The sin of the spies is the central event of this week’s parsha. Yet, many aspects of this sin remain shrouded in mystery. What, exactly, is the nature of the sin? What did the spies do wrong? Didn’t they simply do what Moshe told them to do-“Give a report on what you see?” And if the report of the Spies was, in fact, truly a dramatic sin, how could these great leaders of the Jewish Nation, sin so significantly? Finally- and perhaps more importantly- why was Am Yisrael given such a harsh punishment for believing the Spies? Wasn’t it reasonable for them to believe the majority report of those who were sent? This generation had gone through the Exodus, Matan Torah, and much more, all in anticipation of reaching Eretz Yisrael. Was it really fair for entry into the land to now be taken away from them, in punishment?
I would like to share a novel explanation to this entire story that is suggested by my father, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, in his book Unlocking the Torah Text- one that provides a new perspective on this tragic event. He notes that if you look closely at the description given by the spies when they offer their report to the nation, there is one phrase that seems a bit strange. As they describe the land of Eretz Canaan and its inhabitants, they conclude by proclaiming “and we were in our eyes like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes”. These words are quite strange- if the spies are meant to be relaying their impressions of the lands and those who live within it, why add the words “and we were in our eyes like grasshoppers”- why is that relevant?
My father suggests that in fact, these few words form the basis for truly understanding the failure of the spies, and the ensuing fallout. The failure of the spies, and later the entire nation, was not that they didn’t believe in Hashem or in His ability to take them into Eretz Yisrael, but rather that they didn’t believe in themselves. They didn’t believe themselves capable of fighting against and conquering the nations in Eretz Canaan. Perhaps we can even suggest that this is a result of the slave mentality that many commentators note remained a part of the identity of the generation that left Egypt. Despite having been given their physical freedom, this generation continued to see themselves as inferior and weak- they were never truly able to remove the slave mindset that had been ingrained in them for years.
Based on this explanation, we can now answer the various questions we raised above. This sin of the Spies was not necessarily a deliberate attempt to rebel against Hashem and prevent entry into the land. Rather, through the spies’ report, and Am Yisrael’s reaction, underlying feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness that coursed within the people were now brought to the fore. Faced with the realization of what entry into Eretz Yisrael would entail, the nation was forced to face its inner demons- and, unfortunately, the results were tragic.
With this, we can also better understand G-d’s response to the spies and Am Yisrael’s reaction. G-d’s declaration that this generation will not enter Eretz Yisrael was less a punishment, and more a statement of reality. If this generation did not believe in their ability to fight and conquer the land; and in their capacity to create and develop a country for themselves; then they were destined to die in the desert. Only their children, who were not enslaved in Egypt and therefore did not suffer from a slave mentality- would have what it takes to successfully enter and conquer the land. It is almost as if G-d says to Moshe- if the issue had been that they didn’t believe in Me, that would have been something we could have worked on and overcome. But if the issue is that they don’t believe in themselves, then there is nothing I can do.
We have spoken in the past about the importance of raising our kids with healthy self-esteem, particularly in today’s world where issues of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression among children are rampant. But this point cannot be stressed enough. While we must certainly strive to raise our kids with a love of Hashem and His Torah and Mitzvot, we must ensure to lay the foundation whereby each child loves himself and believes in his abilities. From a very young age, we must prioritize building our children up, and helping them understand their own self-worth. Perhaps the best way to convey this message to them is to tell them, and show them, how much we believe in them and who they can become. If we are able to demonstrate this belief to them in a real way, hopefully that belief will penetrate deeply within them and produce in them a strong sense of self.
Famously, in Tehillim, Dovid HaMelech strives “lehagid baboker chasdecha, ve’emunascha baleilot”, “to talk about Your kindness in the morning, and Your faith/belief at night”. The standard understanding is that by “belief at night” refers to our ability to have faith in G-d even during times of darkness. However, Rav Shlomo Carlebach suggested that “Your faith” doesn’t refer to our belief in Hashem, but rather to Hashem’s belief in us. Even in moments of hardship or challenge, G-d wants us to realize that He believes in us, in who we are and who we can be.
At the precipice of entering Eretz Yisrael, the land of their destiny, the spies and the Jewish nation reveal to themselves, and to G-d, their lack of belief in themselves and their capabilities. Faced with this reality, G-d declares that such a generation will not be able to enter Eretz Yisrael. The nation’s failure to believe in themselves is a “game changer” that must doom this generation to die in the desert. As we raise our children in this complex and challenging world, we must relay to our children from a young age how much we believe in them, and how much G-d believes in them. If we are successful in this effort, we will hopefully ensure that they will, throughout their lives, believe in themselves.