By Rabbi Dan Lewin
The main event of this week features a spoiled episode of espionage. At that fateful moment, the Jewish people were in good spirits, hopeful as they braced themselves to finally enter the land of Israel — then suddenly things took a tragic turn.
In preparation for their entrance, Moshe (Moses) had sent spies to scout out the land. They were the elite men — in character and spirit — from each tribe. All but two came back with discouraging reports, which instilled fear in the hearts of their nation, triggering “weeping for generations.”
What went wrong?
The question that is often explored is: What went wrong? The common understanding suggests a simple lack of faith, courage and loyalty to the cause. But still, how did men of such fine caliber, originally chosen for their leadership — and who had witnessed a stream of miracles to get to that stage — so abruptly lose their vision and confidence?
From a different angle, perhaps they did nothing wrong. The closer one looks at the story, the more difficult it becomes to blame them for their negative report. In fact, it seems that they fulfilled their mission well:
The spies’ mission, as spelled out in the Torah, contained two elements. The first was to report about the inhabitants of the land, “Are they strong or weak? Are there few or many?” The second was to describe the land itself: “Is it good or bad? Is the soil fat or lean?” (Bamidbar 13:18-20)
Seemingly, the spies did exactly what Moshe asked them. They gave an honest assessment of the people who they saw (“those who inhabit the land are mighty…” They also gathered evidence about the land (“we came to the land to which you sent us, and it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit”).
Why then are they eternally blamed?
A subtle yet grave mistake
One piece of the answer can be found in their final words — “we will not be able to conquer the land.” This added conclusion was the fatal mistake, an assumption that ran contrary to the entire mission of the Jewish people.
The spies’ purpose was to testify about how to conquer the land — not whether to conquer it. Had they only related the potential obstacles, the Jewish people would have likely pulled together as a united front and adjusted the plans to fulfill their destiny. Instead, the spies used their intelligence in the wrong way: They injected their personal projection, which invited doubts to creep in, plagued their thinking and caused panic among the people.
This story of the spies serves as the prototypical example of a failed assignment due to misplaced thinking. While they were indeed great men, they revealed how easy it is for the mind to lose control when commitment and inner resolve are not the guiding force. The soldier’s instinct and loyalty to the original cause quickly disappears.
The lesson: not if but how
Entering the land of Israel was a global mission with major consequences. If the Jewish people had opted to assess their chances and act accordingly, they would have never made it to Israel. The same applied to miraculously defending the land of Israel in modern times.
Likewise in our lives, we have mini-missions that the soul knows it needs to accomplish — whether within parenting, daily spiritual growth, career achievements, etc. Within all these areas, there are certain visions and convictions that penetrate to the core. As such, these should be stamped in our minds as nonnegotiable. To be sure, we must use the mind — but for the purpose of verifying and implementing what the soul insists we do, not to negotiate or question it.
Once we have solidified the conviction and decided to embrace the challenge, there will always be opponents and obstacles. The test then becomes whether we can stay loyal, sealed from the influence of fearful calculations and those who doubt us. And when we encounter resistance to our mission, the appropriate question becomes not “if it will succeed” but “how we can best make it succeed.”
Like the spies, fulfilling our dreams greatly depends on our attitude — on not confusing the functions of the mind and motivation. Proceeding with this mentality and trust — that it will happen, it’s only a question of how — allows the mind the freedom to discover solutions. Obstacles are then washed away, and victory grows closer until the benefits of dwelling securely within our “promised land” are tangibly realized.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.