In Parshas Shelach we learn of the incident of the meraglim (spies), in which the spies sent to investigate the land of Israel returned with an evil report about the land. The Jewish people accepted this report and spent the night crying and bemoaning their fate. In the end, G-d condemned the people to remain in the wilderness for forty years, while the spies themselves died immediately in a plague.

What exactly was the sin of the Jewish people in accepting the report of the spies? G-d sums up the sin in His initial statement to Moses (Numbers 14:11), “How long will this people anger Me, and how long will they not have faith in Me, with all the signs that I have done in its midst?” The essence of their sin was their failure to have faith in G-d. After all that G-d had already done for them, with all the miracles of the Exodus, the Revelation at Sinai, and their supernatural survival in the wilderness (e.g., manna, clouds of glory, the well of Miriam, etc.), the Jewish people were still not ready to wholeheartedly trust G-d.

As a rebbi (Torah teacher) teaching seventh and eighth grade students, when discussing this portion in the Torah, my students would often ask, “What was wrong with them? After everything they had seen with their own eyes, they still didn’t believe?!” The following is how I would address this issue when it came up in the classroom.

Clearly, the Jewish people believed in G-d. They knew G-d in a way that no later generation can even begin to comprehend. Yet, despite their knowledge, they were not yet capable of truly trusting Him. Trust is an emotion, and with all their intellectual knowledge of G-d, they were incapable of creating the emotion of trust within themselves.

The Jewish people had just experienced several generations of horrific abuse at the hands of the Egyptians. When they had first come to Egypt, they were welcomed, and they had been respected and productive members of Egyptian society. Suddenly, almost overnight and for no apparent reason, that ended and the Egyptians turned against them. The Jews were forced into dehumanizing servitude and became nothing more than property.

Unsurprisingly, this experience, which lasted several generation, deeply scarred the Jewish people. Not only had they been abused, but they had been abused by people who were once their friends! And not only had their friends turned against them, but they had done so for no reason!

Now along came G-d and rescued them from Egypt, bringing them into a wilderness where they are completely dependent on Him, telling them that He would bring them to a land “flowing with mild and honey.” Everything looked wonderful– yet, deep down inside, the Jewish people were waiting for the second shoe to drop. On some level, even with all that they knew of G-d, they still had an irrational fear that all of this was just a set-up for a betrayal. In the end it would go bad, because, after generations of slavery, they knew, on an almost instinctual level, that things always go bad.

With this understanding, much of the behavior of the Jewish people in the wilderness (from the sin of the golden calf to the complaints about the food) makes far more sense. While they certainly wanted to trust G-d, their insecurity in their relationship with G-d caused them to continually “test” the relationship and to overreact to every possible problem.

This is why, even after the people had repented, they still had to remain in the desert for forty years. The forty years in the desert wasn’t really a punishment; it was therapy. The people needed to experience forty years of life in which G-d directly participated in the daily life of every single person. Only after those forty years would their relationship with G-d be strong enough that they would be ready to go on to a normal life in the land of Israel.

G-d certainly understood the internal struggles that the Jewish people were going through, and He knew that they were not truly ready for a healthy relationship. G-d knew from the beginning that the Jewish people would need to spend the next forty years in the desert. Yet, before this could be made “official,” it was necessary that the people should recognize this as well. Otherwise, the forty years in the desert would have appeared utterly senseless, and would have led to even greater problems. It was therefore necessary for the Jewish people to “sin” in such a manner that they too would recognize that they were not yet ready to enter the land of Israel.

This explains why G-d told Moses to send the spies, even though He knew what would happen. “Send for yourself men…” – in the end the spies revealed to the Jewish people far more about themselves than they did about the land of Israel.

This also explains why G-d had to “go through the motions” of “anger” and “forgiveness,” first threatening to destroy them and then, in response to the prayers of Moses, “forgiving” them. (Indeed, the commentary of the Sforno to 14:20 understands G-d’s response to Moses’ prayer to mean that G-d had already forgiven the Jewish people before Moses had even begun praying.) This taught the Jewish people two vitally important lessons. Firstly, it made it clear that this kind of distrust was not acceptable in a proper relationship and that they needed to change. Secondly, it made it clear that even so, no matter what they did, G-d would ultimately forgive them.

This understanding of the incident of the spies teaches us several important lessons. One lesson we can learn from this is that there are times when G-d will send us a test that He knows we will fail. This can happen when we are unaware of a spiritual flaw that is impeding our spiritual development. When we fail at a test that, by all appearances, we ought to have passed, we realize that we aren’t really at the level that we thought and, hopefully, we are motivated to find those hidden flaws and rectify them. (See Rav Eliyahu Dessler in Michtav M’Eliyahu I:165 and IV:186-187 for a discussion of this concept, based on the Pri Ha’aretz of R’ Menachem Mendel of Vitepsk.)

A more basic lesson that we can learn from here is the profound connection between our relationships with others and our relationship with G-d. To the degree that our relationships with other human beings are dysfunctional, so will be our relationship with G-d, whether we recognize it or not. If our fellow human beings find us difficult to deal with, then the likelihood is that G-d feels the same way. Thus the Sages taught, “Anyone who is pleasing to his fellow men is pleasing to G-d, and anyone who is unpleasing to his fellow men is unpleasing to G-d.” (Pirkei Avos 3:10)

Along the same lines, this also brings out a profoundly important spiritual aspect of our interpersonal obligations. For when we hurt another person, we are not only hurting them physically and emotionally, we are also hurting them spiritually. Every time we betray a friend, hurt a loved one, abuse our authority, or do any of the other cruel things that human beings tend to do to one another, not only do we undermine our own relationship with our fellow human beings and with G-d but we also chip away at our fellow human being’s relationship with G-d. On the other hand, every time we do an act of kindness, when we keep our word, when we give of ourselves for the benefit of others, not only are we making the world a better place for ourselves and others, but we are also bringing the world a little bit closer to G-d.

Rabbi Eliezer C. Abrahamson

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  • Laibl Wolf

    I haven’t yet read your Torah thought but the heading struck me as not in keeping with the kind of subliminal message we should be sending to many Jews of whom a goodly number have doubts. and issues of Emuna. The Rebbe was always very makpid that ‘first appearances’ give correct impressions and even though the surprising -ve ‘take’ perks up the ears, it would be wiser to ensure that in a world where the first ten seconds of anything counts that much more, that the sloganising be +ve – especially vis a vis the Creator of the Universe.

  • Jodi Miller

    Dear Rabbi Abramson,

    I have a question about what you said about Klal Yisroel not being ready to go into Eretz Yisroel. You said that the midbar was used for “therapy” so it seems that regardless of the chait meraglim we would have needed to be in the midbar. Why do we attribute our stay in the midbar to the chait and not our own shortcomings from galus mitzrayim?

    Thank you

    • Eliezer C. Abrahamson

      Dear Jodi,

      Thank you for your comment.

      You ask why we attribute our 40 year stay in the desert to the sin of listening to the spies and not to the shortcomings caused by their experiences in Egypt that led to that sin?

      My most basic response is that there is no real distinction between the two. When we speak of the sin of the spies, that is really just a shorthand for the spiritual shortcomings that caused us to commit that sin. When we say that we were required to stay in the desert for forty years because of the sin of listening to the spies, what we really mean is that the forty years in the desert was necessary to rectify the spiritual flaws that led to that sin.

      This is true not just in this case, but is a general principle that applies to all sins. When we repent from a sin, our primary focus must be on rectifying the underlying issues that caused us to sin in the first place. Otherwise, as much as we may regret the particular sin, we are virtually certain to repeat it, in slightly different form, the next time we encounter the same basic challenge.

      I would add that I believe that, at least in principle, if the Jewish people had been able to gather the strength to overcome this challenge, and demonstrated complete trust in God despite their recent experiences, then that would have made the forty years in the desert unnecessary. However, this would have been an achievement of almost superhuman spiritual strength, well beyond what God would normally demand from us.

  • Marina Rivera del Aguila

    Thank you for your article, so well and clearly written. However, in it I do not find room for us: people who believe Ha Shem is our God, read and study Torah and try to live by it and become closer to our Creator by following his mitzvot, BUT are not Jewish, neither Catholic nor Protestant. We just follow Scripture as best as we can without a man-made organization… We do recognize that had it not been for the Jews, who kept the “Books” one step away from God´s enemies, even at the cost of their lives, today we would not have Bibles to study from. It will be wonderful to have your answer. Respectfully, M

    • Eliezer C. Abrahamson

      Dear Marina,

      while I’m not really sure how my article raised this specific question in your mind, I want to clearly state that there is no question whatsoever that the Torah is relevant to all mankind. Indeed, the messianic hope of Judaism is one in which all mankind is united in the service of God. However, just as the Torah applies different laws to the kohanim (Aaronite priests) than to ordinary Jews, it also applies different laws to Jews than to non-Jews. The laws that are binding upon a non-Jew are conventionally referred to as the “Seven Noahide Laws,” and cover the basic obligations of faith in God and ethical behavior.

    • admin

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