The affair of the spies is a watershed, not only in the Torah but for Jewish history altogether. It marks a major turning point in the Jews’ relationship with God, severely altering their miraculous march to a utopian communion with Him.
Yet there are many sins that occur in the book of Bemidbar, and were we just to look at the story of the spies without reading the drastic Divine response we might think that it isn’t any worse than many of the other sins in the desert — and certainly not more than that of the golden calf that occurred earlier on.
In order to better understand the sin of the spies, it is helpful to remember that the Jews did not engage in the purely upward ascent that we might expect to find in a journey to the Promised Land. Whatever conditions might have awaited the Jews in the Land of Israel had they not sinned, it was still not likely to be more spiritual and elevated than the direct and daily Divine support and contact that the Jews felt in the desert. Thus the journey “up” to the Holy Land was also a journey down from the very special space that was the wilderness.
On some level, the desert was akin to an ascetic religious order: ‘kulo kodesh,’ entirely sacred. And that was precisely why it was meant to be only a temporary situation. The Jewish calling is to bring sanctity to the real world (See Redeeming Relevance in Genesis, Chapter 5). Mission though it may be, however, it is certainly a more complicated and often less pleasant task than basking in God’s radiant proximity. Hence one can certainly understand the ambivalence of the desert Jews’ having to give up their spiritual cocoon in order to take on the mission God wanted them to embark upon. In light of this, we can understand the latent unpopularity the spies’ mission engendered.
And with the above in mind, we can differentiate between the sin of the spies and the Jewish people’s many earlier sins. Their previous transgressions had mostly been those of ambivalence toward the novel and rarified wilderness experience. They were unaccustomed to and clearly intimidated by the conditions of their Divine journey. The Jews didn’t know where to find water in the desert, so they complained. Instead of manna they wanted “real food,” so they complained.
Even the golden calf can be seen as a protest against the rigors of worshiping an overly elevated God, One too far removed from the tangible and corporeal idols that many had worshiped in Egypt. Although they did not expect to go back to idol worship in the Promised Land, still the Jews had good reason to expect a more physical worship of God, something that would align more with the agricultural existence soon to become central to their lives. In the Land of Israel, the Jewish people’s livelihood would depend on the normal functioning of the seasons as well as on the people’s gifts of thanks to God for a successful harvest via sacrifices and tithes.
Hence all of the nation’s early sins could be forgiven. Mortal, corporeal men and women can be expected to err, and within limits it can be tolerated. The incident of the spies, however, engendered a completely new and apparently more problematic ambivalence — not toward the rarified wilderness, but rather toward the earthly existence which would once again become their lot when they reached the Land of Israel.
The challenge of Judaism is not about soaring to the Heavens; it is about bringing the Heavens down the Earth. Once having experienced the Heavens – as the Jews did at Sinai – it is tremendously tempting to just stay there. And since staying in the Heavens may well be with the spy incident represented, the Torah had to be quite clear how problematic it really was.Rabbi Francis Nataf