Bnei Yisrael committed two major sins in the Midbar. The first sin was Cheit HaEigel, the sin of the Golden Calf, and the second sin was Cheit HaMeraglim, the sin of the Spies, which we read this week in Parashat Shelach. If asked which of the two the greater Cheit was, it would seem that Bnei Yisrael's lapse to idol worship so soon after receiving the Torah and experiencing the miracles of Yetziat Mitzrayim would be considered a greater sin than Cheit HaMeraglim. It is interesting to note, however, that as heinous as Cheit HaEigel was, Moshe simply invoked the classic Shelosh Esreih Midot, God’s thirteen attributes of mercy, afterwards, resulting in Hashem forgiving Bnei Yisrael on Yom Kippur and giving them a second set of Luchot. Although after Cheit HaMeraglim Moshe again attempted a modified form of the Shelosh Esreih Midot, and although Hashem responded “Salachti KiDevarecha,” “I have forgiven in accordance with your words” (BeMidbar 14:20), immediately thereafter Hashem went into a tirade against Bnei Yisrael’s behavior and punished Bnei Yisrael by making them wander in the desert for forty years until the entire generation passed. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that we possibly remain in Galut as a result of Cheit HaMeraglim. The reasons for this are twofold. Had Moshe led Bnei Yisrael directly from Mitzrayim to Eretz Yisrael and built the Beit HaMikdash immediately upon their arrival in Eretz Yisrael, that Beit HaMikdash would never have been indestructible, because the bond between Hashem, Bnei Yisrael, and Eretz Yisrael would have been so strong that no foreign power could have intervened. We also note that during Cheit HaMeraglim, Bnei Yisrael cried because they were unwilling to go into Eretz Yisrael due to the bad report of the Meraglim. Hashem then said that Bnei Yisrael were crying for no reason and He will give them something to cry about for generations. We see that the immediate punishment and the long term punishment for Cheit HaMeraglim were far in excess of the punishment for Cheit HaEigel.
The Kotzker Rebbe explains that Cheit HaEigel was indeed a worse Cheit than Cheit HaMeraglim. After all, an entire nation that had witnessed Hofaat Hashem, Hashem’s manifestation, no fewer than three times: at Yetziat Mitzrayim, at Keriat Yam Suf and at Matan Torah. For those same people to commit the cardinal sin of Avodah Zarah only forty days later is beyond belief. Imagine the feeling of Kelal Yisrael when Moshe broke the Luchot. The feeling could not have been other than that they had totally destroyed their relationship with Hashem, so much so that there is no hope for repair. When a person approaches Teshuvah with this frame of mind, says the Kotzker Rebbe, with broken-heartedness and despair, it is much easier to achieve forgiveness from Hashem. The problem with Cheit HaMeraglim was not the seriousness of the crime but the cavalier approach to Teshuvah. Bnei Yisrael had the attitude that they could just do Teshuvah and everything would be fine. They had no broken-heartedness and no despair. We are still paying for this attitude today.