In the week’s Torah reading, Parshas Shelach, Moshe (Moses) sent 12 spies to scout out the Land of Canaan (which would become the Land of Israel after the Jews conquered it). Unfortunately, ten of them came back with a dismal report, discouraging the Jews from wanting to enter the land. By doing so, they committed an awful sin which resulted in grave consequences. Since God had promised them the land, the actions of the meraglim (spies) were considered a form of rebellion against God.

Good or Bad?

Rashi infers from the language used in the verse to describe the meraglim (13:3) that the 12 spies Moshe sent were fine, important people of high spiritual stature at the time that they were sent off on their mission. Rashi elsewhere (Deuteronomy, 1:23) tells us that these people were actually the finest of the Jewish Nation. The problem is that Rashi later (13:26) interprets a verse to be hinting to us that the spies already plotted their evil scheme from the onset of their journey. If they considered committing this dreadful act from the beginning, how can they be labeled as exceptionally great and fine people?

How to be Great – It’s All In the Mindset

Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (Da’as Chochma Umussar, Vol. 1 Ma’amar 69) elucidates the episode of the meraglim with a fascinating concept as follows: There are different aspects of measurement. There is the current status of a person based on his actual level at the moment, and there is the direction in which a person is heading. The spies certainly started off on a very high level based on all they had accomplished until that point, at which time they hadn’t actually committed any sin yet. However, as great as a person may be, he always has free will to choose the path he wants to take in life. When the spies set off on their mission, they did so with a flawed mindset. While their actual status was still great, they began on a path of a sinful attitude.

When a person starts heading in the wrong direction, as great as he was when he started, he can end up falling to the worst levels. Conversely, says Rabbi Levovitz, we find that the opposite is true, too. A person can be on a very low spiritual level, but begins on a path leading upwards. Such a person can end up reaching the highest of levels.

Invest it Best

At the end of the day, who is greater – a lofty person heading downwards, or a lowly person heading upwards? As we see with the meraglim, what really matters is not your actual status but the direction in which you are heading.

Rabbi Yitzchok Blazer gives an analogy: You want to invest your money with someone, and you have two options. You can either invest with a wealthy person who recently started having setbacks in his deals, or with a poor individual who has lately begun being very successful in his business ventures. Although generally one would prefer to invest his money with a person of means as opposed to a poor person, it is obviously a safer bet to go with the one who is currently on a track of success. So too, in spiritual matters, the track on which a person is heading is more valuable than his actual status at the current moment.

Two Defining Traits – The Lesson From the 12 Spies

When we want to measure our own level of spirituality, the focus should be on the direction in which we are heading. Our actual accomplishments thus far are not as important as the attitude we currently have. The Chazon Ish writes (Emunah Ubitachon, the beginning of chapter 4) that there are many character traits that a person has which one must keep in line, but it really boils down to two. A person chooses to either let his natural tendencies lead him without resistance, or a person resolves to exercise control and prioritizes morals over his personal lusts. He who follows his natural instincts will over time “excel” in all faulty character traits, but one who decides to fight against his bad nature always aspires for higher levels of greatness and only wants to accomplish more. This is the moral of the story of the 12 spies.

Do Procrastinate!

There was once a young lad who had slipped from the way of the Torah. Many people attempted to steer him back, but to no avail. Reb Shlomke of Zvhil asked to meet the boy in an attempt to influence him. When the boy arrived, Reb Shlomke told him, “The Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) is compared to a king. When the Yetzer Hara entices a person to sin, he orders him to do it right away, just like a king. It may be too hard to restrain yourself completely, but at least don’t let the Yetzer Hara boss you around. When the Yetzer Hara tempts you to sin, procrastinate it a little bit. This will make God very happy.” The young man followed the Rebbe’s advice, and in the end, he made a complete turnaround.

Be a Fighter!

This is the power of being a fighter. This is what we need to always ask ourselves. Are we putting conscious effort into guiding our actions according to our morals or are we just letting our nature run its course? What matters most is the direction in which we are heading. If we let down our guard, there is no saying how far we can fall. On the other hand, if we take care to set ourselves on a track leading upwards, there is no limit to the greatness we can achieve.

So you want to know how to be great? Take a lesson from the 12 spies – be a fighter!

By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber

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