Eretz Israel is Acquired Through Sacrifice
Commenting on the verse, “Send forth men for yourself, and let them spy out the land of Canaan” (Numbers 13:2), Rashi cites the Midrash: “By your discretion; I am not commanding you” (Tanhuma ibid. 5). This explanation raises a few questions:
1. If the Holy One, blessed be He, did not expressly order Moses to send the spies, why did he do so?
2. Why did Moses add the letter yud to Joshua’s name (Numbers 13:16) and pray, “May Hashem save you from the counsel of the spies” (Sotah 34b)? Was Moses not aware that the spies had decided, from the very outset, to speak ill of the land? Let us recall the teaching of the Midrash and the Talmud (Sotah 35a), namely that their departure was under the same conditions as their return. In such a case, why did Moses send them?
3. Given that the spies were tribal leaders of the Children of Israel (Numbers 13:3) and that, according to Rashi, they were upright men at their departure, is it conceivable that they could have fallen to such a degree by maligning the holiness of Eretz Israel?
The explanation is that Moses was afraid to bring the entire Jewish people into Eretz Israel all at once because he knew that they would discover giants and enormous fruits there. In such a case, the weakest among them would have begun to fear and thus slander the land and its holiness. This would have resulted in a much greater punishment, and who knows how many thousands would have perished? Let us not forget to take into consideration the punishment upon future generations as well.
This is why Moses took the initiative and sent spies to evaluate the exact situation in the land. He warned them that they would discover giants there, but that they should not fear. In fact Moses wanted to wage war against the enemies of the Jewish people by natural means, without Divine assistance. He therefore thought that these spies would prepare a battle plan designed to defeat the enemy, and that the Children of Israel would be motivated by it and devote body and soul to a final victory. Nevertheless, Moses knew that the spies were not capable of meeting the challenge and emerging victorious.
As long as the spies were in the camp, they were upright; their great trials began after they left. The spies knew that once the Children of Israel entered Eretz Israel, they would lose their positions as princes. Of course this would benefit the Children of Israel, and so the spies should have spoken only good of the land and thought about the resulting good that would occur for their brothers. However since Moses knew beforehand that the spies were not ready to make such concessions, he decided to make them lead the battle by natural means. These princes had to demonstrate humility for the good of their brothers, and if they entered into contact with the giants of the land, they were not to fear, for Hashem is the Master of war (Exodus 15:3). With His help, they could conquer their enemies.
Moses wanted to know whether the cities of the land were open or fortified (Numbers 13:19). If they were fortified, heavy weapons would be needed; otherwise light arms would suffice. Moses added a yud to Joshua’s name because he feared that he would be affected by the spies’ frustration and arrogance, for pride (ga’avah) belongs solely to G-d (ga’avah having the same numerical value, 15, as G-d’s Name Y–h).
Moses therefore shalach (sent) spies who were, at the time, upright men. He knew that they were also chalash (weak), a word with the same letters as shalach. Therefore he sent them to strengthen their faith and prepare a battle plan against the enemy by natural means.
Incidentally, even though the spies slandered Eretz Israel, they still loved the land; otherwise they would not have spent 40 days there (Numbers 13:25). They could have immediately returned and told Moses, “We saw giants as well as enormous fruits that frightened us.” They were upright at the start because deep in their hearts they loved the land. However their weakness led them to pride and the pursuit of honor, with the Jewish people suffering greatly in the desert as a result. The only exceptions were Caleb and Joshua, who yielded before Moses and tried to reassure the people, as it is written: “You should not fear the people of the land, for they are our bread. Their protection has departed from them. The L-RD is with us!” (Numbers 14:9).
We can therefore better understand the connection between Parsha Beha’alotcha and Parsha Shelach.
As we saw, Rashi sites the Midrash which states that the spies did not draw a lesson from seeing Miriam struck by leprosy and white as snow because she had spoken ill of her brother Moses. Miriam’s punishment and that of the spies does not seem analogous, for she was punished for speaking spoke ill of a human being, whereas the spies spoke ill of the land (which cannot feel humiliation and is insensitive to slander). Thus how can it be inferred, from Miriam’s punishment, that it is forbidden to speak ill of the Holy Land?
The reason lies in the fact that Moses was so humble that he considered himself to be like adamah (earth). Thus if Miriam spoke ill of an adam, it was as if she had slandered adamah, from which adam comes (see Numbers 12:3). The spies should have therefore learned that it is forbidden to speak ill even of the land. Since Moses did not want to expose the Children of Israel to danger (see Shabbat 32a), and preferred that they not enter into Eretz Israel, the entire generation that was persuaded by the spies’ arguments had to perish in the desert.
How can true modesty be distinguished from fake, which is actually hidden pride? As an example, let us take the case of a synagogue director who has discovered a stranger sitting in his seat. If he is truly modest, the incident will not upset him at all, and he will not say a thing to the person in his seat (who probably didn’t realize that the seat belonged to the director, otherwise he would not have sat there). The incident is thus closed. However if the director gets upset with the man, he demonstrates that he is, above all, weak in character, someone who only seeks personal honor.
Such was the exact situation with the spies. On one hand, these spies – princes of the tribes of the Children of Israel – were all Tzaddikim. On the other hand, since all they sought was personal glorification, they dared to open their mouths and slander Eretz Israel. Furthermore, they demonstrated their ingratitude to the earth that sustains man, and so their punishment was extremely severe.
During my stay in Austria, Chief Rabbi Eisenberg taught that Moses knew, on one hand, how to wage G-d’s battles, as it is written: “The L-RD is Master of war” (Exodus 15:3). Yet on the other hand, Moses was the most humble man on the face of the earth on a personal level, even tolerating insults. The verse in full states, “The L-RD is Master of war. The L-RD is His Name.” The expression, “The L-RD is the Master of war” is a reference to the attribute of Judgment; “The L-RD is His Name” is a reference to the attribute of Mercy concerning His creations. The spies should have emulated Moses our teacher and in turn infused themselves with these two attributes. Since they did not draw a lesson from either Moses or Miriam, they were wiped off the face of the earth, for it is only by being devoted to Eretz Israel, and by overcoming the hardships that it presents, that we may acquire it.