair. Experiences in life, no matter how difficult, cannot be met with a negative attitude, or, in religious terms, a lack of faith. Otherwise, the sense of doom will in itself become a destructive force and shape reality. This is the lesson of associating the sin of the spies with the destruction of the Temples and the exile. The Jewish answer, then, to the all too human tendency to be overcome by despair is to face down tribulation with optimism and hope.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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