Roam and Board
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
G-d spoke to Moshe, saying, Send men and spy out the land of Canaan ...
A rabbi, once speaking on this week’s parshah said that these verses act as
a kind of litmus test for the Jew in every generation living outside of
Eretz Yisroel (he, of course, lived in Eretz Yisroel). He said that, if one
is moved to tears each time he reads the story of the spies and their
rejection of Eretz Yisroel, and of the exile that resulted, then he is part
of the rectification of the sin. If, however, one living outside of Eretz
Yisroel can read this episode like any other in the Torah, then he himself
is still part of the problem.
To what can this be compared? To someone whose money was stolen from him at
a certain street corner by a thief, after which his fortunes turned for the
worse. Will his heart not sink and will tears not flow every time he passes
that corner, until his fortune returns?
The truth is, clearly even a Jew living in Eretz Yisroel not is not home
yet. The Jewish people remain scattered around the world, the Temple is not
yet rebuilt, and the land is filled with disbelievers in Torah, and is led
according to secular values. The B’nei Eretz Yisroel should cry this week as
well, over the exile that still affects every Jew.
However, it is one thing to grow complacent in Chutz L’Aretz, and
something altogether different to grow complacent in Eretz Yisroel. Those
living in Eretz Yisroel are at least closer to the Final Redemption than
those living outside the land. This is why, as we quoted a few weeks ago,
those buried outside Israel are resurrected forty years (corresponding to
the years in the desert after the spies’ sin) later than those who were
buried in Eretz Yisroel.
This, perhaps, was part of the message of the Har Sinai Experience. One
might have thought that the final destination of the Torah-Nation should
have been Mt. Sinai. After all, as the Midrash tells us, Mt. Sinai became a
virtual paradise when the Divine Presence came down and hovered above the
mountain, and gave the Jewish people the Torah. Could there have been no
better place to remain than at such a holy place?
Yet, in spite of the fact that the desert bloomed and Torah flourished
there, the Jewish people were still told to move on--on to Eretz Yisroel. On
to a place filled with hardship and in need of hard work, as if that too was
part of the development of a Torah nation.
However, the generation of the spies wanted to remain in the desert, not
the one that was barren and dangerous, obviously, but the one that
flourished with the blessing of G-d. They seemed to fail to understand that
the Divine Providence that had allowed them to grow and develop in the
desert was merely a temporary one, one designed to bring them eventually to
Eretz Yisroel. The time would eventually come when it would end, and the
Jewish people would be left to fend for themselves in the desert, and
longing to enter the land.
As the Ba’al HaTurim points out, it is mistake that even great people can
make. The last letters of the words send men (shlach lechah
anashim)--ches, chof, mem--spell the word chacham, indicating that all of
the spies were wise and righteous people. Apparently, even wise and
righteous people can err in this judgment, and suffer from what has come
to be called, a golus mentality--a perspective corrupted by exile.
But isn’t it irresponsible to move to Israel if you don’t have a job lined
The truth is, the great rabbis of the past didn’t think so, and there is
nothing in the Torah to support this idea. In fact, trusting in G-d,
something Eretz Yisroel is supposed to be a test of, means living there for
the right reasons, and knowing that G-d will take care of you. Having a job
lined up first, as a condition of making aliyah, is a recent thing, because
the rabbis have seen too many people move back to Chutz L’Aretz when plans
didn’t pan out fast enough. Moving to Eretz Yisroel only to leave it again
for negative reasons constitutes a chillul Hashem (profanation of G-d’s
Name), because it suggests that G-d can’t take care of His people on His own
If so, then maybe the starting point should be to build up enough emunah and
bitachon--faith and trust in G-d--as a preparation for living in Eretz
Yisroel. Maybe a major part of one’s avodas Hashem (service of G-d) should
be developing the spiritual muscles that can give one the spiritual and
physical stamina to survive the yesurim (difficulties) with which, according
to the Talmud, Eretz Yisroel is acquired. Marriage and life in general is
stressful enough as it is; without the proper emunah, neither can fare
well--anywhere in the world--when the going gets tough, how much more so in
a foreign land that lives by miracles.
To begin such a program of spiritual development means to become a little
less complacent in the desert. It means delving deep into one’s heart of
hearts during parshios like this week’s, and seeing just how much one is
pained by our extended exile, outside and inside the land.
Moshe sent them from the Paran Desert according to the word of G-d, and all
of them leaders on the Children of Israel ... (Bamidbar 13:3)
Of the twelve men that Moshe sent out to spy the land, only two of them came
back with a positive report: Yehoshua from the tribe of Ephraim, and Caleiv
from Yehudah. The other ten came back with a negative report, and invoked
Divine wrath and caused the extra 39 years of desert wandering.
It is interesting to note that, it was also ten of the twelve tribes that
had stood before Yosef 210 years earlier, as he played the role of viceroy
of Egypt, when he accused them of being meraglim (spies). And even though
they had not been spies at the time, and even though the land Yosef referred
to was Egypt, perhaps Yosef was also sending a warning to the tribes of the
future as well: The same philosophical flaw that has put you into hot
water this time will put you into hot water later as well, if you don’t
do complete teshuvah!
(Maybe this is why Yehoshua sent only two spies 39 years later to spy the
land--corresponding to the two tribes that were not involved in the sale of
Yosef. We read about this in this week’s Haftarah.)
After all, if you think about, both Yosef and Eretz Yisroel were
misperceived, and for the same reasons. As the Ba’al HaTurim points out in
Parashas Mikeitz, the reason why the brothers could not recognize Yosef was
because they assumed that he could never have achieved such a high position
in life. The preconceptions about Yosef and the way G-d runs His world
precluded such a possibility, and they responded to the viceroy accordingly.
Thus, in spite of his previous dreams to the contrary, and, all the hints he
gave them, the brothers just couldn’t see past Yosef’s veil and recognize
their brother. Had they been able to, then all the events would have
proceeded differently, and the Final Redemption, not exile into Egypt, would
have come then and there.
The same thing was true about the spies and Eretz Yisroel. Having lived in
hardship in Egypt, and then with the miracles of the desert, the spies
couldn’t imagine how Eretz Yisroel could be such a desirous, breath-taking
land. They couldn’t imagine a place on earth that could be part of the
physical world, yet, of a much higher spiritual reality and so fulfilling.
It had been beyond their experience, and outside of their imagination.
Therefore, they chose to roam and board in the desert.
Therefore, when they entered the land, the spies viewed the land with a
colored-vision. As Rashi points out, blessing was viewed as just the
opposite, and rather than see the beauty of Eretz Yisroel, all they saw was
a black veil pulled over her beautiful face. (They said, It is a land
that swallows up its inhabitants ... (Bamidbar 14:32)--a familiar complaint
that will echo throughout the generations, even until today.) It is very
much the same way that many Jews today only see problems and ignore the
beauty of the land, and the spiritual opportunity it presents.
If we continue the analogy, we can assume the endings will also be similar.
With respect to Yosef, when he finally revealed himself and the brothers
were forced to see their loving and harmless brother in place of the cruel
and frightening viceroy of Egypt, they were dumb struck. So, too, we can
assume, there will come a time when the black veil of Eretz Yisroel will
also be lifted, and all Jews will be forced to see what had been inside
all along: a land flowing with milk and honey, and blessing for all her
cherished its existence.
However, the men that went up with him said, We are not able to fight the
people; they are stronger than us! (Bamidbar 13:31)
They were speaking regarding Heaven.(Rashi)
One of this things for which the spies were heavily criticized was their
apparent lack of belief in G-d’s ability to overcome the nations of Canaan.
The Midrash says that when they said, they are stronger than us, they were
in fact referring not just to themselves, but to G-d Himself.
But those type of interpretations always prompt the question, how could that
be? These were not children who never saw the hand of G-d at work before.
These were great people of Biblical proportions who witnessed the
destruction of Egypt--the mightiest nation on earth at the time--the
splitting of the sea, bread from Heaven, and miraculous water. Not to
mention the Divine Presence that encompassed them and protected them against
the dangerous elements of the desert. So, how could they doubt G-d’s ability
to rout the seven nations of Canaan?
What we have to answer is that they didn’t doubt this. Each and every Jew in
the camp knew that G-d is the Creator and Maintainer of creation, and that
the moment that He decides that He has had enough of someone, or even entire
nations, they are history--ancient history! Ultimately, no one can stand up
to G-d, and they were clear about this.
However, as we have all noticed, and the Generation of the Desert witnessed
in the battle against Amalek, G-d plays different roles in our lives. As the
Nefesh HaChaim makes clear, the general role G-d plays is to take a back
seat to our free-will decisions. He allows us to strengthen Him by making
moral free-will decisions, or to weaken Him back turning our back on Torah
and mitzvos. Ultimately, we don’t affect G-d at all, but, for the sake of
free-will and reward in the World-to-Come, He puts up a convincing front
that this is indeed the case.
The Generation of the Desert knew that life in Eretz Yisroel would not be
like life in the desert. In the desert, it was a very idyllic environment in
preparation for life on the land. You didn’t have to physically earn a
living in the desert--you just had to learn Torah and do the mitzvos.
However, life in Eretz Yisroel, they surmised correctly, would be more
natural, filled with miracles, yes, but mixed together with nature as
well. Overall Jewish success would depend heavily on merit, and G-d’s
strength, so-to-speak, would be intimately tied to the spiritual status of
the nation, beginning with the battles against the existing nations of
The nations of Canaan were mighty people. The Jewish people, however, had
yet to acquire national spiritual perfection. For this reason, they worried
about to what extent G-d would fight on their behalf--how strong He would
be for them. If G-d’s involvement in their battles was going to be based
upon spiritual merit, then how much could they actually expect from G-d in
the end? This is what was really behind their statement and concern.
However, as we have discussed before, trust in G-d brings results from
Heaven even if one doesn’t merit them. Trust in G-d is a whole separate
mitzvah, one which can bring Divine assistance even before a person attains
righteousness, as it says:
One who trusts in G-d will be surrounded by kindness (Tehillim 32:10). Rebi
Elazar said in the name of Rebi Abba: Even an evil person who trusts in G-d
will be surrounded by kindness. (Midrash Tehillim, Mizmor 32:3)
The Generation of the Desert were not evil people, as Rashi and the Ba’al
HaTurim point out. Perhaps they had much work to do, but had they only
understood the mechanics of trust in G-d, and thrown their lot in with G-d,
not matter where they were holding spiritually, they would have moved
forward into the Final Redemption without any hesitation. That itself is
part of the test of moving up and into Eretz Yisroel. Apparently, it is a
timeless message too.
... Let the patience of G-d be as great as You have declared, saying,
‘G-d is very patient and extremely merciful, forgiving iniquity and
transgression, yet by no means clearing the guilty; visiting the iniquity of
the fathers upon the chil-dren until the third and fourth generation.’
This, of course, is the Shalosh-Esrai Middos Rachamim--the Thirteen
Attributes of Mercy, first taught to Moshe by G-d back in Parashas Ki Sisa,
after the sin of the golden calf. He was told that invoking them would never
be for naught, and that it was the ultimate way to entreat Divine mercy.
Now, after the spies angered G-d one more time, Moshe felt no choice but to
use this special prayer to avoid Divine retribution en masse.
What is so special about these words that they can affect so much, which is
why it is around them that the special Selichos prayers were formed, which
we say on fast days and during the Ten Days of Repentance?
The answer is that these words are really spiritual conduits that lead high
up into the Spiritual Realm. They lead up to the same source from which
Bris Avos, the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people, emanates. It is
Bris Avos that guarantees the survival of the Jewish people, even when they
don’t merit it. Were it not for Bris Avos, G-d would have turned His back on
us long ago there simply would not have been the miracles. Instead, He is
forever committed to us, forever involved in our affairs.
This is why:
[The covenant of Bris Milah] was a made with thirteen covenants. (Shabbos
It is Bris Milah that symbolizes our part of the commitment that resulted in
Bris Avos. And, it is Bris Avos that emanates from the same source as the
Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, and when we say the latter, we are really
invoking the former, and bringing down light and mercy regardless of any
merit or demerit we may possess.
Have a great Shabbos,