God was very kind to the spies. He arranged that a number of Canaanites should die just as the Meraglim were passing through the land. Instead of casting suspicious glances at the Jewish scouting party, the inhabitants would be busy attending funerals. Wherever, they went, the Meraglim saw huge crowds attending funerals and hardly any traffic on the roads. Ideal conditions for a scouting party, one would think.

But the Meraglim put an entirely different spin on the situation. Funeral processions everywhere! Canaan was clearly “a land that devours its inhabitants.” They perpetrated a malicious slander and created a wave of public reaction against entering the Holy Land. As atonement, the Jewish people had to spend forty years in the desert. This was a seminal event in Jewish history.

But what was really wrong with what they did? They only reported the facts as they saw them. After all, it was not their fault that wherever they went, they saw large funeral
processions.

The Steipler Gaon explains that the Meraglim saw what they wanted to see. They looked at the Holy Land with a jaundiced eye, and they saw the worst. According to the Baal Haturim, they were subconsciously concerned that they would lose their positions of prominence once the Land was conquered. Had they been more positive in their outlook, they would have understood that their interpretation of events was wrong.

Logically, if Canaan was indeed “a land that devours its inhabitants,” if death was always rampant in Canaan, people would not be attending funerals in large numbers. How would society function if everyone spent a good part of his day marching in funeral processions? Nothing would ever get done. If people were really dying in droves, people would go to very few funerals. In fact, no one but the immediate family and closest friends would attend funerals. There would not be many large funeral processions.

Had the spies made an honest assessment of the situation, they would have realized that such large funeral processions proved the exact opposite of what they had concluded; they showed that death was a rarity in Canaan. They proved that having so many funerals at once was a rare phenomenon that brought out the shocked crowds in great numbers. And if they had seen beyond their bias, they would have perceived the hand of Hashem clearing the land before them so they could scout undisturbed.

The Talmud relates (Gittin 45a) the story of Rabbi Ilish who was arrested and imprisoned. While sitting in his cell, a bird came to him and chirped something to him. It seemed to Rabbi Ilish that the bird had said, “Ilish, escape! Ilish, escape!” Rabbi Ilish, however, was not convinced. He asked his cellmate, “Did you hear what that bird said to me?” The cellmate replied, “The bird said, ‘Ilish, escape! Ilish, escape!’” Convinced of the authenticity of the message, Rabbi Ilish made his escape from prison.

Rav Akiva Eiger, in the Gilion Hashas, wonders why Rabbi Ilish needed confirmation from his cellmate. According to the Seder Olam, Rabbi Ilish understood the conversation of birds. He certainly did not need the help of some jailbird to decode the message.

Rav Chaim Shmulevitz explains that Rav Ilish did indeed understand the conversation of birds, and it seemed to him that the bird was telling him to escape. But since that was what he wanted to hear, he could not trust himself. He needed the confirmation of an objective person.

A person hears what he wants to hear and sees what he wants to see. The Meraglim came into the Land subconsciously seeking something to criticize because of their own personal interests; they feared they would lose their political status in the Land. Therefore, they saw in the large funerals a sign that the “land devours its inhabitants” when, in fact, it proved the exact opposite.

A related theme emerges from a similarity of language between the episode of the spies and the parashah of tzitzis at the very end of Shelach. When Moshe sent off the spies, he told them (13:18), “And you shall see (ure’isem) the land.” When he gave the mitzvah of tzitzis, he said (15:39), “And you shall see (ure’isem) it and recall all God’s commandments.” What is the significance of this similarity?

The Talmud explains (Menachos 43b) how “seeing” the tzitzis leads us to recall the commandments. The key is the blue techeiles thread, which is reminiscent of the sea. The blue sea recalls the blue sky. The sky recalls the Throne of Glory, and the thought of the Throne of Glory reminds us to perform the mitzvos.

The tzitzis show us that a person can “see” far beyond the surface if he makes the proper effort. Moshe sent the spies to “see” the land, and indeed, there was much to see. But they could not get beyond the surface. They saw giants and funerals, but they never really penetrated to its holiness. They never did “see” the land.