When the spies got back from Canaan and delivered their bleak report, the people mourned and cried. They cried that they’d ever left Egypt; that the arduous journey was a waste if they were just going to die in the desert; and that they want a new leader who would take them back to Egypt.

The aftermath of the story resulted in an entire lost generation, aimlessly wandering the desert for 40 years until they all died, and only their children would merit the conquest and establishment of the Land of Israel.

It is normal to react negatively to bad news. Yet what triggered the punishment is the people’s reaction and not the conspiracy itself – which was the actual catalyst for where things went wrong in this story!

What was wrong about their reasonably typical reaction to receiving bad news that meant they could not build the Land of Israel?

It might be that their response belied a fundamental attitude defect that was a prerequisite.

There are many nations and many states. The Jewish People in the Land of Israel is not just one more. It is supposed to be fundamentally and qualitatively different. It is the culmination of a centuries-old hope and vision, with careful stops along the way, in Canaan, Egypt, and Sinai, which pave the way to build something never seen or done before.

In the face of adversity, so many miles and months from Egypt, these people show they never really left at all. They want to right back!

Perhaps it’s not something that they did that was so wrong, but that they completely lacked the attitude to achieve their divine goals. Building a new model for what a religious society should look like requires pioneers with hope and vision. These people didn’t have it. If that’s what it takes to establish the Jewish People in the Land of Israel, how could they ever hope to succeed?

You will never realize a vision executed half-heartedly. You need to believe to achieve.

When the spies returned, and delivered their pessimistic report, the people were distraught. Not knowing better, they lost faith in what would become of them, and by losing faith, they lost all they had going for them.

Disappointed in what the people had become, God told them that they would be a lost generation; they would wander for 40 years, and die in the wilderness. They did not deserve the privilege of the Land of Israel, but their children would.

When the people heard what their fate would be, they refused to accept it at first:

וישכמו בבקר ויעלו אל ראש ההר לאמר הננו ועלינו אל המקום אשר אמר ה כי חטאנו – They rose early the next morning, and set out toward the crest of the mountain, saying, “We are prepared to go to the place that Hashem has spoken of, for we were wrong.” (14:40)

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that the language used in telling how this show of faith is a chiasm that echoes the story of Avraham.

Avraham’s ultimate act of faith was rising early in the morning, and going to the crest of the mountain in the place God spoke of. His faith is absolute, when he says הנני- Here I stand.

But it fails. What worked for Avraham does not work here, because Avraham was authentic, and this time it was not. Avrahams act of faith was corrupted into a show of faith.

Avraham had faith before he knew where he was going. The comparison they were trying to evoke was false. They could say הננו, but that’s not where they truly stood.
There is a difference between fracturing something, and breaking it. Each situation calls for something different. Their mistake was thinking that their mistake caused a fracture, and not a break.

Introspection requires intellectual honesty to understand how to move past our mistakes. Think of the last person you hurt. What would it take to move your relationship past it?

The men selected to scout out the land of Israel were no ordinary men. They were chosen because they held stature among the nation – they were great people, yet they gravely erred. One of the reasons Chazal understand to have motivated their plot was that life in the desert was simple and beautiful. God did everything for them, and the people were exposed at all times to the Almighty.

They had the manna to eat, which would be sent based on worthiness and potentially taste of anything they desired. They had a wellspring that moved with the camp. They had Clouds of Glory which marked travel movements and shaded them from the harsh desert sun; and according to Midrash, flattened obstacles, cleared wild beasts, and possibly cleaned their clothing too.

The spies concluded that this was an ideal way of life and engineered a report that would get the people to clamour to stay in the wilderness.

The Sfas Emes notes that immediately afterward the story of the spies concludes, three mitzvos are revealed: separating challa, Tzitzis, and nesachim – wherein all sacrifices require additions from the mineral water 0, among them salt and spring water.

The Sfas Emes notes that the sin of the spies was that they presumed to instruct God how things ought to be. These specific mitzvos show the flaw in their argument. God did not want us to live in the desert indefinitely, eating miraculous manna, drinking from the miraculous well, under the miraculous Clouds – the training wheels have to come off eventually.

What man is independently capable of is elevating the mundane and material into spiritual . These mitzvos capture the concept.

The manna was the bread that God sent to their doorsteps. The mitzva of challa requires that when baking a loaf of bread, a small section is set aside to remind that God is the true provider. The entire loaf is called “challa”, although the mitzva only pertains to the small bit set aside. The bread that has been planted, grown, cultivated and processed becomes more.

The Clouds surrounded sheltered them and reminded them of God’s immanence and presence. Similarly, tzitzis ensconce and shroud a person – the stated aim is to remind the wearer of all mitzvos. Physical shelter and protection become more.

The wellspring that followed them around was how they drank. Similarly, the nesachim of minerals and spring water accompanied every sacrifice. The literal translation of Korban is to draw close – things mundane as minerals become more.

God does not want to give things to us for free, as this makes them cheap. The spies presumed to know that a life devoid of physicality was perfect, but these mitzvos serve indicate otherwise.

Mankind has the potential to elevate everything into something spiritual – with just a little direction.

Every day in Shema, the section of tzitzis is read:

וְהָיָה לָכֶם, לְצִיצִת, וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹת ה’, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם; וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם – You will wear these tzitzis. When you see them, you will be reminded of all God’s commands; and you’ll do them – and you won’t stray after your hearts and eyes. (15:39)

Beyond the obvious implication of not dwelling on inappropriate sights, the Sfas Emes notes that this mitzva is mentioned soon after the tragic incident of the spies. The juxtaposition charges us to not make that generations’ mistake – וְלֹא -תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם – where eyes and hearts literally “scout”, leading astray.

The Sfas Emes analyses their error.

What if their worst fears had been confirmed, and they indeed faced a barren land, inhabited by hordes of strong, ruthless, well armed, well trained men? Would Hashem’s assurances and promises have meant less than if they had no knowledge of the matter?

Certainly not. The scouting changed things from their perspective – but God certainly knew what lay ahead. This is שלח לך – for yourselves.

Taking things as they appear is a character flaw that is caused by a deficiency in faith and trust. If they had truly believed and trusted Hashem, the episode could not have taken place. They’d never have sent scouts in the first place. This why the very next following words are לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָי – not “remind yourself” so much as “never forget” – by internalisation.

Ttitzis are said to protect a person. Perhaps by indicating that there is so much more than meets the eye – including the wearer!

A part of the tzitzis requirement is to have a thread of techeiles, a shade of blue-violet. Parenthetically, there is a lot of debate about the source of the correct type of techeiles. To illustrate the gravity of the mitzva, one opinion states that tzitzis without techeiles are not tzitzis at all!

Rav Hirsch notes that the spectrum discernible to our eye ends with the blue-violet ray – the same shade as techeiles; but additional magnitudes of light radiate unseen beyond the visible spectrum. Likewise, the blue sky is the end of the earth visible to us. Perhaps then, techeiles is the bridge that leads from the visible, physical sphere into the unseen sphere beyond. This again underlines the spies error.

Man’s goal is not to strive for spirituality to the exclusion of the physical, but rather to use the physical drives as tools for human growth – note how the thread of techeiles on the tzitzis is the thread wound around the white threads to make a cord of tzitzis. This reflects the duty of the Jew to unite and elevate all available forces and tools to God’s service.

The techeiles on tzitzis is the mini uniform reflecting the calling of the Jew – it should be no surprise that it is the standard colour of the Beis HaMikdash and Kohen Gadol’s clothing.

The entire mitzva of tzitzis screams out that the spies could not have been more wrong. It’s not what you look at that matters; but what you see. Through tzitzis, we are entreated to think bigger and become more.

There is a dichotomy regarding the Matza on Pesach. Is it poor man’s bread, indicative of slavery; or is it because of the redemption, that they were freed before they had time to prepare bread?

The Sfas Emes explains that we cannot celebrate being freed from Egypt on it’s own; we must celebrate the fact we were enslaved as well. If we were capable of being a nation that could serve Hashem in freedom initially, we need not have been enslaved, and if we could serve Hashem in slavery, we weren’t in need of rescue. So being enslaved in Egypt was a key part of the process through which we became Hashem’s people. What transition took place in Egypt that created a nation capable of serving God?

The Sfas Emes goes on to explain that by being in crushing slavery, the people were far beyond their comfort zones, and pushed way past the extremes of what they thought they were capable of. This was a life lesson to the people that the arrogance and ego of man could be removed, and a person could devote his entire being to something. This was a key stage in becoming Hashem’s servants – the people knew what it meant to give their all; which would not have been the same thing without the ravages of slavery.

The Sfas Emes explains that this is what all evils and adversity in life are for – they educate us about our limits, and more than that, they show us the opposite extremes to which we can aspire, attain and transcend. This is the only purpose they serve, just like Egypt. If they weren’t there to help us become closer to Hashem, they would have no function, and therefore would not exist. This was the only way in people could have accepted Hashem as their King entirely; in the same way they had been entirely subjugated to Paroh, they could now subjugate themselves entirely to Hashem.

This was the critical moment the Jews were born as a nation. As we say in Shema every day: אשר הוצאתי אתכם מארץ מצרים להיות לכם לאלוקים – “That I took you out of Egypt to be for you a God” (Bamidbar 15:41). The causation is clear – we had to have been in Egypt before, in order to be taken out, to become everything we were meant to be. Being God’s people hinges on the need to have subdued arrogance and ego.

This is what טוב אחרית הדבר מראשיתו means – “the end is better than the beginning” (Koheles 7:8). It was far from pleasant to be in Egypt, but what followed was receiving the Torah. The Sfas Emes tells us that our celebration of leaving Egypt must hinge around the fact that we became better once we left – we accepted Hashem as our King and our God, and we received the Torah. The first thing we did on being freed was for Hashem – this is why there is a concept of firsts going to Hashem, for example the korban Omer (and Pidyon haBen, bikkurim etc). This is what is so vital on Seder night, to relive the Exodus from Egypt. It is when we became God’s people.

The Sfas Emes answers that this is why Matza correlates to both slavery as well as freedom – it is devoid of the ego, exemplified by chametz, yet it also correlates to the freedom – the process of freedom started when we were slaves. It is how we became truly free to serve Hashem. Our freedom stems from having not been free once.

When introducing the story of Miriam, Rashi notes that it is juxtaposed with the story of the spies speaking ill of the land because the spies saw what had happened to Miriam, yet failed to learn a lesson about evil speech.

The association is bizarre, and very problematic as a source for the lesson of not speaking negatively. Miriam spoke out against a human being – and the greatest to walk this earth to boot. Why would they apply the lesson to insentient, inanimate land?

The Rambam teaches that the greater a person is, the greater exercise of humility required. The character appraisal the Torah gives of Moshe is emphatic:

והאיש משה עניו מאד מכל אדם אשר על פני האדמה – Moshe was more humble than any person on the face of the earth.

This may seem a little bit hyperbolic – but actually, indicates his level of humility – he made himself impervious to personal sensitivity – like the ground.

The lesson they could have taken on is suddenly not bizarre at all. They ought to have taken heed that Miriam spoke ill of someone who was totally detached, and genuinely did not care – not only did he completely forgive her, he immediately prayed for her recovery. This being the case, we are able to grasp the juxtaposition of the two events.

There is a phenomenally difficult, but very important lesson about sensitivity in speech here. In both cases, the error in speech was much more subtle than a straightforward, nasty piece of gossip. Yet Tisha B’Av and all tragedies in Jewish history have since ensued as a consequence.

That the level required here is beyond us may be a valid observation, but think of the reverse; what with how powerful our speech clearly is, what could be achieved with dedication and perseverance?

When Moshe anticipated the need to transfer leadership before his imminent death, he selected Yehoshua to succeed him.

Out of all the possible candidates, Yehoshua was apparently the most suitable candidate, as he had been Moshe’s faithful steward for many years, and had been entrusted to scout the land of Israel, and resisted the conspiracy that led to the lost generation that would wander the desert for 40 years.

Yet we find that someone else actually led the resistance to the conspiracy and tried (and failed) to dissuade the people from overreacting: Moshe’s brother in law, Caleb.

So why was Yehoshua chosen to lead?

Perhaps it is because Yehoshua embodied a quality of humility that Caleb did not.

The scouts were senior members of their tribes, and the Zohar says that the conspiracy was motivated by perceiving the Land of Israel as a threat to the status quo, and they would lose all their influence.

The Kozhnitzer Maggid explains that while Yehoshua would have no interest in retaining power per se, he could have joined the conspiracy to avoid his succession in the wake Moshe’s death.

To protect the integrity of the scouting mission, Moshe blessed his steward that God would safeguard him; and changed his name from Hoshea to Yehoshua before he set out.

R’ Menachem Mendel of Rimanov cautions a leader who is too humble to stand up for what is right for the sake of avoiding conflict.

R’ Yissocher Frand notes the remarkable lesson that while negative traits like anger are damaging on their face; positive traits like humility can be insidious when imbalanced too. Any agenda – however noble – can cloud our judgment.

R’ Shai Held notes that the humility that was almost Yehoshua’s undoing on his first journey to Israel would be the making of him on his second.

While Caleb was fearless in the face of an angry crowd; that is not a feature in military strategy. A moment of pause for deliberation is a good thing for planning, and Yehoshua would be better at that than Caleb.

Some moments require decisive action; others require reflective contemplation. It is not always clear which is called for under the circumstances, but the example set by Yehoshua is exhaustive – in the face of danger he wasn’t aware of, his mentor’s foresight protected him – עשה לך רב.

One of the best pieces of advice in any field is to seek an experienced perspective from someone looking out for us who is impartial to our self-serving biases.