In psychology, it is well-known that the greatest fear that all of mankind faces is fear of the unknown, because we fear most what we cannot understand. But, as iconic American actor Tom Hanks famously said “A hero is somebody who voluntarily walks into the unknown.” Our heroes are the ones who have the privilege and responsibility of going out into the uncharted, no matter how scary- they go out into the unfamiliar and make it known to us, so we have no need to fear it anymore. In this week’s parsha, as the Jewish People prepare to enter Eretz Yisrael, G-d commands the Jewish People to send spies into the “Wild West” of the Holy Land, so that they’ll know what to expect upon entering. Unfortunately, these so-called heroes did not live up to their responsibilities- they ended up taking advantage of the Jews’ natural fear of the foreign to scare them away from Eretz Yisrael. This leads to one of the biggest tragedies of the Jews of the wilderness, causing an entire generation to miss out on the opportunity to enter the land, and starting a plague so bad that it became the first of too many tragedies that we commemorate on the Ninth of Av.
This story begs the question: The Jewish People were doing pretty well at that point. Whoever was left alive at that point had survived two rounds of meat complaints, and had witnessed first-hand the cost of the sin of Lashon Hara (seeing Miriam’s tzarat). How could their spies, who are described in the pesukim as “כולם אנשים ראשי בני ישראל המה– they were all heads of the Jewish People, distinguished men” (במדבר יג:ג), have made a such a grievous error? How could the Jews’ heroes, in pursuit of clarifying the unknown from their journey, have gone so wrong?
Before answering this question, I would like to add another one. Many commentators debate whether or not Moshe’s spending spies was a correct move. From our pesukim, it’s clear that not only was this justified, but G-d commanded it (if anyone is in doubt of this, based on Rashi’s commentary on “שלך-לך,” please see the two similarly worded “לך-לך” commands in Bereshit, which were clearly not optional). So, why would G-d command Moshe to send spies when it ‘s clear that there was so much room for error?
The answers to our questions lie in how the spies reacted to their time in the land. After being sent, they spend 40 days touring the land, going on tiyulim, visiting the holy sites, and doing other agricultural and recreational activities. However, once they return, their report does not seem to reflect their experience at all. They discuss scary details of the Jews’ enemies there while failing to talk about the nice parts, ending with their primary argument:
לֹא נוּכַל, לַעֲלוֹת אֶל-הָעָם: כִּי-חָזָק הוּא, מִמֶּנּוּ
We will not be able to bring the nation there, for it is too difficult for us. (יג:לא)
Ramban comments here that this point was the spies’ plan the entire time. From the beginning, they aimed to influence the Jewish People not to go to Eretz Yisrael– they betrayed the trust of the people they represented, and increased the Jews’ fear of the Holy Land instead of calming their phobia of the unknown future. Their entire journey to Israel was a crock- before they left, they had pre-judged the Holy Land, and already concluded that they would not be able to get there, so, despite the positive experience that Yehoshua and Calev managed to have, they gave a dishonest report to the Jewish People.
This could explain why G-d commanded Moshe to send spies- in the hope that seeing the land would cause them to reconsider their preconceptions and avoid letting their fear of the unknown overpower their decision to follow G-d to His promised land. Since this did not succeed, the spies died in the ensuing plague, while the entire generation that accepted their evil report did not end up meriting entering the land that they were tricked into fearing. While G-d definitely knew this would happen, in His mercy, He gave them a chance to try to break out of their own preconceptions, and there was therefore nothing wrong with the sending of the spies.
Even though we can now understand why G-d sent spies to Eretz Yisrael and why this was a good idea, it’s still very hard to reconcile how so many Jewish leaders, the gedolim of their time, could’ve gone so wrong. Why would they have decided to mislead the nation like this?
Rav Teichtel, in the second chapter of Em Habanim Semecha, addresses our question by quoting a piece from the Tana Debe Eliyahu:
בתנא דביה אליהו (פרק א’): “‘לשמור את הדרך’- זו דרך ארץ, ‘עץ החיים’- מלמד שדרך ארץ קדמה לעץ החיים, ואין ‘עץ החיים’ אלא תורה, שנאמר ‘עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה.'” וכתב הרב הגאן הצדיק הנ”ל בפירושו וזה לשונו: “‘מלמד שדרך ארץ קדמה לעץ החיים’- וצריך ביאור, איזהו דרך ארץ מכוון בזה? ולפי המבואר בילקוט ‘כי נגרשו מן הארץ- זה ארץ ישראל,’ אפשר לומר דמשמע לן לאפוקי… מן דעת המרגלים אשר מאסו הארץ, ואמרו תורה מוקדם לארץ ישראל, על כן בקשו שלא ליכנס לארץ ישראל, כי אם להיות נשאר במדבר ללמוד תורה מפי משה רבנו עליו השלום, שלא נתנה תורה אלא לאוכלי המן. על כן בא לומר כי דרך ארץ…זה הדרך המביא לארץ, הוא מוקדם לתורה, כמו שכתוב בספרי ‘מלמד שישיבת הארץ מכריע את כל הארץ.'” עד כאן דיבורו.
In a nutshell, Rav Teichtel first proves that living in Eretz Yisrael comes before learning Torah (“דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה“). Then, he quotes a teaching of Rav Akiva Yosef Shlezinger (zt”l, called “הרב הגאון הצדיק” in the text), which tells us that the spies were not evil men at all- they cared a lot about Torah learning, and believed that it was tantamount, even more than G-d’s will to bring the Jews to Eretz Yisrael. They didn’t want to enter the Promised Land because they saw their state in the wilderness as ideal- they were learning Torah directly from Moshe, supported by G-d’s manna, and didn’t have a worry in the world. They didn’t want to leave this perceived idyllic lifestyle to enter Eretz Yisrael and have to work the land for a living, learning less Torah in the process. Therefore, they prejudged the Land for bad, and influenced all of the Jews to want to remain in the desert, disregarding G-d’s will in the process. In essence, they decided that in order to save their Torah learning, they should defy the Source of the Torah and stop the Jews’ redemption. These resha’im ended up paying dearly for their mistake, not only being punished themselves but also leaving the generation unfortunate enough to listen to their heresy to die in the wilderness.
In our times, we face a similar problem. There are a lot of people who do not want to move to Eretz Yisrael because the journey is too difficult (“כי חזק הוא ממנו“). Others are wary of the possible loss to their עבודת השם. While the latter is not easy to digest in light of the Tana Debe Eliyahu above, these are definitely valid views, and one does nothing wrong by feeling them. What is definitely not okay, however, is channeling these negative feelings to influence those around us to make the same mistake. Fear of the unknown is extremely common in the Hareidi world in regards to ישוב הארץ, and one who exploits this to turn another Jew away from Israel, especially someone who has already been there and seen her goodness firsthand, is no better than the spies in our parsha, who were killed in a terrible plague for the sin of their misleading. Fear of the unknown is healthy, but fear mongering is not, and resha’im of our times who spread דיבות רעות on ארצנו הקדושה to promote their incorrect values system cannot possibly understand the detriment they are causing to our people in delaying our redemption just as their predecessors in the wilderness did inheritance.
With Hashem’s help, we will see a fulfillment of our daily prayer of “וכל הרשע כרגע תאבד” by seeing an end to Jews’ misleading their brothers, and through this, we will iy”h merit a complete redemption very soon.