SPIES LIKE US
The incident of the spies recorded in this week's Torah portion represents probably the greatest tragedy that befell the Jewish people in their forty year sojourn in the wilderness.
The incident of the spies recorded in this week's Torah portion represents probably the greatest tragedy that befell the Jewish people in their forty year sojourn in the wilderness. As a result of this great atrocity, death was proclaimed on adults over the age of twenty, and the Jewish nation was forced to endure an additional 38 years in the desert. The sin of the spies seems even more catastrophic if we consider the stature of the spies themselves. The Torah states that the people chosen for the task were among the leaders of the Jewish people, and Rashi notes that even immediately preceding their appointment, the spies were of pure heart and intentions. How could these righteous men have succumbed to the evil of speaking pessimistically about the Land of Israel-- the Land that the forefathers had prayed and longed for; the Land that flows with milk and honey where one lacks nothing? How could the good intentions of the spies transform so quickly into evil strategies and conspiracies? How could they have sunk so low so fast?
Rav Yaakov Kanievsky (known as the Steipler Gaon), one of the outstanding Torah scholars in Israel of the past generation, in his masterpiece Birchat Peretz, provides a simple yet profound solution. He answers that those selected to spy out the Land had overestimated their own significance. The spies had assumed that they had been commissioned for an absolutely vital and critical task -- to inspect and analyze the various features of the Land, and based on their observations, to decide if the entry and subsequent conquest of the Land was prudent or even possible. They believed that the entire fate and future of the Jewish people lay on their shoulders. However, in reality, they had been designated for a much less meaningful assignment: they were simply to report on the different sights and sounds of the Land that the Children of Israel could expect to see upon their arrival in Israel. In fact, the successful conquest of the Land of Israel had already been promised and assured by Hashem, so any conclusion reached by the spies as to the propriety of invading the Land would not only be trivial and irrelevant, but utterly inane and ludicrous.
However, the pride that the spies allowed into their hearts and minds clouded their vision and perception. The exaggeration of their own self-importance propelled them onto a downward spiral of corruption. The spies' haughtiness, as little and insignificant as it may seem, resulted in one of the greatest calamities and catastrophes in the history of the Jewish people.
Of course, if the vice of pride can wreak such incredible havoc on the intellect and rationale of such men of prominence, how much more destructive are the effects of haughtiness on less virtuous people such as ourselves. No wonder that Rabbeinu Yonah, a great Spanish 13th century Torah scholar, commenting on Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers 4:4) advises that concerning every other characteristic and trait, one should adopt a policy of the Golden Mean, yet one should refrain totally from any haughtiness and vanity. Although all other attributes are necessary in some measure in order for one to grow and develop, even a minuscule amount of arrogance can only lead to devastation.
Yoel Spotts, a native Atlantan and graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is currently enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and the University of Maryland, both in Baltimore.
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