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The Spies

By: Rav Yonny Sack

This week’s parasha begins with the infamous sending of the spies. The Jewish people were only days away from entry into the holy Land of Israel when the twelve spies went off on their mission to scout out the land. As is well known, ten of the spies come back with their evil report about the land and the prospect of conquering it, effectively negating all that had been promised by Hashem. The spies’ evil report is heard, and while Kalev and Yehoshua try to convince the people otherwise, the evil report is accepted as truth, pangs of doubt and lack of faith sweep over the camp and that night, the night of Tish’a B’Av (the 9th of Av), there are great cries heard amongst the Children of Israel.


The immeasurable suffering that has befallen the Jewish people throughout our history of exile scattered amongst the nations is directly connected to the sin of the spies. Our Sages point this out with the following enigmatic teaching:


The entire assembly raised up and issued its voice and the people wept that night” (Bamidbar 14:1) said Rabba in the name of Rabbi Yochanan; that night was Tish’a B’Av. Hashem said to them: “You cried a cry for nothing, I will issue upon you a cry for generations” ( Taanit  29a).


 Rashi, Ramban and others point out that Tehillim 106 which speaks of their ‘despising of the land’ of Israel and ‘lack of belief’ refers to the sin of the spies and makes the connection between that generation having to die out in the desert over forty years of wandering, and also to the scattering of the Jewish people in Exile over the past 2000 years [1].


There are many questions that one can pose regarding this painful point in Jewish History, but one that we will focus on is the question of why the Spies would do such a thing? After all, the pasuk says: “They were all anashim, heads of the Children of Israel . . .”.  Rashi points out that the word “Anashim” means men of distinction and says that they were 100% Kosher at their time of appointment. The Zohar even describes them as Tzadikim. How then could such righteous leaders have fallen into such an obvious pit of destruction? Shouldn’t they have known better?


To begin to shed some light on our question, we will go to the deeper wisdom of the Zohar which explains their downfall in a fascinating way.


The Zohar first describes the spies as having been tzadikim, as mentioned, and then explains that the evil report was all part of a greater plan to remain in the desert and not enter the land;  


They said “Here in the desert we are heads, but there in the land we will not merit to be heads.” [2]


It seems they feared that upon entry into the land they would lose their distinguished positions. As such, they plotted a plan that would ensure a delayed entry, or no entry at all. They would then be able to continue the desert life, enjoying the power of their posts, the influence of their authority.


It is still puzzling however to understand how someone can fall from such righteousness to such selfish degradation and with such ease?


The Ramchal in Messilat Yesharim (Path of the Just, 18th C) sheds light on this describing the spies’ downfall as the result of the powerful lure and danger of honor seeking. He says that many potential ‘greats’ in Jewish history met their demise due to the pursuit of personal honor.  The Gemara for example tells the following incredible story of Yerovam Ben Navat, a man who had potential for greatness but became the most evil of Jewish Kings (Melachim 1):


“Hashem grabbed him ( Yeravam Ben Navat) by his clothing and said to him: “ Repent! and Me, you and Ben Yishai (King David) will stroll together in Gan Eden. Yeravam said to Hashem: “Who will be at the front?” Hashem replied: “Ben Yishai will be at the front”.  “If so”, said Yeravam, “I am not interested.”(Sanhedrin 102a)


Amazing! A person can have the heights of greatness in the palm of his hand and throw away eternity for the sake of personal honor!  This then is a simple understanding of how the spies could make such a tragic mistake. Even great people are human, and thus are susceptible to the blinding of their otherwise rational intellect by the lures of honor and prestige.  All of us on some level find ourselves in the battle between protecting or enhancing our image and our values and principles. What we know as right and good is often not able to stand up against our yearning for prestige. Are we principled enough? Do we have enough integrity to ensure our own 'Eretz Yisrael's’ are not abandoned for reputation?


However, there is a deeper understanding of the Zohar that is brought by the Sfat Emet [4]. The Sfat Emet explains that the spies were not selfishly motivated, rather, they were acting with the entire nation in mind. They knew that in the desert they were all, the entire nation, on the level of ‘heads’ as the Zohar said “Here we (the entire nation) are heads”. ‘Heads’ here does not refer to positions of prestige but rather a spiritual level of existence, referred to by the code name Head. Each generation has its corresponding body part hinting at it’s spiritual potency. So, for example, our generation is referred to as the Heals of the feet before the Moshiach (Ikvata DeMeshicha). This has a dual meaning; on the one hand it means that we are the last generation, such as the feet denote, the generation where Moshiach is literally right outside the front door. On the other hand, it means that our generation is spiritually lowly in comparison to previous generations. The further from Sinai, the lower the spiritual sensitivity. Our generation is thus callous and generally insensitive to spirituality, like the heal, and yet at the same time we are moved to tears and laughter by fake nothingness, just as the sole of the foot is hypersensitive to a feather [5] – a thirty second commercial with an emotive song may cause a lump in the throat while a genuine tragedy produces no more than a “ wow, that’s so sad” from our mouths.


The generation of the desert however were on a sublimely spiritual level – the level of the Head. The Head is reference to the intellect, to wisdom of Torah and to the place of the higher aspect of the soul. This generation had witnessed the miracles in Egypt, they had experienced the splitting of the sea, and had experienced the revelation of Hashem on Har Sinai up close and personal. They were a generation who lived in the miraculous and they were about to enter a real land, where they would have to work, farm, earn and provide.  


The spies reasoned that it was better to stay at the miraculous level of the desert as ‘heads’ rather than to enter into the land and confront the mundane realities of farming, building and creating and thus seemingly degrade the spiritual by mixing it with the material. But they were so wrong. Judaism is not a religion that preaches separation from the world of the mundane, but rather the correct usage of the world to make a home for Hashem so to speak in the lower realms. We do not preach celibacy, or asceticism as a goal but rather correct integration of the permissible physical used for holy purpose. Betrothal of Marriage, for example, is called Kiddushin – holiness, as true holiness is that which elevates the mundane, the physical, the material and turns it into a vessel for G-dly light. This is no easy task. It is much more comfortable to stay in the ‘desert’, enjoying the sublime spiritual high without having to engage the world. But Hashem gave us the Torah as a guide to life – to direct us in moral business dealings, interpersonal relationships, committed marriage, child rearing, the building of a moral society, justice system and day to day living. And the Land of Israel, with its throbbing spiritual energy, is perfectly suited for this task of everyday holiness. It is here we are supposed to show the world what it means to be truly holy, to bring heaven down to earth.


While the spies were certainly mistaken, it is of course tragic to mistakenly deny the spiritual completely and sink into a life of material aspirations for their own sake. This, to be honest, is our generation’s great challenge. We can be so deeply sunken into the material pleasures of this world that we can become completely blind to the essence of life, to the spiritual truth that lies hidden beneath the physical veneer. We live in the outer shell, blissfully unaware of the inner hidden light that we are here in this world to discover, recover and reveal. 


Perhaps this is the tikun (rectification/fixing) that we are to bring about through the ‘cry for generations’. A cry for nothingness, as we did on that fateful 9th of Av in the desert, has to be rectified with a genuine real cry for holiness, a cry from the depths of our soul, a cry to reconnect, a cry that penetrates through all the outer layers of material shells to the inner hidden light that we are here to reveal. For this true cry for genuine holiness will bring about the redemption that we hope for and pray for, and then the 9th of Av will become a day of celebration and feasting - may it come speedily in our days.


Shabbat Shalom,






[1] Tehillim 106:24-27 which is quoted by many of the commentaries such as the Ramban ( Bamidbar 14:1) , The Chofetz Chaim ( Hakdama), Rashi ( on Tehillim) and others.

[2] Zohar, Shelach, 158 (quoted in the Sfat Emet, and in Sefer Maamakim on Bamidbar)

[3] Sanhedrin 102a

[4] 19th Century Gerrer Rebbe’s commentary on the Torah.

[5] Heard from Rav Akiva Tatz.


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