“There’s none so blind as they that won’t see.”
Moses sends 12 men, 12 princes, representatives of each of the tribes of Israel to spy out the land of Canaan. He charges them with bringing a report regarding the land. Though Moses had God’s promise that the land was good and would be easily conquered, there’s a clear logic to sending a reconnaissance mission to start to translate the divine promise into mortal implementation.
Infamously, 10 of the 12 spies return with a negative, frightening report, scaring the nation, leading to mass anxiety, despair, and ultimately, God’s punishment of 40 years of wandering in the desert, where all of the army-age men would die out.
A number of commentators analyze the event to highlight the contrast of the power of faith versus the destructiveness of disbelief:
The Sfat Emet discusses the dangers of only believing what our eyes can see. The spies lost faith in God and let the vision of their eyes deceive them. Reality is so much more than only what our sense of sight provides. There is a deeper, perhaps even more meaningful reality beyond the surface of what our senses tell us.
The Baal Haturim explores the ultimate meaninglessness in God’s perspective as to the number of combatants on either side. God can easily cause the more massive, numerous, powerful army to be destroyed, and allow the outmanned, outgunned, weaker force to be victorious. He gives the example of how two people, Jonathan son of King Saul, together with his arms bearer, routed an entire Midianite army. God has no qualms to save with many or with few.
Both the Netziv and Chizkuni focus on the destructive power of disbelief and fear. A lack of faith in God creates fear. Fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once the tentacles of fear grab hold of your heart, once you’ve allowed God’s presence out of your mind, it is nigh insurmountable to overcome one’s adversaries and challenges.
Finally, Sforno explains that Israel’s despair of conquering the land—despite God’s promise, despite the fact that these were the same people who months earlier had witnessed the astounding miracles of the Exodus, of the Parting of the Sea, of God’s revelation at Sinai—was nothing less than a desecration of God’s Name, perhaps one of the ultimate affronts to God. That is the reason the entire generation deserved to die in the desert and not see God’s promise fulfilled.
In contrast, it is said that every act of supporting Israel, loving it and those who have the merit to ascend to the land are corrections for the enormous sin of the spies. It demonstrates the opposite of the desecration of God’s name—it is a consecration of His name. If we can overcome the deception of our mere senses, if we can see beyond the brute logic of numbers, military, political or financial might, if we can strengthen our faith in God and deny fear a foothold in our hearts, we can then hope to overcome the various failings of the spies and their sin, remedy that national tragedy and consecrate God’s name.
May we always have the opportunity to consecrate God’s name each in our own way—and may we take advantage of those opportunities.
Rabbi Ben-Tzion Spitz is the former chief rabbi of Uruguay. He is also the author of many books on a range of Torah themes, and is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).