Dealing with Failure (The Spies)

The Israelites chose what would seem to be repentance. They proclaimed, "Here we are, we shall go up, for we have sinned." They are ready to go into the Promised Land, they will follow God's command. But Moses warned them to cease, because "You should not be routed by your enemies, because God is not with you."

God had told Moses not to allow the people to enter Israel. He had sworn an oath that they must wander in the wilderness for 40 years, until the adult generation that sinned with the spies had passed from the earth. Once God has taken an oath, there is no option for nullifiication. NOT precipitating an entry to the land becomes a Divine commandment. Thus, even though it would seem that the Israelites wanted to repent, by proceeding to attempt to conquer Israel they are committing a new sin.

This moves the goal posts, and brings the question on to God. Why did He swear that they must perish in the wilderness? Why not leave an opening for repentance, and why not embrace the children of Israel's desire to correct yesterday's wrong?

I would like to suggest two answers. The first relates to the manner in which the Israelites, newly freed slaves, connect to the rest of the world. Sovereignty requires maturity, and the ability to carefully weigh all options before making decisions. To run your own country, and run it stably, is not easy. It requires a steadiness and a commitment to foundational values.

The history of the Israelites in the wilderness was the opposite of this. Every time they camped, there was a crisis. When there was no water, people already cried out that they wished to return to Egypt. In the section prior to this story in the Torah, the Israelites resented the manna that was their food, and desired the delicacies of Egypt. Going back to the golden calf, the moment Moses seemed to delay his return, the people panicked and demanded that that calf be created. What is the common denominator of all of these stories?

A lack of stability, and emotional volatility. If this is the way that the people run their affairs, sovereignty will be a disaster for them. They will be completely vulnerable to fear and weakness, and to the seduction of the pagan ways of life surrounding them. In other words, they might quickly sin, thus forfeit God's protection, and hasten their exile.

Modern history has taught us the dangers of granting sovereignty to a volatile people that is not ready for it. When the United States invaded Iraq, many believe that by setting up a democracy, a Middle Eastern civil society would emerge. This naive approach ignored the deep ethnic hatreds and primitive ways of dealing with them that were prevalent in the lands of Iraq. By putting on the outer garment of free elections, the West fooled themselves into believing that the people wearing those garments would be transformed. It did not work that way, and Iraq today is an anarchic mess.

Perhaps for this reason God wanted the Israelites to remain in the desert, even if their next-day-repentance was sincere. God loves his people, and wanted them to be completely ready to enter the holy land. One could say that the spies episode was a test of that readiness. If the people had a steadiness of faith, they would not have been moved by the fear mongering of the 10 spies. They might have said, "It's a challenge, but God will be with us and we can meet that challenge." Had they done so, they would have proven that they were no longer subject to the winds of emotion.

A second, complementary reason for God's desire not to allow the Israelites to succeed on the day after is the lesson of the day after itself. In other words, God wanted to teach them how to deal with failure. After all, the entire exodus has been leading up to the entrance to the land of Israel, and the spies were the first part of making that dream a reality. It blew up in their faces. How do you deal with that?

God sees into the hearts of men, and knew that the repentance the people expressed on the day after was really Freudian denial. What had happened yesterday caused them such shame, that they wished to make believe it had never happened. They stood before Moses and said, "Here we are." Whatever happened yesterday was somebody else. We are here.

The danger of denial is that it prevents identifying and healing the flaw that is being denied. Something was fatally wrong with that generation, and had the Israelites been able to go into Israel the next day, that fatal flaw would have remained untreated. As we have said, that flaw was an instability, and emotional volatility.

King David said, "Yay though I walk through the valley of the shadow of deepest darkness, I fear no evil, for You are with me." There are two concepts that are crucial to the religious person's identity and success: Belief and Faith. Belief means knowing that God exists. The Israelites were certain of God's existence, their belief was complete. After all they had seen in Egypt and at Mount Sinai, it would've been nearly impossible to lack a strong belief.

Faith, though, is another story. Another word for Faith is Trust. Trust that God will protect, trust that God's instructions are good, thus that God has our interests at heart. King David was expressing trust, that no matter how terrifying the world around him became, he knew that God was with him. As a result, he concludes the psalm by saying, "Only goodness and kindness shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall sit in the House of the Lord for the length of days."

King David was the greatest sovereign of the entire monarchic era. That was thanks to his Faith, his trust. It was this kind of Trust that was missing from the desert generation. Without it, they would not have lasted as a sovereign nation in the land of Israel. God saw that they needed the time in the desert to gain this trust, to follow God wherever He led them.

"I have remembered the kindness of your youth, as you walked behind Me in the desert." God wanted a new generation to enter the land, a generation that had grown up with this level of Trust. Perhaps the word "youth" might be taken literally, to refer to the children of the Exodus generation, who would be the ones to enter and build sovereignty in the land of Israel.

A third, additional answer, thus emerges. God wished to show this new generation that His word, when accompanied by an oath, will be fulfilled no matter what. If his oath to keep them in the wilderness would be fulfilled, then his promise to bring them into the land of their fathers and bless them would certainly be fulfilled. With that faith, they would be ready to assume the responsibilities of sovereignty. They would be stable, they would be firm, they would be unafraid and unaffected by the threats and temptations of the peoples around them.

Faith and Reality

I contrast this week's reading with the portion of "Lech Lecha", where Abraham is told to leave his birthplace and go to a land that God will show him. Abraham follows, not even knowing where he is going. His faith is strong enough to tell him that if God is guiding him, his destination can be nothing but successful.

The Israelites were promised the land of Canaan. This promise was given to Abraham and repeated to each of the patriarchs. It was repeated again to Moses and the people at Mount Sinai. There was no doubt, there was no question.

There was no need for spies. With our perfect hindsight, we can say that the people should have gone as Abraham went, with faith and confidence.

Why, then, did Moses agree to send the spies? The plot thickens when we consider that Moses had an inkling that the spies would not do good. He prays that Joshua be spared "the plotting of the spies". This happens before they are sent. If he had a gut feeling that something was amiss, why did he send them anyway?

One could answer that his prayer for Joshua was not that the spies were going to speak ill of the land. It was rather that they would be jealous of Joshua, who was Moses's protege. These spies were princes in their own right, and may have felt inclined to violence against Joshua in a sort of coup. There is an echo of the story of Joseph and his brothers, who were jealous of his status in his father's eyes and wanted to kill him before they sold them into slavery.

According to that answer, Moses didn't fear the spies as far as the land goes, only as far as Joshua goes.

I think, though, there is another explanation. According to Jewish law, a judge must be completely free of influenced by litigants. A litigant who gives a gift to a judge, even if it is to judge fairly, has eliminated that judge from eligibility in his case. Judges are human beings, and even though the gift was to be objective, they can no longer be objective.

So too with the spies. They needed to be objective, not with a personal agenda. I feel they have a personal agenda, perhaps against Joshua, perhaps a need to demonstrate their own independence and leadership. Maybe they needed to go against Moses in order to state their claim to leadership. Thus, Moses prays that Joshua maintain his objectivity. There is a lot more to say in this direction, which I hope to address in a future post.

With all that, the question is stronger. Why did Moses send them if it was so risky?

I believe it was because the people were hesitant. Moses knew they were afraid of the battles ahead. And he knew that psychologically, the best way to proceed is in small steps. Therefore, the first step would be to send advance scouts. He specifically gives them military and strategic instructions, including what roads to take, what the fruits are like so they will know how much provisions they will need and so forth. They are NOT to evaluate whether or not the project is worthwhile. They are only to give logistical details.

If the people had been on the level of faith of Abraham, Moses would've never sent spies. He felt that the approach of reality was necessary here.

If Moses made such an error, what can we ever say? The best we can do is try to learn from what the Torah tells us. And what the Torah is telling us is to follow God's Word without hesitation and fear. If God is with us, we can proceed on faith. If God is not with us, no amount of reality action will help. The sequel of the spies episode is the story of the "ones who jumped the gun".

They decided, after God decreed 40 years in the desert as punishment for the spies, to go immediately into the land of Israel. Moses warns them that God will not be with them, and they have no chance of success. They go anyway, and are soundly defeated in their first military encounter.

If God is with us, we can proceed on faith. If God is not with us, no amount of reality action will help.

The Jewish people in the state of Israel is at a crisis of faith. We are being asked to follow the path of "reality" in our relations with the Palestinian Arabs, Iran and the other existential threats of our day. On the face of it, the state of Israel exists in defiance of the laws of nature and reality. If God is not with us, none of this could exist. If God is not with us, no amount of land-for-peace or other peace process concessions will make us more secure.

Our job is to bring God with us. "And it was when the Ark traveled, Moses said 'Rise up oh Lord and let Your enemies scatter before Thee...'". If God walks with us, we need do nothing more than show up. What is needed is an awakening of faith in the Jewish people, and in God's promise to Abraham, "to thee and thy seed will I give this Land".