The greatest have failed in this important mitzvah. God, therefore, was angry at our ancestors in the desert when they refused to go up to Eretz Yisrael, declaring, “Let us appoint a new leader and go back to Egypt” (Num. 14:4). Surely the Spies Moses sent out were prominent and righteous, as our Sages said (Tanchuma, Shelach, 4): “Send out men” (Num. 13:2): This is in line with, “He that sends a message by the hand of a fool, severs his own feet and imbibes damage” (Prov. 26:6). Were the Spies fools? Surely the Torah said, “Send out men [anashim],” and anashim always refers to righteous persons… Rather, they were called fools only because they slandered the Land… All the same, they were great men who made themselves into fools.”
Thus, they were great and righteous men, yet they sinned in turning their backs on Eretz Yisrael and wishing to settle down in the exile, in the wilderness. As King David said, “They scorned the Desirable Land, they believed not His word” (Ps. 106:24).
Here we see that even the great luminaries of the generation made themselves fools in that they wished to return to Egypt and treated the Desirable Land with contempt. This happened only because they feared the strength of the nations there and did not trust in God, as it says, “They believed not His word.”
Ostensibly, they had a good argument, “pikuach nefesh,” i.e., they wished to prevent loss of life. The Spies said of the Canaanites, “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so were we in their sight” (Num. 13:33). They were certain that the war against the Canaanites would be brutal, and it would be hard to defeat the giants. Moreover, even if they defeated them, Israelites would fall. After all, we do not rely on miracles, they argued.
For that reason, these great and righteous men rendered a halachic ruling that “pikuach nefesh” overrides Eretz Yisrael in its entirety. They certainly did not intend to abandon God’s Torah, but rather to return to Egypt and keep it there. This, however, was their sin, because God had decreed that it was forbidden for them to dwell outside the Land, and that only in Eretz Yisrael could they sanctify His Name and live in the holy isolation of Torah. For that reason, the excuse of danger to the nation does not override the commandment to dwell there, the only place the Jewish People can keep the Torah completely and properly.
A war regarding the mitzvah of living in and conquering Eretz Yisrael is a “milchemet mitzvah,” which no danger to life overrides. Quite the contrary, this mitzvah overrides such danger, as Ramban wrote in Sefer HaMitzvot (Ibid., Mitzvah 4):
“This is what our Sages call ‘milchemet mitzvah.’ In the Talmud (Sotah 44b) Rava said, ‘Joshua’s war of conquest was an obligatory duty according to all opinions.’ One should not make the mistake of saying that this mitzvah only applies to the seven nations we were commanded to destroy… That is not so. We were commanded to destroy those nations when they fought against us, and had they wished to make peace we could have done so under specific conditions. Yet, we cannot leave the Land in their control or in the control of any other nations in any generation.”
Fear of the nations is just one dismal reason the Jewish People treat the Desirable Land with contempt (longing for the good life is another). Precisely because of this delusion that the exile is safe but Eretz Yisrael is dangerous, God became angry and decreed death in the desert for the generation that left Egypt, adding, “You said your children will be taken captive, but they will be the ones I will bring there, so that they will know the Land that you rejected” (Num. 14:31). Those who feared that they and their children would die in Eretz Yisrael, died precisely in the desert, whereas their children entered the Land and lived. This teaches that the only security for the Jewish People is in Eretz Yisrael, whereas the exile is their burial place. Our Sages said (Torat Kohanim, Bechukotai, Ch. 1)): “‘You will live securely in your Land’ (Lev. 26:5): In your land you will live securely, but not outside it.” Likewise, Obadiah said (v. 17), “Upon Mount Zion there shall be deliverance.” In other words, in Zion but not in the exile.