Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
They cried all night. Because of them we are still crying.
“Them” – the generation of the desert, they who were so taken aback by the reports of the spies about the land of Canaan, the goal and the dream, the Promised Land, that they fell into absolute despair and spent an entire night weeping.
They paid for their tears dearly: forty years of wandering through the desert until almost all of the adults of that generation had passed away, as it says, “But your carcasses shall drop in this Wilderness. Your children will roam in the Wilderness for forty years and bear your guilt until the last of your carcasses in the Wilderness.” (Numbers-Bamidbar 14: 32-33)
Why were the consequences so heavy-handed? What was their sin?
The sin of the spies is obvious. They ran away from the land before the first aliya had even begun. They stymied the redemption in its infancy and paved the way for anti-redemptionists throughout history. Their small-minded personal agendas led them to incite a nation of some three million people to stay in the desert and even consider returning to the degradation and slavery of Egypt.
But what did the nation do wrong? Were they supposed to reject the assessment of their own leaders? Who were they to believe – Moshe (Moses) who never set foot in Canaan, or the emissaries he himself had chosen for the express purpose of spying out the Land? Perhaps the sin of the nation lay in the fact that they ignored the small percentage of the espionage party who claimed, “We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it!” (ibid 13:30)
However, ten out of twelve spies warned, “We cannot ascend to that people for it is too strong for us!” (ibid 31) Wasn’t it natural to listen to the majority? Would we have done any differently?
Moreover, anyone reading the accounts and explanations of the sages about this event can easily see that what took place was much more than a small public debate. With Machiavellian sophistication, the spies’ twisted manipulations placed the nation in a psychological stranglehold. The spies, each powerful tribal leaders in their own right, used selective information to orchestrate a conclusion that seemed inevitable in coming.
Even words alone weren’t enough. The Midrash describes that:
“When they returned from their tour of the land, they stood and dispersed themselves each one within his own tribe. Stumbling into the area of his home, his sons and daughters would approach him and would say to him, ‘What’s with you?’
“And as he stood there, he would make himself look as though he were falling before them, and say to them, ‘Whoa is me over you, my sons and daughters, how the Emorites are soon to rule over you. Who can look at the face of even one of them!’
“Immediately everyone would break out in tears… Until the neighbors would hear what was going on, and they would begin crying, too. Until family after family heard, until the entire tribe was weeping…until all six hundred thousand were made into one group: ‘The entire assembly raised up and issued its voice; the people wept that night.’ (ibid 14:1)
Read the midrash a second time and you begin to appreciate how sophisticated they really were. They displayed, for the benefit of everyone, nothing but love and concern for their own children in a war-ridden Land. The people were moved by their “honesty” and “openness” as the tears of worry and grief spread through the entire nation.
How can the laymen be blamed for their reaction? Why was their response to the reports of the spies considered such a grave sin? Who could stand against such a widespread and subtle entrapment?
But the Almighty’s response to the behavior of the Jewish People reveals a hard truth: in any situation and under any conditions, despite the facts and implications of the words themselves, people always hear what they want to hear.
After all, there is another side to the story. When the malevolent reports of the spies began coming in, why didn’t the nation exercise logic, or even just exercise memory? Just before the tears started to flow, why didn’t recollections of the Red Sea splitting apart before their very eyes rise up to stop them? What about the other ten plagues that affected every member of Egyptian society but miraculously passed over the men, women, and children of Israel? How could they have forgotten so quickly?
The obvious question that should have been at the tip of their tongue was, “Wait a minute, who are we afraid of? Are the Canaanites stronger than the God who vanquished Egypt, the ‘Queen of the Nations’, and drowned the world’s mightiest army in the Red Sea for our sake? “
But the question wasn’t at the tip of their tongues. It didn’t even come up. The negative reports of the spies were embraced whole-heartedly for one simple reason: the Jews didn’t want Israel. Their feelings about the Promised Land were basically, “You can keep it.”
“Rejection of the Land stood as a barrier to destroy us in every generation, and because of it we were exiled from the Land. …And there is no way to return to our wholeness without returning to her [the Land].” (Rabbi Yitzchak Menachem Mendel Dancyger, 1880–1943, Sefer Akeidas Yitzchak)
Sharp words. They tell us that a person who has been exposed to something and influenced by it expresses some degree of desire to be influenced. The nation’s attention to the words of the spies instead of the two dissenting voices, as well as their heroic leader Moshe, expressed a quiet but deep-rooted dislike of Eretz Yisrael. It wasn’t the “objectivity” of the report that convinced them. The report just lent a legitimacy to their own innate, small-minded preferences.
The heavy-handed consequences they suffered made perfect sense. Their rejection of the Land meant that they lost the privilege to ever enter its gates. We may be able to live in Israel today, but the final redemption is still in the offing. The tears still flow…