Parshat Shelach: Understanding the Sin of the Spies

The main theme of our Parsha is obviously the sin of the Meraglim (spies). Nevertheless, there are a few other Mitzvot that we encounter in our Parsha, which are seemingly not related to this event. The Parsha brings up certain commandments such as the Nesachim (Drink-offerings), Hafrashat Chalah and Tzitzit, Mitzvot which might have been placed in a better place like Sefer Vayikra for instance, which deals with Korbanot (offerings) and Kodshim (sanctities).

Promised LandTo understand this, we must understand the puzzling sin of the Meraglim. The Meraglim were surely “The heads of Bnei Yisra’el”, as the Torah says. The people listed here are those distinguished from the rest of the nation, because of their special status and standing in Torah – two of the most famous among them serving as examples for this fact: Kalev ben Y’funeh, and Yehoshua bin Nun. It is a collection of great individuals, who we would describe as “G’dolei ha’Dor” – Giants of the Generation.

How did it happen that those Gedolim made this huge error? Why didn’t those spiritual leaders want to enter Eretz Yisrael? After witnessing all of the miraculous redemption from Egypt, after Pharaoh, “the king of the world”, was defeated, the least that one would expect of those leaders would be for them to believe in the power of Hashem and to trust Him to fulfill His promise of Eretz Yisrael!

Why Didn’t The Leaders Want to Enter Eretz Yisrael?

The Sfat Emet (Admor of Gur) had a tremendous insight on this matter. He points out to the commentary of the Zohar, as follows: “The Zohar states that the spies thought: “Here, (in the desert,) we are the leaders (of Bnei Yisrael;) in the Land (of Israel) we will not merit to be the leaders.” According to the Zohar, they were concerned about losing their spiritual influence by going to Eretz Yisrael, and therefore decided that for the sake of the Torah, it is better to dwell in the Galut. But that is not the root of the problem, it is just the symptom. This would seem to explain that, indeed, the generation of the desert, in general, was identified through the aspect of the “Head.” The generation which left Egypt, and heard the (Ten) Commandments at Sinai, was the “Head” of all the other generations. The generations then continue as “Avot” (“Archetypes”) and “Toladot” (“Derivatives”) from the Heads to the Feet, as it is stated about our generations (being) “Ikvata d’Mashicha” – “the heels of Mashi’ach.” This was certainly true, for the entry in the Land of Eretz Yisrael was a level subsequent to that level, and they did not want to descend from the level of “Heads.” (Sfat Emet Ibid.)

The spies were indeed Gedolim. They had very good intentions. They were very comfortable with the spiritual manners of life in the desert. Having heavenly bread – manna – each and every day, clearly revealing the Shechina, following the fire and the cloud pillars, those are benefits which are not easy to give up. The spies were sure that for Am Yisrael, which was totally immersed in a spiritual environment at the time, entering Eretz Yisrael would be a disaster. Surely, they believed that they would defeat the enemies in Eretz Yisrael with the help of Hashem, but for that there is a need to establish an army. Also, there is a necessity to establish political and economical systems as well, since there are expectations to settle Eretz Yisrael – the land that is flowing milk and honey. If Am Yisrael will have to deal with all those tasks- who will sit and study Torah? We will lose our spiritual level!!! Therefore, the spies decided to do Hashem a “favor” – let’s stay here in the Galut where we can serve you much better than from Eretz Yisrael – it is for the sake of the Torah!!!

The root of this sin was the lack of ability to integrate heaven and earth. The Torah of Eretz Yisrael is the Torah that provides us with the skills to spiritually uplift matters which are mundane. In Eretz Yisrael, Avoda (labor) is integral part of Torah fulfillment. The letter and the spirit of the Torah cannot be achieved at its optimal level without the Avoda component. Hashem prefers for us to elevate the bread that comes from the ground – המוציא לחם מן הארץ – to our eating heavenly bread – the manna.

Thus it was so important to receive the new Mitzvot right after the sin of the Meraglim. Hashem wanted to comfort Bnei Yisrael for losing the heavenly virtues, and therefore provided them with substitutes. The Hafrashat Chalah enables us to take earthly bread and transform it into a heavenly one. The Nesachim are also the substitute to the heavenly well as the Tzitzit is the compensation to the heavenly clouds of glory (ענני הכבוד). The ultimate way of Avodat Hashem is indeed to live in a heavenly manner but while been grounded and attached to earth – by the virtue of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Torah V’Avodah.

Rav Ronen Neuwirth #1Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth is the Executive Director of Beit Hillel and the Rav of Congregation Ohel Ari in Ra’anana. He served as Director of the Overseas Department of Tzohar and as the Rabbi of Bnei Akiva of North America. He also served as a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and is a former captain in the Israeli Navy Special Forces.


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