Everything in the Torah is supposed to teach us a lesson in serving G-d (the very word “Torah,” after all, means “teaching.”). That being the case, what do the numerous details in the story of the 12 spies teach us?
Also, how did the spies manage to convince the Jewish people they would be unable to defeat the Canaanites after they had already witnessed so many open miracles? Clouds of Divine Glory protected them from snakes and scorpions, manna rained down from Heaven, the Well of Miriam provided them with water, and Hashem split a sea and destroyed the mighty Egypt.
The Jews saw these spectacular miracles with their own eyes, which convinced them to believe in Hashem and Moshe (Shemos 14:31). So why didn’t they believe Hashem could defeat the Canaanites? And why didn’t Calev, when arguing against his comrades, mention these miracles to support his case?
Finally, after the miracle of the sea, the people sang: “all inhabitants of Canaan have melted away” (ibid. 15:15) from fear. Even 40 years later, when the Israelites were finally ready to enter the land, the Canaanites remembered “how Hashem dried up the Sea of Reeds before you when you left Egypt” (Yehoshua 2:10). Surely, then, the Canaanites must have been terrified of the approaching Israelites 40 years earlier. Why were the Israelites, then, so afraid?
Chassidus explains that the spies weren’t afraid they couldn’t defeat the Canaanites. They didn’t wish to enter the Land because they knew they would be forced to become involved in the material world as a result. In the desert, they could devote themselves to spiritual pursuits; they were miraculously protected and all their material needs were miraculously taken care of. In the Holy Land, however, they would need to spend most of their time working the land. They feared over-preoccupation with the material after their spiritual “yeshiva-like” desert experience.
Furthermore, eating miraculous food from Heaven refined them spiritually and prepared them to grasp the depths of the Torah. In the Land of Canaan, they knew the manna would cease to fall. Finally, they feared that Hashem’s supernatural protection and assistance would cease once they started operating on a level subject to the vicissitudes of nature. They believed it would limit His power, so to speak.
Calev and Yehoshua responded to these concerns by emphasizing that “if Hashem desires us” – using the word “chafetz,” which means inner desire. Since it was G-d’s inner desire for them to enter the Land, His supernatural miracles would still accompany them. Entering the Land would bring them down to a more natural mode of existence, but it would not limit Hashem’s ability to perform miracles for them.
Indeed, miracles within the bounds of nature are superior to those that are manifestly supernatural, for while the latter demonstrate that Hashem is unlimited by nature, the former demonstrate that He is not bound to the supernatural realm. His true greatness is revealed when He operates not higher than nature but within the limitations of nature.
The spies meant well, but they were wrong. Hashem wanted the people to enter the Land and become involved in material pursuits, converting this lowly world into a dwelling for Him. By using this material world to fulfill mitzvos, we reveal the purpose of its creation. And by fulfilling the many mitzvos connected with the Land of Israel, we elevate and purify it with the Divine power inherent in every mitzvah.
With all the mitzvos performed over the millennia, it will take just a little more to refine the world to the point that Moshiach can be revealed. Let’s all sprint during this final stretch!
(Based on teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)