The tragic incident of the spies in Parshat Sh’lah is a poignant story of failed aspirations. Benay Yisrael, on the verge of fulfilling the four-hundred-year prophecy to return to the land of their forefathers, hesitate in their quest to enter the land. They request to send spies who temper their enthusiasm for the land with reports of mighty peoples and cities fortified to the heavens. Many Israelites respond negatively, doubting their chances of success in conquering the land of Canaan. This ultimately leads to the collective punishment of Benay Yisrael. The nation is forced to wander the desert for forty years until entire generation of the Exodus passes on and is replaced by a new generation who does not share the guilt of the sin of the spies.
All Benay Yisrael’s leaders seem to fail on some level. The spies fail in their
mission to gather intelligence about Canaan in anticipation of its conquest. While
providing information truthfully, the spies maneuver the people into denying any chance
of success in conquering Canaan. The only two spies to bring back a more optimistic
report, Yehoshua and Calev, fail to convince the Israelites of the deceit of the other spies’
statements. Yehoshua appears to hesitate in responding to the spies, while Calev,
although forceful in his response to the nation, cannot assuage the peoples’ fears. Moshe
and Aharon, fail to take an active role in the story by joining Yehoshua and Calev in
condemning the negative report, and instead react passively. They fall on their faces in
prayer to Hashem.
In approaching this incident, the actions and motivations of the majority of the
spies are perplexing. Why do the spies return such a bad report to Benay Yisrael? One
could explain that the spies simply were overwhelmed by what they saw in Canaan.
Therefore, they returned an honest though incorrect appraisal of what they viewed to be
the miniscule chances of success in Benay Yisrael’s conquest of Canaan. The error of
their report was then based on their lack of faith in Hashgahat Hashem, divine
providence. Alternatively, one could attribute the spies’ action to a much more sinister
plan. They purposely manipulated Benay Yisrael to fulfill some secret agenda.