The episode of the spies, related in Parashat Shelacḥ, is one of the most difficult affairs that Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) experienced during its wanderings in the wilderness. The nation presented the demand to send twelve spies to “scout out the land of Canaan” [Bamidbar 13:2] prior to entering her. Upon return, ten of the twelve spies, men of status and stature, “spread an (evil) report about the Land.” [ibid. v.32] With their report, the ten spies dampened the fervor of the nation to enter the Promised Land. Only two spies, Yehoshua and Calev, were not party to speaking lashon hara of the Land; instead they declared “The Land is exceedingly good” [Bamidbar 14:7], and “We can surely ascend and take possession of it” [ibid. 13:30].
Am Yisrael was punished in an exceedingly harsh manner – instead of entering the Land in eleven days, its entry would be delayed by forty years. The Gemara [Ta’anit 29a] teaches that the night the spies returned and spoke ill of the Land was the ninth of Av. Chazal (The Sages) say: “אמר הקב”ה, אתם בכיתם בכייה של חינם ואני קובע לכם בכייה לדורות” (“The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them (Israel) ‘You wept needlessly (that night), and I will establish for you (a reason for) weeping for generations’”). God punished Am Yisrael on a long-term basis, with much suffering throughout the generations, with the destruction of the two Temples occurring on that date, due to the nation’s needless weeping in response to the majority report of the spies.
Why were the Children of Israel punished so severely for the sin of the spies?
Rejecting the “Land of the Living” [Tehillim 142:6] is Rebellion Against God
The dialogue between Yehoshua and Calev and the nation indicates the severity of rejecting Eretz Yisrael. Hearing the report of the ten spies, the people withdrew from their desire to ascend to the Land and settle within her. There were even those who wanted to return to Egypt [14:1-4]. However, Moshe and Aharon, with the support of the two righteous spies (Yehoshua and Calev), encouraged the nation to ascend and capture the Land [ibid. 5-8]. Yehoshua and Calev argue that beyond the special qualities of the Land and the fact that the nation surely is capable of conquering her, the very decision to not ascend to the Land, rejecting her, constitutes rebellion against God, as they declared:
But do not rebel against God, and do not fear the people of the land for they are as our bread. Their protection is removed from them and God is with us, do not fear them. [14:9]
According to this, the seriousness of the sin lies in the fact that rejecting the Land is a rejection of God Himself. Rebellion against God is one of the greatest sins. The severity of idolatry, which is rebellion against God, is clear, but the question which begs asking is how can rejecting Eretz Yisrael be considered the equivalent of rejecting God?
Anyone Who Resides in Eretz Yisrael is Considered as One Who Has a God [Ketubot 110b]
We shall first explain the rebellion based upon the Gemara’s statement that “Anyone who resides in Eretz Yisrael is considered as one who has a God, and anyone living outside her is considered as one who has no God.” Firstly, we must explain the Gemara, which does not state categorically that all who live outside the Land are heretics, while all those who live within her are righteous. The Gemara states “is considered as one” (more literally, “is comparable to”), that is, there is a common point between those who live in the Land and believers.
The declaration of the two righteous spies (Calev and Yehoshua) clarifies the logic of the Gemara’s statement – one who lives in Eretz Yisrael demonstrates his belief that the Land was given to Israel by God. On that level, he is comparable to the believer in God. Thus, the absence of the desire to enter the Land, engendered by the ten spies’ report, constitutes rebellion against God. Residing in Eretz Yisrael is the equivalent of believing in Him.
Yet we must achieve a deeper understanding of the comparison between rebelling against God and rebelling against the Land, after all, the Israelites in the wilderness did not speak against God, nor do we find criticism of Him in the verses. Apparently, the Israelites merely expressed apprehension of a new situation and the desire to return to previous conditions. Why, then, did Yehoshua and Calev consider the Israelites’ response rebellion against God?
Eretz Yisrael – God’s Unique Portion
Ramban, in his commentary on Parashat Kedoshim [Vayikra 18:25] provides answers to our questions –
God is the Lord of Lords and King of Kings of the entire world; however, Eretz Yisrael, which is at the center of the world, is His unique portion, and He did not appoint angels to supervise her when He gave the Land to His special nation, the descendants of his beloved ones, as the verse states: “You shall be a special treasure to Me out of all peoples” [Shemot (Exodus) 19:5], and Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) [11:4] writes “And you will be My people and I will be your God,” and you shall not have any other god at all.
If any other nation chose to exchange its geographic portion for another, it would certainly not be considered a rebellion against God. Though God was Sovereign in assigning each nation its portion, there is no other portion comparable to Eretz Yisrael.
Eretz Yisrael is God’s portion, and even more, it is the portion uniquely associated with His name. This finds expression in God’s personal and direct providence over the Land – “He did not appoint angels to supervise her,” but maintains direct supervision, without intermediaries. “The Land (which) the eyes of God are constantly upon.” [D’varim 11:12]
God gave Am Yisrael, the nation He chose from among all the nations of the world, Eretz Yisrael as their unique portion, a portion which is uniquely supervised by Him. Thus, in the aftermath of the report of the ten spies, the Israelites rejected not only the soil of Eretz Yisrael, but rejected the Creator Himself, Who alone supervises the Land, which is His unique portion.
Ramban’s comments teach two principles which are linchpins for understanding the words of Yehoshua and Calev “Do not rebel against God.”
One, Eretz Yisrael is God’s unique portion in this world, therefore rejecting the Land is equivalent to rejecting Him.
Two, The unique connection between the Children of Israel and God is achieved specifically through Eretz Yisrael – “Who is like Your nation Israel, a unique nation in the world.” [Divrei HaYamim Aleph, 17:22] Denying Eretz Yisrael flaws the nation’s connection with God, since it is related to the Land.
Thus, Am Yisrael’s rejection of its Land is not the same as other nations rejecting theirs. Since the Land of Israel is directly and uniquely connected to the Creator, either as His exclusive portion of the world or as the place the Nation of Israel connects with Him, blemishing this connection, through rejecting the Land, indeed constitutes rebellion against the connection between God and His nation.
The story is told that a person spoke ill of Eretz Yisrael in a conversation with Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816 – 1893, head of the great yeshiva of Volozhyn), Netziv said to him “You are among the spies who spread an evil report of the Land,” to which his interlocutor responded “But every word I say I true.” Netziv ended the conversation by commenting “the spies’ as well, spoke truth.” Netziv’s comment indicates the depth of the sin of the ten spies. The sin did not begin with what they said, but with their perspective on what they saw in the Land. Had the ten spies observed what they saw in Eretz Yisrael through the lens of faith, they definitely would not have spoken evil of the Land. This is exactly the point – the spies’ failure to see through the lens of faith brought them to speak lashon hara about the Land. If there is something negative about the Land, even if it is true, out of respect for the Land and for God, it should not be said.
We began with the questions of why the Nation of Israel was punished so severely for the sin of the spies and why Yehoshua and Calev defined it as rebellion against God. We learned that the connection to Eretz Yisrael is part of the faith of Jews, and used Ramban’s comments to explain that there is a tripartite connection of God-Land-Nation. This connection is based upon two factors: the Land being God’s unique portion and her being the means for connecting the Nation of Israel and God. Since the connection between God and the nation can be fully realized only within the Land, rejecting the Land is the equivalent of rejecting God.
We concluded with the comment of Netziv which teaches that we must maintain a positive and faith- based attitude towards the Land our Fathers desired, which God granted us in His abundant mercy.
May it be His will that we indeed see Eretz Yisrael with the proper eyes and perspective, to be able to see and appreciate all the good, revealed and hidden within her, and to thank and praise God that we merit having such a holy Land.
 While Parashat Shelaḥ implies that sending the spies was Moshe’s initiative, according to D’varim 1:22 it was the nation’s initiative.