The punishment for the events surrounding the sin of the meraglim/spies is that B’nei Yisroel had to spend forty years in the desert, one year for each day of the forty days that the spies spent on their tragic mission. (14:34) In articulating this punishment the pasuk says that the punishment will be on the basis of one day for each year (‘yom lashana’). This seems to be backwards. The pasuk should say that the punishment will be one year for each day (‘shana layom’).
Rashi notes earlier (13:25) that HKB’H miraculously quickened the travel time (or shortened the amount of distance to be covered) for the meraglim. Had the journey taken the normal amount of time – meaning more days would have been spent on the mission – then the punishment (if the meraglim would chose to sin) which was destined to be on the basis of a year per day would have been even longer. Through this intervention by HKB’H the punishment was limited to forty years. [As to why forty is an appropriate maximum number of years, the midrashim further explain that by limiting the punishment to forty years HKB’H was ensuring that those who were twenty at the time of the sin (i.e., just old enough to be punishable for their actions) would live up to, but not beyond, the age of sixty. Sixty is the appropriate age because they were being punished by ‘kares’/cutting off of years, meaning not living past sixty. Each person implicated died at age sixty, so the youngest needed forty years to reach sixty.]
Because HKB’H predetermined the outer limit of how many years the punishment would last, it is fitting that the pasuk describes the punishment as being one day for each year, meaning that they spent one day on their journey for each year of the predetermined maximum number of years they would have to be punished if they sinned. See Rabbeynu Bachya.
[Isn’t it interesting that we refer to the spies as ‘meraglim’ even though the Torah does not use that term at all; the Torah always uses versions of the verb ‘lasur’, but never ‘leragel’ for the activities of these spies.
Similarly, we refer to the splitting of the Red Sea as ‘kriyas yam suf’ (literally, the tearing of the sea) as opposed to using the expression used by the Torah, which is always a form of ‘bekia’/splitting.]
Gal Einai, Copyright © 2006 by Gedalia Litke and Torah.org