The Good of the Land
Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!
This week's parsha deals with the story of the spies who scouted out the Land of Israel and returned with a negative report. Their unfavorable portrayal of the land caused the entire Jewish people to despair of the possibility of living there and to voice their desire to return to Egypt. God was "angry" at the spies for speaking negatively about the land, and decreed that the entire generation "will die in the desert" (Numbers 14:35).
Apparently, God never forgave the Jewish people for this sin. Even to this day, we bear the consequences for the spies' evil report. The verse, "The people wept that night" (Numbers 14:1) refers to the night of Tisha B'Av. The Talmud (Taanit 29a) teaches that as punishment for the people's weeping needlessly over the spies' report, God caused many tragedies to happen on Tisha B'Av so that, throughout the generations, we would have "good reason to cry."
The severity of this punishment is very unusual. The Jewish people have made many errors and misjudgments over the course of history, yet rarely have the consequences been so severe. Why was the mistake of the spies so unforgivable?
In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the Jewish people of their complaints in the desert: "You spoke slander in your tents, saying, 'It is because God hates us that He took us out of the land of Egypt" (Deut. 1:27). Rashi uses a comparison to explain how the Jewish people came to that conclusion. Imagine a king who had two sons and two fields. One field was self-irrigated (shakya), while the other relied on rain for irrigation (ba'al). The king gave the self-irrigated field to the son he loved, so the son would never have to worry about his crops, while he gave the field dependent on rainwater to the son he hated.
The Jewish people saw that God had taken them out of Egypt - a lush, fertile land, where the Nile River provided a constant source of irrigation - and was taking them to the Land of Israel, which depended on rainfall. They thus concluded that God must hate them. Based on Rashi's parable, this seems like a logical inference. The Torah does not directly address the people's assumption, and the question is left hanging. How is the journey from Egypt to the Land of Israel to be seen as anything other than a punishment?
If we view the Land of Israel only in terms of the physical and material benefits it provides, then there may certainly be more comfortable places to live. However, if we look beyond the superficial qualities of Israel, and use our inner vision to perceive its spiritual advantages, then it is far better to live in Israel and depend on rainfall than it is to live in Egypt with no worries about water. Why? The very fact of our dependence on rain forces us to develop ourselves spiritually. If there is no rain, we must pray, and turning heavenward compels us to recognize the true Source of sustenance.
This could be one reason that a field that relies on rainwater is called a ba'al. The word ba'al literally means "owner" or "master." Living in the Land of Israel constantly reminds us that the world has a ba'al, and our reliance on Him keeps our relationship strong.
YEAR IN ISRAEL
Based on this idea, we can understand why the Jewish people were never forgiven for the sin of the spies. According to Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, the punishment we received teaches us how stringently God views a negative attitude toward the Land of Israel. If we cut ourselves off from the Land of Israel, we cut ourselves off from the extraordinary spiritual advantages that the land has to offer and all the opportunities for growth that it provides. Severing ourselves from this potential defeats the entire purpose of our existence.
Every year at this time, students who have spent the year studying in Israel go back to the Diaspora to spend the summer with their families. For many, their first Shabbat abroad is parshat Shlach. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the timing works out this way. When everyone gathers together around the Shabbat table and the family begins asking, "How was your year in Israel?", these students literally have the opportunity to rectify the sin of the spies.
Most of the spies saw only the physical, external aspects of the Land, and many things seemed strange to them. Because they saw only these superficial elements, and failed to see the land's inner spiritual beauty, they concluded that Israel was a bad and dangerous place to live. Visitors to Israel today are the "spies" of this generation. They have the choice of joining forces with the ten spies who viewed the land negatively, or siding with Yehoshua and Calev, who had deeper, inner vision and perceived the land's spiritual richness. Before we open our mouths to share our experiences in the Land of Israel with our family and friends, let us pause for a moment and think about what we are about to say.
May we all be blessed to visit and live in Israel, so that we can focus wisely and deeply on what is truly important in life, and pursue it with a fire that will elevate us to the highest levels.