A quick summary of parshas ha-meraglim (the episode of the spies): On the people’s insistence, and with Hashem’s permission, Moshe sends forth twelve scouts, one from each tribe, to scout out the land of Canaan. They return after 40 days, carrying unusually large fruit. Upon hearing that “the people of Canaan are as formidable as its fruits,” the people are overcome with doubt and anxiety, and despair of inheriting the Land they had been promised by Hashem. Two of the twelve scouts, Kaleiv and Yehoshua, dispute the negative account, and try unsuccessfully to bolster the spirit of the people. The people, however, lose hope. Instead they consider appointing a new leader and remaining in the desert, or even returning to Egypt. Moshe placates Hashem’s wrath with his prayers. However, He declares that the nation that had been destined to enter the Land immediately would now instead wander the desert for 40 years (‘one year for each day’), during which they would perish; their offspring would enter the Land. The nation is filled with remorse. In a rash attempt to reinstate their previous status, a group of zealots declare they are proceeding with the plan to enter the Land, and begin an invasion. Moshe warns them not to proceed, but they fail to heed his warning, and are massacred.
Among the many striking aspects of the story of the spies, one that struck me this past Shabbos (in Eretz Yisrael we are presently one parsha ahead) was this: Bnei Yisrael were already well aware of Hashem’s promise to give them the Land of Canaan (Israel). The exodus from Egypt was conditional upon their being given the Land (Shemos/Exodus 6:8), a Land flowing with milk and honey (ibid. 3:8). It seems unlikely that Hashem’s promises had been forgotten so quickly.
How, then, did the nation so quickly despair of inheriting the Land that the Almighty Himself had promised them, and assured them of its abundance?
There are many possible answers to this question. Perhaps it attests to the raw power of lashon ha-ra, slanderous speech and gossip; no matter how ridiculous it may seen, it will be taken seriously. Perhaps it is an expression of their self-doubt; they felt unworthy of Hashem’s favour, and questioned whether they would prove deserving of His promises. This concept finds expression in the scouts pronouncing (13:33), “We felt like tiny grasshoppers—and that’s how they looked at us too.” Perhaps it is a hidden expression of their growing concern over what ‘life in the Land’ held in store for them. What were Hashem’s expectations from His nation? What would be ‘the price’ of their ‘freedom’ in the Land?
Most likely, their sudden change in attitude was a combination of many factors. But this much is clear: The nation that had until recently eagerly anticipated entering the Promised Land was now discouraged and dejected. Despite Moshe’s promises, and Caleiv and Yehoshua’s objections, they had been swayed by the spies aspersions and had changed their minds. They were no longer interested in finding out what The Land held in store; even slavery in Egypt, or death in the desert was better than that!
In the end, they got exactly what they asked for. They lose their chance to enter the Land, and are instead destined to live out their days—until the age of sixty—in the desert.
So why are they so devastated? Of course this is meant to be a punishment. They lost their chance. But isn’t this just what they wanted? They already knew what Hashem felt about the Land; for whatever reason, they decided to ignore it. They said, and we can only assume they meant it seriously, that at this point life in the desert seemed better to them than entering Canaan. Hashem, in His subsequent conversation with Moshe, doesn’t even reiterate His praise for the Land. So what suddenly changed to make the nation so full of remorse that the Torah relates (14:39), “Moshe related Hashem’s words to B’nei Yisrael, and they were overcome with grief”?
It would be like the citizens of Canada complaining bitterly about the government’s unreasonably high income taxes, and yet when the politicians accept their complaints and lower taxes, they suddenly become remorseful, and ask that the previous rates be reinstated.
Sometimes, in truth, we do exactly this. We complain bitterly about some obligation or pressure in our lives, yet when presented with the opportunity to rid ourselves of it, we suddenly experience a change of heart. But usually this happens when we’re just ‘letting off steam’ and venting our frustration, without truly intending that our complaints be addressed and our lives changed. Here, thought, it seems clear that B’nei Yisrael are firm in their refusal to go ahead with Hashem’s plan; they no longer want Eretz Yisrael. What occurs to change their attitude from whining to remorse just as suddenly as it had previously changed from anticipation to despair?
Perhaps the answer lies in one small verse, strategically located between the crescendo of Bnei Yisrael’s defiant complaints, and Hashem’s reaction.
The whole community was threatening to stone them (Kaleiv and Yehoshua) to death when Hashem’s Glory suddenly appeared at the Tent of Meeting, before all of Israel. [14:10]
At the height of their anger and chutzpah, they experienced revelation. In the acute light of Hashem’s presence, all of their complaints and ill- feelings suddenly seemed immature and juvenile. In a moment, what had just seemed like insurmountable difficulties and unassailable accusations, were ridiculous.
This, of course, is the power of Hashem’s light, as it were. The feelings of dejection and despair they felt could only have germinated in a heart void of faith. The venomous words of the scouts had driven Hashem’s light from their hearts, as lashon ha-ra is wont to. In the void it created—a black hole occupied by doubt, despair, and cynicism—the darkest thoughts and feelings took root.
Hashem could have left them to drift in their darkness, but He did not. He exposed them, momentarily, to the light of His presence (Shechinah), appearing to them in the Tent of Meeting. Reminding them of the brightness they had experienced at Sinai when receiving the Torah, He allowed them once again to taste what life in G-d’s presence (in His Land) would mean.
Glory and magnificence are before Him, strength and joy in His place. (Divrei Ha-yamim/Chronicles-I 16:27)
Of course they were, in an instant, filled with remorse. Their complaints disappeared; their doubts vanished. They wished dearly to turn back the clock, to enter the Land of Israel as they had been promised; yet it was not to be. Not in this generation. Hashem’s promise would be fulfilled in their children, who were too young and pure to have tasted the void. This generation would be destined to live out their years in the wasteland they had created with their empty thoughts and hollow complaints.
At times we too experience periods of doubt, void, and confusion. From the spies we learn that the root of doubt lies in the heart distant from Hashem. The further we are from Hashem’s light, the more confused we are apt to feel. Conversely, in the brilliant light of Hashem’s presence, we find ourselves filled with strength, joy, and faith. The ‘Tent of Meeting’ in our generation (until we merit Moshiach’s coming) is the study hall in which Torah is studied, and the synagogue in which Jews pour out their hearts to Hashem in prayer. In these holy places, the light of the Torah burns as brightly as ever, illuminating the minds and hearts of those of earnestly study its words, and bringing strength and joy to all who drink its life-giving waters.
The holy Rebbe, the Choize (seer) of Lublin zt”l, used to spend hours each day speaking with Jews who had come to ask his advice or beseech his blessings. From time to time, it is told, he would send everyone out of his room for a few minutes, after which he would resume his gruelling schedule. Many thought that he used these small breaks to take a ‘power- nap.’ Once a disciple hid in the room to see what his rebbe really did. He saw the Choize take out a sefer Mishnayos, learn a few Mishnos, and then re-open his door. Unable to contain his curiosity, he later questioned his rebbe’s behaviour.
“It is only with the help of the Torah’s light,” he said, “that I am able to accept so many people and offer them advice and encouragement. Sometimes, after many hours, I feel that light starting to wane. I study a few Mishnayos, which brighten my heart and give me the strength to continue, and then I open the door once again.”
The mitzvos of Hashem are lucid—they brighten the eyes (Tehillim/Psalms 19:9). Taste and you will see that Hashem is good; fortunate is the man who seeks His refuge (Ibid. 34:9). As for me, closeness to G-d is my good. I have made Hashem, my G-d, my refuge, that I may tell of all of Your works (Ibid. 73:28).