"'We came to the land where you sent us, and it is indeed flowing with milk and honey...'"
Moses hand-picked twelve of the finest men amongst the children of Israel, each one a man of stature and integrity, representing each of the twelve tribes that together comprised the Israelite nation. He sent them into the land of Canaan, a vanguard to spy out the land and take note of its features, and then to return and rally the people, preparing them for their imminent entry into the promised land. No doubt he was pleased when they opened their address to the gathered crowd, and uttered the words quoted above: "'We came to the land where you sent us, and it is indeed flowing with milk and honey...'" (Numbers 13:27) Moses, however, was soon to discover that these words of praise were to be brandished as a double edged sword.
Holding up the bounty of the land for all to witness, they went on to describe the inhabitants of the land, and in their description was an unmistakable undertone of despair. Caleb, himself one of the twelve, immediately sensed the danger and rejoined: "'We must go forth and occupy the land,'" he said. 'We can do it!'" (Ibid 13:30), but the die was cast. Confusion and despondency overtook the Israelites. In an instant their spirit was broken, and already rumblings were being heard, calls to return to Egypt, to slavery.
What was it that so distressed them? Was it really the description of the inhabitants of Canaan as being giants and the cities fortified? Had not the Israelites just seen the entire army of Pharaoh, the greatest army on earth, drowned to a man in the Sea of Reeds? Had G-d not delivered them from a nation far more numerous, far more powerful, and one bitterly determined to wrest them from His embrace? What threat could these insignificant Canaanite nations possibly possess?
No, it wasn't the giants or their fortified cities that struck terror into the hearts of the spies. After all, how strong can a city be, if its inhabitants feel compelled to surround it with walled ramparts? It is they who should be frightened by the obvious strength and confidence evinced by the sprawling array of the nation of twelve battle-ready encampments, the sanctuary of the L-rd established within their midst.
What frightened (ten of) the twelve was the land itself, a land so powerful that even its bounty was of supernatural proportions, a land "indeed flowing with milk and honey." (Ibid) How could this nation, betrothed to the L-rd by the Covenant of Sinai, nurtured by the manna - heavenly sustenance from G-d's own table, as it were, how could they possible resist the overwhelming seduction of the hills and valleys, and fields and rivers that awaited them? Would it not be wiser to remain in the desert, far from temptations of a plentiful land? Wouldn't it be safer to continue to tread the blazing desert sands than to plow the fecund pastures? Couldn't they better serve G-d in the remote wilderness than in a land flowing not only with "milk and honey" but also with the blood and sweat and tears of earning one's daily bread?
No doubt G-d could forgive them their trepidation. But their rejection of the land, of the real world, in favor of a beautiful but not sustainable retreat in the desert, and their utter loss of nerve sealed their fate. From the very first Covenant Between the Pieces forged between G-d and Avraham, His promises to His people have been fraught with challenges and opportunities, not with certainties and complacencies. The Promised Land is no exception. The challenge of entering into the very physicality of the land while clinging all the while to the spiritual inheritance bequeathed to us at Sinai can indeed be daunting. It is this which is the very challenge - the promise - of the land.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss the debacle of the spies and the far reaching ramifications of their misplaced loyalty to their desert existence.
Click to hear: