On Tisha b’Av it was decreed that our ancestors would not enter Eretz Yisrael, and the Temple was destroyed for the first time and the second time, and Beitar was captured and the City (Jerusalem) was ploughed.
[Mishna Ta’anit 4:6]
The first disaster which befell Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) on Tisha b’Av, which is the root of all of the nation’s subsequent tribulations, was the sin of the spies, Am Yisrael’s rejection of the Promised Land, which brought God’s decision that the entire adult generation would die in the wilderness. Entry into the Land was delayed forty years, during period which all the adults (except Yehoshua and Calev) died and at the end of this period; the younger generation entered the Land.
The question which begs asking is: what is so severe about the sin of the spies that it engendered such a harsh punishment? After all, the sin is not among the three cardinal sins, and even for those sins we do not find such a grave and sweeping punishment.
Moreover, the sin of the spies was preceded by the sin of the golden calf, which apparently involved idolatry – which is one of the cardinal sins – yet other than the three thousand Israelites killed by the plague which was punishment for that sin, we do not find any additional punishment. Not only did the generation of the wilderness receive no additional punishment for the sin of the golden calf, but less than a year after the sin, the generation was privileged to build the Tabernacle and have the Shechina manifest within it.
How are we to understand this?
An Isolated Incident or a Fundamental Problem
Reflection on the two great sins of the generation of the wilderness reveals a substantive difference between them.
Classical commentators [Kuzari 1:97; Ramban, Sh’mot 32:1] explain that the sin of the golden calf did not stem from the Israelites’ desire to abandon God and choose an alternate deity, Heaven forbid, but on the contrary, it arose from a desire to find an intermediary which would allow the Israelites to continue to serve God. According to the calculations of the Children of Israel, the time appointed for Moshe’s return from the heights of Mount Sinai had passed; hence they thought the great leader had died. Believing that they no longer had a leader to guide them through the wilderness and to inform them of God’s words, the Israelites sought an alternative upon which the Shechina would rest and through who would serve as the intermediary between them and God.
The great sin was not consulting God; therefore creating the golden calf was considered making an alternate god. However, the nation’s intention was to seek to maintain closeness to God and continue to serve Him. The intent was positive.
On the other hand, the sin of the spies resulted from a fundamental problem within the souls of the generation of the exodus. Moshe’s spies were sent to scout out the Land and bring back intelligence information relevant to conquering the Land. Indeed, the spies fulfilled their mission and reported on the current situation of the Land and its inhabitants. However, the flaw was the fact that the spies presented their own commentary to the facts that they had observed. They saw fortified cities, unusually large fruit and giants within the Land. The spies presented these facts as indications of the unusual nature of the Land and as proof that Israel would be unable to capture the Land or survive within her. The Children of Israel accepted the ten spies’ assessment and cried and complained that Moshe was leading them to a dangerous land, where they and their children will be killed in the attempt to capture the Land.
The spies’ approach and the Israelites’ unquestioning acceptance of their approach were due to the slave mentality, which they had not overcome since leaving Egypt. A nation which had been accustomed to servitude and subjugation for generations was unable to adjust immediately to freedom, and likely would continue to feel subordinate and helpless. Though Am Yisrael had left its Egyptian enslavement and was truly free, the Israelites still lacked self-confidence and did not believe in their own abilities. Thus, the spies and the Israelites in general lacked confidence in their ability to conquer the Land and settle it; therefore they understood the data as indicating that entering the Land would be an irresponsible and disastrous adventure.
Since this was the root of the sin, the resolution and rectification needed to be in accordance: the generation which left Egypt demonstrated that they were not up to the challenge of entering the Land, hence God decreed that must die in the wilderness. The lack of emotional readiness to engage in war to liberate their Land and to settle her prevented the generation from entering the Land. Only the younger generation, which had not experienced the suffering of slavery, would be able to enter the Land.
The sin of the golden calf stemmed from an isolated failure. Thus, the response was immediate and focused. The sin of the spies indicated a deep-seated emotional problem, whose solution required preventing the adult generation’s entry into the Land. Entry into the Land had to be postponed until the generation which was completely free of the emotional bonds of slavery was ready to enter.
Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael – the Basis for the Existence of Torah
Rabbi Ya’akov Emden (1697-1776) presents a deeper exposition of the severity of the sin of the spies [Introduction to Siddur Beit Ya’akov], asserting that Eretz Yisrael is the spiritual foundation of Torah in the world. In his words: “כי ישראל קרוים נחלת ד’, והארץ היא נחלתו. והתורה תלויה בשניהם” בעם ה’ על נחלת ה’. והעוזב אחת, עזב השניה (“For Israel is God’s portion and the Land is His portion; Torah depends upon both, God’s nation and God’s Land. One who abandons either abandons both”). That is, Torah is a sublime spiritual creation, rooted in the highest realm, which descended to this world at the revelation at Mount Sinai. Since Torah is so sublime and spiritual, it cannot survive naturally in our base physical world, but requires a means of connecting to this world which will allow it to stay here and not return to its heavenly spiritual source. The means God created for allowing Torah to take root in the world are Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. Each of these is known as “God’s portion,” each, as it were is an “embassy” of the highest sanctity within our mundane world. As such, these two create spiritual anchors for Torah to take hold within the world, despite the infinite gap between Torah’s sublime spirituality and the baseness of this world.
This being the case, any disturbance of the status of either disrupts the foundations of the existence of Torah within the world, and as a corollary, of God’s existence, as it were. Thus, the moment the spies, and following them the Israelites, sinned by rejecting the Land and by spiritually detaching themselves from her; they created an awful imbalance in the two pillars –the Nation of Israel and Eretz Yisrael – upon which the existence of Torah in this world depends. This necessitated the death decree against that generation and the delay of forty years in entering the Land. Only the younger generation which had a healthy appreciation of its connection to the Land would be able to enter her and create the essential connection between the two pillars of Torah within this world – the nation and the Land.
The sin of rejecting the Land was not only a failure of faith and belief in God, but also a blow against the deep foundations upon which the presence and revelation of the Divine Torah within this world are based. The damage caused by the sin of the spies was so great that it impacted not only that generation, but subsequent generations as well, with all the calamities of Tisha b’Av resulting from this sin. The disruption within the connection between the nation and the Land also disrupted the revelation of the Shechina within the world, and this is the root of all of Israel’s travails.
Rabbi Meir Simḥa of Dvinsk defined the point well when he wrote “God cared more for the glory of the Land (the sin of the spies) than for His own glory (the sin of the golden calf).”
While the sin of the golden calf is indeed a severe sin, it did not result from disconnection between God and His nation, but from a misunderstanding of the proper manner to serve God, and therefore it was a slight to the glory of His name. In contrast, the sin of the spies resulted from an internal emotional detachment from Eretz Yisrael, which is devastating and danger-laden.
Relevance for Us
The practical relevance for us is the realization that love of the Land and emotional connection to her are not merely good traits, but basic and necessary for every Jew. Just as love between spouses is not simply a nice addition to the bond of marriage, but the basis upon which the marriage stands, so it is with the connection between the Nation of Israel and Eretz Yisrael.
Every one of us must develop and build within himself love and affection for the Land, to constantly seek to see the good within her and to look after her welfare and completeness. True love of the Land is that which is expressed in all facets, not merely in verbal expression or symbolic manners.
May we merit loving Eretz Yisrael and making her beloved on a sincere and basic level, and may we be privileged to see her completely built up, with all her children gathered within her, speedily in our days. Amen.