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Posted on June 15, 2023 (5783) By Rabbi Yaakov Menken | Series: | Level:

This week’s reading includes a very difficult chapter in the story of the Exodus, that of the spies. These twelve spies, one from each of the twelve tribes, entered the Land of Cana’an to see what awaited the nation. With two exceptions, Yehoshua and Kalev, they returned with a very negative report, saying both that Cana’an was inhabited by giants, and that the land itself was killing them—even though the fields were overflowing with huge produce! In reality, everything was being arranged for Israel’s benefit, but they imagined otherwise, and the people mourned, fearing they were all going to perish. As a result, G-d said that the generation that mourned would not enter the land, and thus Israel had to wait forty years in the desert. And also, He said that the day when they mourned, the Ninth of Av, would be a day of true mourning for all generations.

The Torah says, regarding those twelve who were chosen, “all of them were men, they were heads of the Children of Israel” [13:3]. These were not common people or trained spies, but rather leaders within each tribe. Note that the word “men” is extra, apparently superfluous (the Torah could simply have said “all of them were heads of the Children of Israel”); Rashi says that any time you see this word used in that fashion, it means to convey their importance. All of them, he says, were upstanding people at that time.

All of them were leaders. All of them could recognize how great the Land of Israel truly was. And all of them were upright citizens. Yet instead of delivering a positive report about the land which G-d had promised to the Jewish nation, they came back to talk about how terrible the situation was. What can we learn from this story?

Three ideas come to mind.

First of all, nobody is perfect. This is something that sets the Torah apart from other documents, whether texts from other religions or tales of kings, that portray their leaders as flawless. Even regarding Moshe, we are told that he erred, at least for a person of his stature—and as a result was told that he would not enter the Land, but would die in the desert.

These were great, upstanding leaders, and yet they made a mistake so massive that the entire Jewish Nation had to spend an extra forty years in the desert before entering the Holy Land. I would like to think that most of our own transgressions do not have consequences quite that large.

Second, and as a corollary of that first idea, we cannot expect perfection, whether from ourselves or from others. Should we aim for perfection? Of course, 100%. A person should always try to grow, develop, and do better than he or she did last week. But we should also recognize that we’re not going to be perfect and that those around us—including spouses, family members, classmates, and co-workers—are not going to be perfect either.

Angels are perfect. They have no distractions and no bad inclinations. They are given jobs by Divine Mandate, and they do their jobs. If G-d expected perfection from us, then He would have made us angels! Since we know that literally every person in human history has behaved imperfectly, it is clear that if G-d were expecting perfection, He would never have created human beings.

So no one should feel hopeless or worthless, looking at the bad things he or she has done. People far greater than us did bad things too. What human beings can do, that angels cannot, is to grow closer to G-d, and to do better. That is something no angel ever did.

And finally, the spies teach us that we cannot trust ourselves to be perfect. The Mishnah says in the Chapters of the Fathers (2:5): “Do not have faith in yourself until the day of your death.” The story of the spies shows us that even a person on a tremendously high spiritual level is capable of failing, even after decades of consistent success.

None of us are perfect, none of us will be perfect, and all of us should be trying to be more perfect. Those are three lessons I find in this story; I look forward to seeing what you might add in the comments!