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The Sin of the Spies – Perspective

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In my experience as a Synagogue Rabbi, I found that so much of life is about perspective. Helping congregants deepen their commitment to Judaism, deepen their relationships with one another, I learned that often fear paralyzes people from achieving their goals. I also learned that a positive attitude makes for a richer, fuller, more meaningful life.

The above might seem obvious – but it wasn’t obvious to the Ten Spies who returned from the Land with a negative report. They were the leaders of the Jewish Nation: “All distinguished men; heads of the Children of Israel were they” (Num. 13:3). But their lack of faith and their lack of vision brought about consequences that, according to the Talmud, we still suffer from today (See Ta’anit 29a).

What did they do that was so wrong, it warranted forty years of wandering in the desert? What was so egregious, that turned the 9th of Av, the day they returned with their report, into a day of tragedy and mourning for the rest of Jewish History?

In their first report, the Spies relate:

We arrived at the land to which you have sent us, and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. But – the people that dwells in the land is powerful, the cities are large, and we also so there the offspring of the giant (Num. 13:27-28).

With the word “but,” they begin their editorial. They are no longer objective. They bring in their negativity and project their fears. They see themselves as “grasshoppers” (v. 33), in the eyes of the inhabitants of the Land.

While the Spies tell the Jewish People, “We cannot ascend” (v. 31), Caleb tells them, “We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it!” (v. 30) For the Spies, it is a land that “devours it inhabitants,” (v. 32) but for Joshua and Caleb, “the Land is very, very good” (Num. 14:8).

Twelve Spies went to scout out the Land. Ten maligned the Land, while two defended it. But they all saw the same land! To see the Land as an insurmountable challenge or, to see it as a goodly Land, is a choice. It’s a matter of perspective.

This week, while walking through Shuk Machaneh Yehudah, Jerusalem’s open air market, I noticed some unusually large fresh figs. They were bright green, and as big as apples. At first I didn’t know what they were. After doing a double take, I purchased the fruit, which turned out to be sweet and delicious – the best figs I have ever eaten. I was reminded of how the Spies, “…cut from there a vine with one cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole, by two, and of the pomegranates and of the figs” (13:23). A famous interpretation has it that the grapes were so large they had to be carried “on a pole, by two.” They carried this mutant fruit back, “with the intent to spread slander, ‘Just as the fruit is unusual, so are its people unusual” (Rashi, ad loc.). But the Spies had a choice. Instead of seeing these large fruits as “unusual,” they could have seen them as a product of Hashem’s blessing – a gift from God; a symbol of sustenance and abundance. As Rashi emphasizes, it was all a matter of intent. The Spies chose to see the negative.

Let’s not confuse a positive outlook with naïveté, or being a Pollyanna. One can look through rose-colored glasses and still recognize the problems. But one who posses a deep faith, who truly believes that “whatever the Merciful One does is for the good” (Berachot 60b), will see the good in the vicissitudes of life. The challenges of life are obstacles to overcome and lessons to be learned. The Sin of the Spies was so egregious, because rather than possessing the faith and strength to recognize the Divine blessings of the Land, with all of its challenges, they chose to color their report with their fears and negativity.

The message of the Biblical account of the Spies has tremendous relevance today, here in the modern State of Israel. With a nuclear threat from Iran, enemy states on its borders, the ever-constant fear of terrorism, and pressure from the International Community, Israel is not without its challenges. But it’s also the ‘Start Up Nation,’ with a healthy, growing economy when most of the world’s economies are failing. It is at the forefront of many technologies and industries, research and development. It is a country that is hated by the world, yet continues to shower the world with acts of kindness.

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About the Author: Rabbi Shimshon HaKohen Nadel lives and teaches in Jerusalem.


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