The fundamental issue raised in this week’s parsha is how could so many wise
and ostensibly pious leaders of Israel make such a fundamental error in
vision and judgment and thereby condemn them and their constituents to death
and ignominy? All of the commentators to Torah from the Talmud and Midrash
forward in history have attempted to unravel this mystery for us.
Various theories, each one correct in its own view, have been advanced to
deal with this difficult issue. Yet, as is the case so many times in trying
to analyze human behavior and thought, after all of the answers are
considered and accepted, the question still remains to trouble us. And that
in itself is perhaps one of the main lessons of this sad narrative of the Torah.
Human beings are prone to error, even great and noble human beings. Man
proposes but only God disposes. Rashi, based on Midrash, comments that even
Moshe misunderstood the situation and sent the leaders of the tribes to spy
out the land even though the Lord had never specifically told him to do so
and left the final decision to do so to his judgment.
Life is usually not so much a comedy of errors as it is a tragedy of errors.
And many times in history we can easily note that great people are also
prone to make great errors of judgment ad policy. So was it in First Temple
times with the kings of Judah and Israel and so was it certainly in Second
Temple times even with the descendants of the righteous Hasmoneans. And the
story of our people in exile is strewn with erroneous messianism and bad
policy decisions. Such is life and human folly.
We cannot live without leadership and direction, opinion and advice. But we
should always be aware that human beings by definition are not omniscient
and all knowing. The gift of prophecy no longer resides with our community.
Because of this, caution is always advisable in matters of trust of others.
The Psalmist cautions us not to trust the great, generous, noble and mighty
blindly for they too are only mortal and subject to the decay of dust.
Another important lesson that appears here in the parsha is that the
majority opinion is not always the correct one. Calev and Yehoshua dissented
from their colleagues. The Jewish people disregarded their words and
followed the overwhelming majority verdict regarding the Land of Israel.
The strength of the survival of the Jewish people throughout the ages has
been its ability to dissent from majority opinions and ruling cultures.
Cultures change and opinions shift with time and circumstances. But Godly
truth never wavers and changes. Democracy may represent the will of the
majority. But even democracy is never infallibly right on major crucial issues.
The Torah serves as a brake against the tyranny of the majority. It provides
a standard by which events and opinions can be judged and measured. Calev
and Yehoshua will survive and lead the Jewish people into the Land of
Israel. The other nobles and leaders, the wise men and naysayers, the
majority and the politically correct will fade away and die in the desert.
Rabbi Berel Wein