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What was the sin of the spies?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg


Library » Israel » Holy Land | Subscribe | What is RSS?


The spies’ reconnaissance mission to Canaan was intended to gather intelligence information about the enemy. They were told to scout the lay of the land, as well as its natural and man-made fortifications. Furthermore, they were to report on the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, and the natural resources they could rely on during times of battle. This information would be used by the Israelite military brass to formulate an appropriate combat strategy for the impending battle to conquer the Holy Land.

The spies – all of whom were pious and upright people with unquestionable integrity – faithfully went about their task, but what they saw made their stomachs churn: the Canaanites were a powerful nation, gargantuan people with awesome strength. No fewer than 31 kings had royal palaces, defended by military contingents, on the Canaan mainland. There was no way, the spies concluded, for the Israelites to achieve a natural victory against the formidable Canaanite foe. “We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we,” they declared! Yet this honest conclusion had disastrous results. G-d was highly displeased with their report and the reaction it engendered, and it caused the premature demise of the entire generation which left Egypt. Where did the spies go wrong? Can you tell someone to bring back a report and then punish him because the report isn’t to your liking? Isn’t that an example of shooting the messenger because you don’t care for the message?

The Rebbe explains that the spies erred in assuming that they had to reach a conclusion. They were told to go to Canaan and bring back dry facts: the nature of the land and its population etc. They were not asked to render a decision regarding the feasibility of conquering the land. G-d had promised the Jews a military victory against the Canaanites, and therefore that was not a debatable issue. The question wasn’t if it could be done, but rather how it would be done.

An anecdote to illustrate this idea:

Rabbi Altein was a Lubavitcher Chassid who suffered tremendous back pains, and after unsuccessfully trying many medications and creams all the specialists he visited advised him that surgery was the only way to rid himself of the problem. When he asked the Rebbe for advice, the Rebbe told him that surgery was unnecessary, and there must be a cream on the market which could solve the problem! But the doctors continued to insist that they know of no alternative to surgery. As a last resort, Rabbi Altein visited Dr. Avrohom Seligson (the Rebbe’s personal doctor, and a devoted chassid). Dr. Seligson, who was not a back specialist, checked Rabbi Altein and prescribed a medicinal cream for his back. Sure enough, until his passing more than twenty years later, Rabbi Altein never had a recurrence of his back pains. When Dr. Seligson was asked how he knew to prescribe the particular cream, when all the specialists thought that surgery was the only option, he responded: “The results of the check-up indicated that he needed surgery—but the Rebbe said that this wasn’t the case. I realized that the Rebbe merely wanted a “vessel’ through which his miracle could be manifest, so I prescribed the simplest and cheapest cream available on the market!”

The same is true with our personal lives. We all are “sent on a mission” to this world, to illuminate our surroundings with the radiance of Torah and mitzvahs. Often the opposition seems to be too formidable; the obstacles to implementing G-d’s appear to be insurmountable. When these thoughts enter our minds we must remember that if G-d charged us with the mission it certainly can be carried out. Our job is only to figure out how to do it.


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History » Desert Sojourn

Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
(Pl.: Chassidim; Adj.: Chassidic) A follower of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of "Chassidut." Chassidut emphasizes serving G-d with sincerity and joy, and the importance of connecting to a Rebbe (saintly mentor).
A Chassidic master. A saintly person who inspires followers to increase their spiritual awareness.
One who follows the teachings of the Chassidic group which was formerly based in the Belarus village of Lubavitch. Today, the movement is based in Brooklyn, New York with branches worldwide. The Lubavitch movement is also widely known as "Chabad."
The land which G-d promised to give to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Named after the Tribe of Canaanites who dwelt there at the time. Eventually, when the Israelites conquered the land in 1272 BCE, it was renamed the "Land of Israel."
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.