What is so serious about the Cheit of the Meraglim? In fact, why is their sin considered a Cheit at all? If we look closely at the first Aliyah of the Parasha, we see that Moshe gathers twelve men, the Nasi of each tribe, and gives them a short debriefing session on the goals of the mission before sending them out. They are instructed “LaTur Et HaArtez,” “to scout/tour the Land” (BeMidbar 13:17). They are instructed to look for two different types of information: One type of information is to find out about the Land itself – whether it is good or bad, if the soil is rich or poor in quality, and if the trees are fruitful. The other type of information is to find out about the people living on the Land – if they are strong or weak, and if the cities in which they live are walled or wide open. This entire mission is the first step in preparing Bnei Yisrael for entering and conquering the Land of Israel.
For year and a half before the Meraglim episode, Bnei Yisrael live with the help of Hashem’s Nissim, miracles. Their food is taken care of with the Man from the sky every day, water flows from a rock, and physical protection is provided by the Ananei HaKavod which shields them from difficult weather conditions and from their enemies. Even though Hashem promises to bring them to a special land and to protect them, they need to know if this new land can support all two-million of them, if they can work the soil and make their own food, and if the enemy is conquerable. They cannot rely on miracles from Hashem forever, so they need to find out what the Land is really like.
When the Meraglim return, this is exactly what they report. They tell Moshe, Aharon, and all of Bnei Yisrael that the Land is “Eretz Zavat Chalav UDevash,” “a Land flowing with milk and honey” (BeMidbar 13:27), fertile enough to produce huge bunches of fruit such as the ones they brought back. They also explain the military situation, saying that the people of the Land are mighty and that the cities are fortified. The Amaleki guard the south, the Chitti and Emori control the mountains, and the Kena’ani command the coast. These facts are direct answers to the questions they were asked to investigate, and thus far, it does not appear that there is anything wrong with what they have said. All twelve men agree that the Land is good and that the enemy is strong.
However, there are two arguing opinions about whether Bnei Yisrael can conquer the Land. The majority, ten out of twelve, say that it is impossible to win. The minority, Yehoshua Bin Nun and Kalev Ben Yefuneh, say that Bnei Yisrael can conquer the Land. Based on the report of the Meraglim, it seems that the group of ten presents a more logical and realistic view of the situation; namely, there are four strong nations occupying key pieces of the Land, and it would be very difficult for Bnei Yisrael to conquer all of them.
So what exactly is this group’s sin? As leaders, aren’t they responsible for giving a truthful view of the situation? Some Meforshim argue that the Meraglims’ sin is their lack of Emunah in Hashem. After all, had they believed in Hashem and His power to perform miracles for Bnei Yisrael, they would have agreed with the same things which Kalev and Yehoshua reported.
But how can that be? Is it really possible that ten out of the twelve tribal leaders doubt Hashem’s ability to help Bnei Yisrael conquer the Land? As explained above, these are not ordinary people. They are the Nesiyim of the tribes, who have witnessed first hand the Ten Plagues, the Yetziat Mitzrayim, the splitting of the Yam Suf, the miracles of the Man, the rock gushing with water after Moshe hit it, the Shechinah at Har Sinai during Matan Torah, and then the miraculous victory over Amalek. It seems impossible to argue that all ten of them do not have Emunah!
Rav Menachem Leibtag of Yeshivat Har Etzion explains differently. He says that the Nesiyim do believe that Hashem would protect and provide for His Am Kadosh, as long as Bnei Yisrael behave like His Am Kadosh. However, if, as Hashem says following the Cheit HaEgel, they behave like an “Am Keshei Oref,” “a stubborn and disobedient nation” (Shemot 32:9), then they would lose their special privileges and the protection that Hashem has promised. The Nesiyim know that Hashem’s protection is conditional, and based on all of their experiences with Bnei Yisrael in the Midbar until this point, they have good reason to fear that it might just be a matter of time until the nation does something again that would cause them to forfeit Hashem’s help. If or when that would happen, possibly during the conquering of Eretz Yisrael, the nation would risk being destroyed by the many strong enemies that it would face. In other words, the Meraglim are not doubting Hashem’s ability to perform miracles, but instead they doubt that Bnei Yisrael would be worthy of Hashem performing those miracles for them.
This could begin to answer the question of what it is the Meraglim do that is considered to be such a sin. As leaders of the Shevatim, the Nesi’im are supposed to provide guidance and spiritual “pep talks” to the nation and to reassure them that they are Hashem’s special chosen nation. They must tell the people that if they have the proper Emunah in Hashem and carry themselves in the way that He has asked, they will always be protected. However, instead of encouraging Bnei Yisrael, the ten Meraglim take a very different approach. They try to talk them out of wanting to go up to the Land at all by spreading Dibat HaAretz, slander about the Land. They tell the nation that the inhabitants are giant people, that the Meraglim appear as the size of grasshoppers in comparison, and that the Land is an “Eretz Ochelet Yoshevehah,” “A land that devours the people who live there” (BeMidbar 13:32).
This is why they are punished and never have the opportunity to enter Eretz Yisrael. In contrast, Kalev and Yehoshua exhibit the positive type of leadership, as they show when they disagree with the Meraglims’ Dibat HaAretz. They tell Bnei Yisrael that Hashem wants them as His special nation and that He would bring them into the Land, but they could not rebel against Him or question the power that He had to do this. Unfortunately, the argument of the other Meraglim is more convincing, and the people beg Moshe to take them back to Mitzrayim.
This explains why the Meraglim are punished, but we are still left with a question. Why does Hashem punish the rest of Bnei Yisrael by making them wander in the desert for another forty years? Rav Leibtag answers that this is because the lack of faith that Bnei Yisrael display after the Meraglim return is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, so to speak. The nation could have listened to what Yehoshua and Kalev say and taken a leap of faith that Hashem would protect them if they believed in Him. Had they done this, they would have gone straight to Eretz Yisrael. But instead, they let themselves be influenced by the other ten Meraglim, and show to Hashem that that they are not spiritually ready to capture the Land with His help. Bnei Yisrael are not punished because of only this specific sin, but rather on their overall behavior since the time they left Egypt.
This is not the first time the nation complains and doubts Hashem. They had previously been in the desert for a year and a half, and as Hashem tells Moshe in this week’s Parasha (BeMidbar 14:22), “VaYenasu Oti Zeh Eser Pe’amim,” “They have tested Me ten times (already)!” They complain to Hashem at the Yam Suf about the Mitzrim who are coming to kill them. They complain at Mara when the water is bitter, and later build the Eigel HaZahav. They are granted a second chance, but as recently as last week’s Parasha, we read about the Mit’onenim complaining about the Man. Had the incident with the Meraglim been the first time they doubted Hashem, the punishment may not have been so severe. However, due to Cheit HaMeraglim, God is convinced that the Dor HaMidbar is not capable of meeting the challenges of conquering the Land and establishing a holy nation. Instead, the punishment is that this generation will die slowly in the desert over forty years so as not to create a Chillul Hashem, while a new generation will grow up and become properly educated.
Looking at the story this way teaches two very important lessons – one about leadership and the other about Emunah. Providing leadership and guidance is one of the main roles of the Nesiyim. One of the powers of a good leader is the ability to convince people that they can accomplish something that seems impossible. While faced with enemies all around, Bnei Yisrael need to be convinced that they can do the impossible. But instead, the Nesiyim scare Bnei Yisrael until they beg Moshe to take them back to Mitzrayim, and as a result, they are sentenced to wander in the desert for forty years.
However, the Nesiyim are not the only ones to blame. If Bnei Yisrael had the proper Emunah and Bitachon in Hashem, they would have been drawn to the arguments of Yehoshua and Kalev and accepted that it was their destiny to go up and conquer the Land. Their lack of Emunah turns them towards finding a way that would show this task was impossible. Once Bnei Yisrael realize that conquering Eretz Yisrael requires commitment and dedication, they do not want to accept those responsibilities. This entire incident only strengthens Hashem’s earlier conclusion that Bnei Yisrael are not yet capable of fulfilling their destiny and that it is necessary to educate a new generation instead.
May we learn from our ancestors’ mistakes and make sure that this generation of Bnei Yisrael, our generation, listens and heeds to the warnings of our leaders (and have confidence in our ability to successfully settle in Eretz Yisrael).