A large section of the sidrah relates the story of the meraglim (spies). Twelve men, one from each tribe, went to assess Eretz Yisrael prior to klal Yisrael's intended assault on it. The outcome is well known: ten of them returned with evil reports, and it was their information which was accepted by a distraught nation. As a punishment for not trusting in God to lead them to the Promised Land, the ten spies were killed, and the rest of the nation were condemned to spend a further thirty-eight years in the desert. During this time, all of the adult males would die, leaving their children to inherit the land. After their punishment was announced, a band of repentant people attempted to enter the land:
They arose early in the morning and went up to the summit of the mountain, saying, "We are here, and we will go up to the place which God described, for we have sinned." And Moshe said, "Why do you transgress the word of God? It will not succeed. Do not go up, for God is not among you, so that you shall not be smitten before your enemies. For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and you shall fall by the sword, for you have turned aside from God, and God will not be with you." They insisted and went up to the summit of the mountain, but the Ark of the Covenant of God and Moshe did not move from within the camp. The Amalekites bore down and the Canaanites who live in that mountain, and they smote them and crushed them to Charmah. (Bemidbar 14:40-45)
This episode begs two straightforward questions. Firstly, why did they wait until the next morning to begin their assault on the land? Surely, once they had heard the decree against them, which had prompted their teshuvah (repentance), they should then have attempted to enter the land without delay. Secondly, and more importantly, why was their teshuvah unacceptable? The verse clearly states that they admitted their sin ("for we have sinned"). Why was God not prepared to accept their repentance and allow them to enter the land?
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A DEEP PROBLEM
The evil report of the meraglim stirred deep-seated discontent within the nation:
All the assembly lifted up their voice and cried, and the people wept all that night. (Ibid., 1)
All the assembly lifted up their voice and cried - this is as the verse says, It cries out against Me, so I have hated it (Yirmeyahu 12:8). This cry caused you to be hated. (Bemidbar Rabbah 16:20)
Underlying this is an expression of Yisrael's inherent holiness. We are accustomed to viewing the Jewish soul as essentially undefilable. When sin does occur, it is temporary and superficial and can easily be eliminated by the process of teshuvah. The Jewish soul can be compared to a white garment. If the garment becomes stained, the appropriate cleansing procedure will restore it to its former glory. Indeed, when a sinner cries out to God in repentance, these tears of contrition "clean" away the sin, leaving the pure, undefiled soul.
This all applies in general circumstances, where the sin is of a normal magnitude. However, in certain rare situations, the sin penetrates deeply into the soul of the transgressor. A simple cleansing process is inadequate to expunge this defect, just as rinsing a deeply stained garment will not restore its previous appearance. We may suggest that this happened to klal Yisrael after they heard the report of the meraglim. This is expressed by the crying, which is mentioned by the verses and expounded upon by the Midrash. The kol, the coarse, raw sound which they emitted, came from deep within them. This expressed the fact that they were profoundly affected by the reports about Eretz Yisrael, and the evil which came in its wake had intensely penetrated their inner beings. This explains the Midrashic interpretation: once the people cried in this uncontrolled manner, they were hated, for they had distanced themselves greatly from God, allowing the sin to pollute them completely.
The ordinary teshuvah process is insufficient to expunge sin of this nature. It was simply too deeply rooted in their personalities. Indeed, even crying out in repentance could not help them, for they had defiled that avenue:
...and the people wept all that night. (Bemidbar 14:1)
God said to them, "You have cried in vain..." (Ta'anis 29a)
It seems that repentance and even the cry of contrition were not available to them. This is reflected by Moshe's summary of the events in Sefer Devarim:
You repented and wept before God, but God did not listen to your cry and did not incline His ear toward you. (Devarim 1:45)
Teshuvah could not work at this stage; neither repentance nor weeping could reverse the damage done. We now understand why God did not accept their contrition after the decree against them was promulgated. Let us now consider why those who decided to enter Eretz Yisrael waited until the following morning to begin their assault.
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A TIME FOR CHESED
It is highly probable that when the people pondered their error, they realized how severe it was and how deeply it had penetrated their souls. It is likely that they knew that it would take years of wandering and perhaps eons of Jewish history to erase the damage done. As such, they were aware that they had no appeal to God through teshuvah, for, as we have seen, it was inadequate. This does not mean, however, that they had no hope of repairing their relationship with God, for they could still yearn for God's chesed. Maybe God would ignore their sad reality and forgive them as an act of mercy, allowing them to enter the land after all. The mystics consider the morning to be the time of Divine chesed. This is evident from the fact that Avraham, the paradigm of chesed, prayed to God in the morning. Thus they waited until the morning to ascend the mountain, for it was at that time, more than any other, that they could hope for God's mercy. Alas, the decree could not be rescinded, and so their attack failed.