The land of Israel has always posed a problem for the Jewish people. On one hand, it is and always has been our national homeland, the land promised to us by the Lord from the days of our forefathers. It is the Holy Land, the most special place on earth. On the other hand, the record of the Jewish people in the land of Israel, and their behavior and attitudes, has often been a spotty one.
The Law makes demands upon those who live here. It has, to speak, a very delicate digestive system, and the land rejects, after a period, behavior that is detrimental to creating a viable and moral society. Yet, the attachment of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is so strong that it has been able to survive centuries of separation, conquest, and exile.
Whatever period of history you choose, Jews always lived in the land of Israel, and some Jews lived there even vicariously. The Jews never forgot that they were strangers in alien countries, and if some of them did forget, the societies that they lived in eventually reminded them that they were, after all, only strangers and outsiders. All this serves as a backdrop to the spies who appear in this week’s Torah reading.
Over the centuries, there are many reasons given by the commentators as to why the spies returned with such a negative report, with twisted positive facts into potential calamities and disasters. But one of the main and cogent reasons for this behavior was the ambivalent fear that has always existed within Jewish society, i.e., to commit to national existence in the land of Israel, independent of the blandishments and seeming advantages of physical life under different circumstances.
The fear and trepidation exhibited by the spies, when Moshe confidently said to bring back a report about the land of Israel, did not die with that generation of doubters in the desert. I am not speaking here of immigration to the land of Israel today, or entering the process of Aliyah. Rather, I am addressing an attitude that exists in almost all sections of the Jewish world outside of the land of Israel. That attitude is the commitment involved in living in the land of Israel, a justified concern regarding the spiritual and social commitment necessary to successfully live as a Jew in the land of Israel.
It is this challenge, more than anything else, that shook the spies and turned them into slanderers There are many of these same personalities, unfortunately, that still exists today in the Jewish world. There are Jewish organizations as well as individuals who are in the forefront of anti-Israel movements and programs, not politically driven, but rather an expression of the ambivalence that prevails within the souls besetting Jews in our time. The results of the behavior of the spies should be a sobering reminder regarding the dangers of slandering the land of Israel and the Jewish population.
Rabbi Berel Wein