In Parshat Devarim, Moshe begins to deliver his final farewell to Bnei Yisrael. He rebukes them for doing sinful things by taking them on a trip down memory lane. One of the great “attractions” on Moshe’s trip is the sin of the spies, when Bnei Yisrael decided (unanimously) to send spies into the land of Israel before entering. The actual sin that Moshe is reminding them of is that spies returned with a negative report slandering the Holy Land, causing the masses to whine and fret.
Rav Shimon Schwab makes an interesting observation: These spies were important men such as Calev and Yehoshua; clearly they were not a bunch of randomly picked loafers. And what exactly did these spies say to Bnei Yisrael that upset them so? The Pasuk tells us they claimed to have seen “a people greater and taller than we, cities great and fortified to the heavens, and even the children of giants have we sent there” (1:28). Would men of such high prestige tell an outright lie? Surely there must have been some truth to their claim!
Rav Schwab explains that in fact there was more truth to the spies’ claim than meets the eye. The Gemara (Sotah 9a) teaches, “Hashem does not exact punishment upon the nations of the world until the time of their exile, and He does not exact punishment upon man until his measure is full.” This means that people are not punished or driven out of their lands until their sins are too numerous and awful for Hashem to tolerate. This might explain why many areas of Israel had yet to be conquered when the Jews began to settle the land during Sefer Yehoshua – these inhabitants had not yet deserved in Hashem’s eyes to be conquered. Thus, when the spies said there were “cities great and fortified to the heavens,” Rav Schwab argues that they meant the nations were still protected by Hashem in that they had not yet sinned enough to be conquered – a true statement in light of the Gemara in Sotah.
We see a similar theme in the Pesukim describing Bnei Yisrael’s preparations to battle Og, king of the Bashan. Hashem told Moshe that he should not be afraid to fight against Og (B’midbar 21:34). Why would Moshe have been afraid of Og? The issue of his colossal size (Og being a giant and all) should have been of no concern; Hashem had defeated formidable enemies many times in the past! We may answer, based on Rav Schwab’s approach, that Hashem assumed Moshe would be concerned about Og’s previous good deeds, which earned him such a long life, and that he would worry that Og would be unbeatable on these deeds’ account. (According to the Midrash, Og was old enough to have survived the flood of Noach’s generation by holding on to the Ark.) Thus, Hashem reassured Moshe that he need not be afraid and that Og was perfectly vanquishable.
Hashem is not quick to punish. If even people as repugnant as Og and the pre-Bnei Yisrael inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael are spared destruction for quite some time, how much more so must He offer a priceless chance to members of His nation to repent.