The Sin of the Spies: Excessive Guilt
Rabbi Reuven Mann
The Book of Bamidbar recounts a series of disasters that afflicted the Jews in the Wilderness. After reaching spiritual heights through the national achievement of constructing and dedicating the Mishkan (Tabernacle), events took a negative turn. Rebellions over food and Moses’ leadership broke out. However, the worst calamity was the episode of the spies. As a result of this debacle, the Jews came to the brink of annihilation, and only Moses’ intense prayer appeased G-d’s wrath. However, the punishment was severe and heartbreaking.
The generation that was enslaved, freed during the Exodus, and that entered the covenant by receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai would not live to inhabit the Promised Land. The nation was condemned to wander in the Wilderness for 40 years, until all who had been slaves in Egypt had perished. Their children, who had been spared that debilitating experience, would have the privilege of conquering G-d’s chosen land.
Slavery is one of the worst atrocities, for it inflicts an irreversible wound on the psyche. In spite of all that G-d had done for them, the Jews could not overcome their slave mentality and assume the role of conquerors. After all these centuries, do we still, on some level, have a subservient attitude? Is Israel a truly proud and independent nation, or does it manifest undue fear of the unjustified condemnation of world opinion? My own sense is that Israel sometimes makes dangerous concessions, releases terrorist murderers, and fails to assert its rights because of an excessive need to curry favor with other nations.
We must seek a deeper understanding of the tragedy of the spies. They brought back a report of the great size and power of the inhabitants, saying that there was no way the Jews could overcome these mightier nations, and that trying to fight them would be suicidal. While their assessment was correct according to the laws of nature, it omitted the crucial element of Divine assistance. Normally, one is not permitted to rely on miracles, but, in this case, they had G-d’s express guarantee that He would be with them.
It is difficult to understand what caused the national meltdown. Many times, the Jews had experienced firsthand the power of Divine intervention. They witnessed the plagues that brought Egypt to its knees and the annihilation of its army at the Red Sea. Numerous other miracles occurred in the Wilderness. So why would they lose faith in G-d’s ability to destroy the physically superior giants who inhabited the Land? Why couldn’t G-d annihilate them as He had done to the mighty Egyptian military?
To answer this, we must listen to the words the people uttered. In despair, they said, “Because of Hashem’s hatred for us, did He take us out of Egypt to deliver us to the Amorites to destroy us.” The notion that G-d redeemed them from Egypt, only in order to destroy them, seems psychotic. The great commentator Sforno explains that they believed they were not worthy to conquer the Land by virtue of G-d’s miracles. Looking within, they remembered their past sins, when they slid into idol worship in Egypt. Although they had repented, they could not rid themselves of their deep-seated guilt.
Sometimes we lose faith in Hashem because we have lost our sense of worthiness, but it is not a mitzvah to disparage oneself. Guilt is necessary to make us mindful of our sins; however, we should approach our misdeeds in a rational and healthy manner. Judaism teaches that genuine repentance obtains atonement. Not only that, but G-d has a special love for the one who succumbed to temptation and had the strength of character to overcome it.