Don’t Trust In Yourself Until The Day You Die
The incident of the spies calls for clarification from several points of view. I will first enumerate the questions, then shed light on them one by one in order to demonstrate the unity underlying them all.
In his book entitled Sichot Mussar, the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz Zatzal asks how we can say that the spies sinned, since we know that they were righteous and upright when Moses chose them.
In my humble opinion, we may add several other questions:
1. Since Moses knew that in the end the spies would fail, why in fact did he send them? Proof of this is that he added a yud to the name of Joshua and prayed that he be protected from the influence of the spies (Sotah 34b). Now if he had not sent them, he would have saved the Children of Israel from having to spend 40 years in the desert, and he would have also prevented the destruction of both Temples!
2. As we know, Caleb son of Jephunneh feared being influenced by the spies, which is why he went to pray by the tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron (Sotah ibid.). Why did he not instead flee from them by returning to the desert? That way he wouldn’t have needed to go to the tomb of the Patriarchs. Why did he need to go to Hebron and stay with the spies?
3. The greatest difficulty is that it is written, “They were all distinguished men” (Numbers 13:3), for at that moment in time they were clean of all sin. How can we understand that immediately afterwards they became fundamentally bad?
We will attempt to explain all of these points. The Sages have said, “Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die” (Perkei Avoth 2:4), for Yochanan the High Priest was a priest for 80 years, and in the end he became a Sadducee and killed several thousand Jews (Yoma 9a). This demonstrates just how much we must pay attention to not becoming a victim of the evil inclination and the forces of darkness, even if someone is a great individual. Concerning this it is said, “It is better for man not to have been created than to have been created” (Eruvin 13b), for a man can stumble into sin at any moment if he doesn’t pay serious attention to not letting himself succumb to his evil instincts, and he should do everything to correct them.
Consequently, we may say that the spies were in reality wicked at their very core. We may assert that they only became righteous when they were surrounded by Tzaddikim such as Moses, Aaron, and the Sanhedrin, as well as when they saw the manifestation of the Shechinah, since all these things influenced them for the good. The fact remains that they did not rectify the foundation of their heart and that their words did not correspond to their primary intentions.
This teaches us that each and everyone should wage a battle against his flaws, even if he often comes into contact with the righteous. He should benefit from every moment that he is in their presence in order to better himself, until it becomes impossible to say that his interior does not correspond to his exterior behavior (see Berachot 28b), as it is written, “Their heart was not constant with Him” (Psalms 78:37). It should not be that only their exterior resembles the righteous while their interior – their heart – remains spiritually poor and doubtful. Everyone mistook the spies for Tzaddikim, for this was really the outward image they projected when they approached Moses.
This is why Moses sent them to explore the land. It was precisely because he was aware of their weaknesses and knew that their interior was different than their exterior. He feared letting them enter the land at the same time as all the Jewish people, for he knew perfectly well that they had wicked intentions (Sotah 35a). This constituted a grave danger for the rest of the people who risked allowing themselves to be influenced by them. Moses therefore sent them in order to separate them from the presence of the righteous. The evil that was in them would then reveal itself on that great day, and thus everyone would understand that it is not enough to be like the righteous on the outside, but that the inside should also be pure before G-d. The result was that the Children of Israel remained in the desert for 40 years and all that wicked generation died there, leaving only the righteous whose interior was like their exterior. The others did not enter into Eretz Israel, but rather perished in the desert.
This is also why Moses added a yud to the name of Joshua and prayed for him, for Moses had to send Joshua with the spies, yet he feared that Joshua might allow himself to be influenced by them. Hence Moses added the yud, and thus his new name (Yehoshua) included 3 of the 4 letters of the Tetragrammaton. As for Caleb son of Jephunneh, he already had these 3 letters in the name of his father Jephunneh, and so he didn’t need a change of name. It was enough for him to go to Hebron to pray by the tomb of the Patriarchs, for the interior of his heart was as pure as his exterior, and furthermore he had to go with the spies. He therefore prayed by the tomb of the Patriarchs and succeeded in not being influenced by them.
However, let us return to the spies themselves. When they returned from Eretz Israel after 40 days, they began by saying good things about the land and showed the people the size of the fruits that grew there. This is amazing, for far from being righteous, they were evil! Yet as soon as they came near some of the Tzaddikim, all of a sudden they began to say good things and once again acted as if their interior was similar to their exterior. Only afterwards did they begin to slander the land. Why did they do so? It was because of self-interest, for they knew that if they only spoke well of the land, the Children of Israel would enter it and they – who wanted to remain leaders of the people – would lose their positions.
This is what caused them to lose their senses. Instead of sanctifying the Name of G-d by going into the land and assuring that all the Jewish community entered into it – resulting in them not having to stay in the desert for 40 years and that both future Temples would not be destroyed – they preferred to satisfy their desire for honor and moved the people to tears during the night (Numbers 14:1). The result was that tears have marked this night for the generations since (Taanith 29a). They also brought hatred and jealousy between themselves and Moses, and between themselves and the Children of Israel, causing them to wander in the desert for 40 years. During that time they learned Torah, which is acquired by 48 qualities (Perkei Avoth 6:5). All this was due to their love of honor, as it is said, “Envy, lust, and honor-seeking drive a man from the world” (ibid 4:21). They left the world and died in the desert.
Such was the wickedness of the spies, who deformed the truth and renounced the kindnesses of G-d (Bamidbar Rabba 16:9). In fact the spies didn’t disguise themselves when they went to explore the land, and when the giants saw them, none of them attacked the spies. Since they didn’t recognize G-d’s beneficence, they couldn’t see that the Canaanites’ protective shade had left them. It is thus certain that they renounced all the kindnesses that G-d bestowed upon them from the time that they left Egypt. Instead of saying that the Eternal had done all this in order to make things easier for them (since at that time the Canaanites were burying their dead – Sotah 35a), they disregarded this heavenly help and said, “[It] is a land that devours its inhabitants!” (Numbers 13:32). The spies hurt themselves in so doing, for they wanted the Children of Israel to return to Egypt where they could remain leaders. All this occurred because during the times that they were in contact with the righteous, they did not take advantage of the opportunity to eliminate their faults.
We can draw a great lesson from this. A man should never trust himself until the day of his death. Even if he is righteous, he should fear that deep inside he has flaws that have not yet been fixed, and he should know that there’s good reason to be very careful. This also teaches us that trials assail a man after he has left the proximity of his teacher and study environment. It is then that we clearly see if he is the same on the inside as on the outside, and at that point he can correct himself. If he is not able to do so, he should hurry to get back to his teacher, and there he will correct everything and elevate himself in Torah and the fear of Heaven.