Rabbi Bernie Fox
Send out for yourself spies and they should scout the land of Canaan that I give to Bnai Yisrael. You should send one man from each tribe. Each of them should be a prince. (Sefer BeMidbar 13:2)
This pasuk indicates that Hashem initiated the decision to send spies into the land of Canaan. Moshe, in Sefer Devarim, delivers his final address to the people. He recounts this incident. In Moshe's account, he attributes the initial request to send spies to Bnai Yisrael.
Rashi discusses this contradiction. He explains that the two accounts are not inconsistent. They are recounting the incident from different starting points. In Devarim, Moshe begins the account from the initial request of Bnai Yisrael. Here, in BeMidbar, the Chumash begins with Hashem's response. Hashem tells Moshe that the request of Bnai Yisrael may be fulfilled. They may send the spies. 1
Rashi's explanation removes the contradiction. But a question remains. Why does the Chumash begin the account from separate points? Why does Moshe begin his account with the request of Bnai Yisrael? Why does the Chumash, here, disregard this aspect of the incident?
The decision to send the scouts and the events that followed shaped the future of the people. The Chumash, here, is concerned with this aspect of the event. From this perspective, the essential element of the account is the report the spies delivered and the reaction of the people. It is not relevant that the initial request to send the scouts came from Bnai Yisrael. Therefore, this element of the incident is omitted.
Moshe's final address to the people had a different objective. He was evaluating the actions of the nation during their experience in the wilderness. He demonstrated to the people their errors. He hoped that by helping the nation see its mistakes these behaviors would not be repeated.
The request to send scouts was not completely appropriate. Bnai Yisrael should have entered the land confident in the Almighty's assurance that the conquest would take place. This conquest was to be miraculous. Scouts were not needed to plan the campaign. Moshe, therefore, begins his account with the request of the people. He is chastising the people for this behavior.
And Kalev silenced the nation’s protest against Moshe. And he said, “We will surely ascend and possess it. For we certainly have the ability. (Sefer BeMidbar 13:30)
The spies reported that the land is fertile. However, it is occupied by mighty nations. Its cities are fortified. Bnai Yisrael will not be capable of taking possession of the land.
Two spies did not participate in this pessimistic report. Yehoshua and Kalev did not agree with the other spies. Kalev protested that the spies were coming to an unwarranted decision. In fact, they could conquer the land. The Almighty would assist them. No obstacle was too great.
It is interesting that during this debate Yehoshua remained silent. He did not take Kalev’s side. Instead, he allowed Kalev to oppose and contradict the other spies alone. Only later did Yehoshua speak. Why did Yehoshua not immediately express his support for Kalev’s position?
Rabbaynu Yitzchak Karo suggests that Yehoshua was following a carefully designed plan. He knew that the other scouts would contradict Kalev. Kalev would be alone in his dissent. Yehoshua felt that by adding his support to Kalev at this time little would be gained. The ten other spies would oppose him and Kalev.
However, Yehoshua hoped that his silence would serve a purpose. He was careful not to express an opinion. He anticipated that the conflicting parties would turn to him to arbitrate their dispute. This would provide Yehoshua the opportunity to influence the outcome.
Once the parties referred the dispute to Yehoshua, his opinion would become significant. By supporting Kalev, he would undermine the opposition. In this way, he could overcome the pessimism of the majority.2
Unfortunately, Yehoshua’s plan did not work. The dispute was not referred to him. He did not have the opportunity to execute his plan.
Say to them, "As I live, so says Hashem, shall it not be as you have spoken in my ears? So I will do to you." (Sefer BeMidbar 14:28)
The spies returned. They reported that the land could not be captured. They also criticized the quality of the land of Israel. The people accepted the report. They were despondent. They would die in the wilderness and never capture the fertile land promised by the Almighty. They began to consider returning to Egypt.
The Almighty punished Bnai Yisrael for this rebellion. This generation would not enter the land of Israel. Only the children, whom they had predicted would die in the wilderness, would conquer the land.
Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that this episode altered the future of Bnai Yisrael. The Almighty had planned for Moshe to lead the people into the land. The land of Israel would be easily captured. The conquest would be permanent. There would be no subsequent exile.
The consequence of the sin of the spies and their generation was not limited to their death in the wilderness. Destiny was altered. Moshe would not lead the nation into the land. He would be replaced by Yehoshua. The conquest would be far less miraculous. The most important consequence was that the possession of the land would not be permanent. Instead, it would be followed by exile. Only in the Messianic era would Bnai Yisrael establish permanent possession of the land.3
Our Sages explain that this rebellion occurred on the ninth day of the month of Av. This has been a day of tragedy for Bnai Yisrael. Among the catastrophes occurring on this date is the destruction of both Temples.4 The tradition that the rebellion occurred on the ninth of Av has a special meaning, according to Sforno. The destruction of the Temples was an outcome of this rebellion. It is, therefore, fitting to identify the date of the rebellion with the ninth of Av.
And they arose in the morning. And they ascended to the top of the mountain. And they said, “We will ascend to the place of which Hashem spoke for we have sinned.” (Sefer BeMidbar 14:40)
Bnai Yisrael refused to proceed to the land. Hashem told the nation of its punishment. The people realized that they had sinned and wanted to correct their error. They prepared to face their fears. They would travel into Canaan and do battle with the nations.
Moshe advised the Bnai Yisrael not to continue to Canaan. Hashem would not be with them. If they attempted to conquer the land of Israel, they would be defeated. The people did not listen. They continued the journey towards Canaan. They are attacked by Amalake and driven back.
Why was the repentance of Bnai Yisrael not accepted? The people recognized their wrongdoing and sincerely repented. They demonstrated their new attitude by proceeding into the land.
To answer this question, we must analyze the process of atonement. Sacrifices are brought to atone for sin. The sacrifice is accompanied by a confession. Maimonides discusses this confession in his Mishne Torah. He explains that the confession contains three elements. First, the person must acknowledge the transgression. Second, the person must indicate that repentance has taken place. Last, one must verbally recognize that the sacrifice is required for atonement.5
Why is this last step necessary? It seems that atonement is not secured until the sinner accepts the consequences of the transgression. In this case, the consequence is the sacrifice.
Maimonides discusses this concept in his description of the death penalty. He explains that one receiving this penalty must confess. Maimonides defines the minimum standard for this confession. The person to be executed must ask the Almighty to accept his or her death as atonement for the transgression.6 Atonement requires acceptance of the consequences of the sin.
We can now respond to our original question. The nation truly wished to conquer the land. The people were willing to confront their anxieties. However, this was not sufficient to secure atonement. Hashem had decreed that this generation would perish in the wilderness. The nation did not acknowledge and accept the justice of the Almighty’s judgment.
1 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 13:2.
2 Rabbaynu Yitzchak Karo, Toldot Yitzchak, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 13.
3 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 14:28
4 Mesechet Sanhedrin 104b
5 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ma’aseh Karbanot 3:15. 6 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 13:1.