A Sin Against Your People
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This week we read the well-known story of the twelve spies. Before starting the conquest of the land of Israel, the Israelites needed to know what kind of country it was, and what kind of people lived in it.
Moses sent twelve spies, one for each tribe, to scout the Land of Canaan. After travelling the land for forty days, they returned and split themselves in two groups. The smallest group, consisting of Caleb and Joshua (from the tribes of Judah and Ephraim respectively), gave an encouraging report. The second group, consisting of the other ten spies, provided a very negative report about the inhabitants of Canaan. They described them as giants, whom the Children of Israel would not be able to defeat in war. Upon hearing this discouraging report, the people cried out, publicly expressing that they wished they had died naturally in Egypt instead of having to die at the hands of the giants that inhabited the land of Canaan. Ultimately, God punished this generation, condemning them to die in the desert and not allowing them to enter the Land of Israel.
Rabbi Elchanan Spector of Kovno (Russia and Lithuania, 1817–1896, one of the most famous Hassidic Rabbis and Talmudic sages of the 19th century) found it striking that the Children of Israel were punished so harshly after this episode. After all, there were other occasions in which they had committed great sins, but they were forgiven by God. For example, the Children of Israel were forgiven after the sin of the golden calf (Exodus 32). Same thing after they desperately desired to eat meat (the episode of Kibrot Hataava, Numbers 11:33-35), and even after the big rebellion of Korach (Numbers 16:1-17:15). In all of these cases, only a few among the Children of Israel were punished, those who led the rebellions and voiced the complaints. However, after the sin of the ten spies, the Children of Israel as a whole were punished: They would not be able to enter the Land of Israel.
Why is everybody punished after the story of the ten spies and not in other (no less grave) cases? It is not clear from the Torah, but many classic and modern commentators consider this particular punishment of not being allowed to enter the Promised Land as a consequence, more than as a real punishment. After the report by the ten spies, when the Children of Israel erupted in crying and expressed their wishes to have died in Egypt, it remained clear that they were not ready to enter and conquer the Land of Israel. Possibly because they were born and raised as slaves, they showed they lacked the minimal character required to live as a free nation. They were doomed to fail in their attempt to conquer the Land of Israel. Thus, when God decreed that they would die in the desert, according to many commentators, God was stating clearly that this “generation of the desert” was not ready for the challenge of fighting for and living a life of freedom and sovereignty. A new generation was to be born and grow before undertaking the conquest of the Land of Israel.
To this explanation, Rabbi Elchanan Spector adds another interesting one. According to Rabbi Spector, the collective punishment after the Torah episode of the ten spies shows how bad it is to sin against your people. Sins against God or against other individuals may be forgiven, as we see in many examples in the Torah during the crossing of the desert. However, when you sin against your people, like in the case of the Children of Israel willing to return to Egypt after the report of the ten spies, the sin is not easily forgiven or not forgiven at all. According to Elchanan Spector there is no more serious sin than the one you commit against your people.
In this respect, the story of the ten spies provides an exceptional story, since almost the whole nation (the exceptions are the two honest spies and Moses) sinned against itself, when they decided to turn their backs on the most cherished dreams and hopes for a better future for themselves. An exceptional sin deserved an exceptional punishment.